The story of Sullivan Street begins more than two centuries ago, but where and how it ends depends on whom you ask.
Stand anywhere down its length and you’d think the narrow Greenwich Village corridor was bookended by Manhattan monoliths. To the South, the new shimmering heft of One World Trade Center turns the tenements into Tic Tacs; to the North, the Empire State Building rises over the sparse foliage of Washington Square Park.
But beneath the fire escapes and awnings is a street so stubbornly small in scale it seems almost to mock the skyscrapers that loom beyond its tin roofs.
Here, every morning begins with the toll of the bells from St. Anthony of Padua on the corner of Houston Street, growing more insistent, and frequent, with every passing hour. Here, the aroma of freshly baked focaccia mingles with the sound of animated shouts lobbed in Italian. Here, cellar doors clatter open in front of the neighborhood butcher shop, greeting the trucks that rumble up with chicken and pork from upstate.
Here, it’s the grime, not the gleam that will draw you in. At least for now.
Sullivan Street’s charm is in the remnants of the past. And that past is vanishing. The signs, like the scaffolding, are everywhere: “Dear Valued Customers,” begins a farewell in the gated window of Joe’s Dairy just south of Houston, who closed their doors in May; “Work in Progress,” reads one below Spring, which has been recently defaced with graffiti reading “Cronut Whore,” a reference to the uber-popular pastry that draws snaking lines at sunrise to the nearby Dominque Ansel Bakery. Every so often, a whole building is excised from its neighbors.
The past is present, but it is being soaked, scrubbed, and painted over like the nicotine smoke that once seeped into the walls at number 208, where Genovese crime boss Vincent “The Chin” Gigante and his cronies spent decades sucking on cigars and playing cards behind blackened windows. It was then called the Triangle Civic Improvement Association, a mob clubhouse and source of constant frustration for federal investigators; now it sells organic tea.
At number 181, an off-Broadway show called The Fantasticks found its home at the Sullivan Street Playhouse. It opened May 3, 1960 for a six-week run and closed 42 years later, the longest running musical of all time. After the curtain fell, the façade was stripped, replaced with five-stories of pristine glass. Occasionally, if you look up at night, you’ll catch a glint of blue from the flicker of living room television screens.
Farther down the street, a weathered plaque bearing New York’s Designated Landmark seal is affixed to the twin red brick houses at numbers 83 and 85, built in 1819 on what was then a rolling expanse of farmland. Now, they face a vacant lot, but soon the sound of jackhammers will usher in the arrival of a 16-story high rise, billed as “the tallest residential building in Soho.”
One storefront remains, however, resolute in its identity. Pino’s Prime Meats has had its name since 1990, but the space has been home to butchers for over a century. Taped in the window, below a phone number with no area code, is a poster depicting the Beef Breeds of North America—42 of them, at least. “It Takes Winners To Make Winners,” it proclaims.
Pino Cinquemani, proprietor, came to New York from Sicily in 1973 on his honeymoon. He never left, instead taking a job alongside his uncle at the butcher shop before taking it over himself. Now, he works with his sons Sal and Leo and a band of assistants, their conversations slipping between heavily accented English and their native Italian.
“Pino, what kind of rib-eye is this?” a customer asks, scrunching his eyes and pointing to a marbled slab in the glass case.
“Same one you already got,” the butcher retorts, slapping down the cut the customer had called in earlier that day, already wrapped in butcher paper. “That’s his cousin.”
The customer forgoes the next of kin in favor of lamb patties and Cornish hens, gathering the packages in his arms in preparation for the trip to the Upper West Side. He is not the norm: Pino’s caters mostly to locals, and regulars are greeted with an exuberant “Buongiorno!” when the men look up from their meat cleavers.
The camaraderie, however, does not extend quite as far as the management that runs the co-op building surrounding the butcher (“One month it’s one corporation, next month it’s another corporation,” he says). In May, the Cinquemanis received a letter informing them that their lease was to be terminated at the end of the month, despite being valid until 2017.
The notice claimed that Pino’s was creating an “active nuisance” on the sidewalk, obstructing it with crates and boxes and “not respecting the rights” of its neighbors. It was the first such complaint they had heard, they said, and a particular affront coming from the building for which they held an extra set of keys for tenants.
“In the building, they think I’m the super,” says Pino, rattling off the requests he fields from his neighbors. “’Can I leave the mail here?’ ‘UPS, they’re going to deliver a box here.’”
The eviction was halted, but only after more than 1,600 people heeded a blogger’s call to arms and signed a petition in favor of letting the shop stay.
As the butcher explains it: “The friends, they tell their other friends, ‘Oh, Pino, yeah I used to live over there,’ ‘Oh, I’ve moved to Florida, I’m gonna tell all my friends to sign.’ You know, that’s what happened.”
Standing over his 200-year-old butcher block and carving ribbons of ivory fat away from a bone, Pino sounds exhausted. “Two weeks ago they sent me the bill for their lawyer,” he says. “The co-op, yes, they wanted me to pay their lawyer. I’m not going to pay.”
He heaves a sigh and shakes his head.
“They said they’re going to take me to court again.”
Sullivan Room opened its doors on December 31, 2001. Subterranean and nondescript, the nightclub was for years the antithesis of the venues that flank nearby Gansevoort and Washington streets, whose bouncers wield rubber stamps like royal scepters and court crowds of women in heels too high for dancing. It was a haven for its regulars, and, if you could find the unmarked entrance at number 218, an easy place to waste away a night on a dance floor. Even Madonna once sought refuge within its confines, ditching her entourage at the door in pursuit of an unpretentious venue.
