The ebb and flow of New York neighborhoods is a great example of how cities evolve.
When I attended Pratt Institute in the late 1970s, the East Village neighborhood in Manhattan along St. Marks Place (8th Street becomes St. Marks Place east of 3rd Ave.) was a haven for punk rockers and hipsters, with used record stores (this was pre-CD) and tattoo shops. Drugs were a currency on the street, and leather the couture of choice.
I can recall walking the block of St. Mark’s between and 3rd and 2nd Ave. shopping for rare British import albums and marveling at all the street vendors with their wares — jewelry, records and cassettes, used books — spread out on blankets on the sidewalk.
That was then. This is now.
I was in the neighborhood the other night to meet someone for dinner at Veselka, a terrific Ukrainian restaurant on 2nd Ave. at 9th Street, and took a leisurely stroll down St. Marks. There is an explosion of Japanese culture on the block, mostly in the form of restaurants that have sprouted like matsutake mushrooms in the urban shadows.
It’s not just Japanese businesses on the block — there are still vestiges of the old St. Marks Place, with used CD shops and tattoo parlors, plus lots of other ethnic restaurants, a typical New York mix. You can sunter past a skull-and-crossbones sign advertising a punky shop right next to a restaurant with its menu in Japanese. I stood at one point mid-block and wrote down the list of eateries and businesses I could see from my vantage point:
Zen Noodle Cafe, JAS Mart (a Japanese deli and dessert shop), Go Japanese Restaurant, Dojo Restaurant, Tasty Falafel, Addiction NYC Tattoo and Body Piercing, Bull McCabe’s Irish Pub, two fast-food chains (Chipotle and Subway), and Khyber Pass Afghani Restaurant. That’s standing in one place.
The couture these days is still hipster, but more designer and less leather. I could hear Japanese spoken everywhere as groups of