On November 22nd, however, the door remained locked and owner Serge Sklyarenko gathered the crowd instead up the street in Washington Square Park. It was a vigil for the club, whose lease had been abruptly terminated before its twelfth year was up.
The notice came by email, Serge said, and with that the once-friendly relationship the club shared with its landlord was brought to an unceremonious end. Court battles ensued: the club had just spent a small fortune on soundproofing, Serge argued; they paid in full and on time; they had not done renovations just to be kicked onto the curb.
One Wednesday afternoon in mid-November, however, the notice was posted on their door: they had twelve hours to vacate the premises. “We moved what we could,” Serge says, sitting in the lobby of his building in Long Island City and shaking his head. “We left the lighting system, the speakers. The marshal came and the rest was confiscated. It was an absolute disaster.”
His disbelief was shared amongst those who once called the club known as “Sully” home. In the park they carried candles and spoke in reverential tones, passing sheets of typed lyrics, reading, “This is my church, There is where I heal my hurt, It’s in the world I become, Content in the Hum, Between voice and drum…For tonight, God is a DJ.” For many, Serge says, “Sullivan Room was almost like a church—a religious thing for so many people, just true lovers of music.”
Fitting then, that twice in the history of 218 Sullivan was the address of churches, first the African Methodist of the 1860s, and later Our Lady of Pompeii, now on Carmine Street.
Back in the park, hours before the first DJ would usually be starting his set, 300 people started their procession down Sullivan Street. When they reached the familiar teal doors, the crowd spilled off the sidewalk and dozens of smartphones flashed as Serge and longtime doorman AK said their last farewell.
“I know people who met on the dance floor at Sullivan Room, who got married, who had kids,” Serge says. “It was just like going to someone’s basement, this really cozy atmosphere and intimate environment. It felt right, it felt good. It was all about music, all about the vibes.”
Across the street, a lone stretch of scaffolding overlooked the void where a nursery school once stood. Soon, 25 new condo units would be on the market, with underground parking and asking prices starting at $3 million. Serge understands how this works: “They need to sell units and it’s a high-end place—they don’t want a nightclub right across the street.”
Still, timing-wise, it seems a stroke of poor luck, since the stretch of Sullivan north of Houston where the club once dwelled, and where the condos now rise, was given landmark designation just one month later, consecrated as part of the new “South Village Historic District”.
The Shrine Church of St. Anthony’s of Padua is the neighborhood hub, sitting at the corner of Sullivan and Houston, 10 stories high and 143 years old, named after the patron saint of lost people and things. Here, generations of Italians have come for baptisms, marriages, funerals, and mass, and the same basement space that once played host to their eighth grade dances now draws the street’s oldest residents for senior’s club on the first and third Thursday of the month.
Eleanor Lacorazza is 86 and the youngest of eight siblings—six girls and two boys—all of whom grew up in number 77. Her father-in-law had a butcher shop down at number 61—now a glossy storefront selling custom frames—and her mother-in-law a candy shop a few doors up from that.
“Six girls and two boys,” she says, leaning in across a table one Thursday before Christmas, the room filled with dozens of neighborhood women, “and we all lived on the same block. We got married here. Our children got married here.”
Before the church school closed in 2005, she says, “I went to St. Anthony’s, my children—three sons—all went to St. Anthony’s, my husband went to St. Anthony’s. He lived on Sullivan too!”
Eleanor and the others who grew up around the church remembered the raucous Feast of St. Anthony, which drew music, crowds, and celebration, and at one time would shut the street off for weeks at a time. There were stands for sausages and peppers, zeppolis, braciole, steaks, and wine, the latter adding fuel to the gambling underway in the church hall and shaded, smoky parlors down the block, while fireworks were launched from rooftops, and the Ferris Wheel spun in what is now a church parking lot.
Like so much else, however, the festival lost its luster, Father Joe Lorenzo explained the day prior, sitting in the back office he occupies in the church rectory on Sullivan. “Like most feasts—even the San Gennaro—it started to deteriorate and become more of a flea market with people selling clothes and t-shirts and trinkets and stuff like that. It lost its character.”
The neighborhood changed, the pastor continued, his Brooklyn baritone filling the small space. With no space to park and noise all night long, newcomers “became less tolerant. There was more fighting and things like that, so I guess the church decided to close up shop as far as that was concerned.”
Today, the church is trying to find new ways to relate to the changing community.
Perhaps they might start with real estate: luxury condo developers have offered unsolicited eight-figure bids for the parking lot where that Ferris Wheel once stood. For now, however, St. Anthony’s plans to hold on tight to its valuable properties, much like its faithful senior parishioners, who still climb five flights of stairs each day to the walkups they’ve called home for decades.
At dusk, the nightly rites of the street begin. A bartender opens shop with a screeching hoist of metal gates. High heels clatter from cabs and in through the doors of tony new restaurants.
The rear door slams on Pino’s van before it pulls away, headed to the butcher’s home in Astoria.
Lights switch on; others off. The cadence slows.
Italian shouts still ring from Pepe Rosso, the restaurant next door, until precisely 11 p.m., when the last customer leaves and cooks begin singing as they haul out the trash and clean up for the night.
Far in the distance, the spires of the Empire State and One World Trade glow, one red, one blue, peering down from above the headlights of a churning cement mixer.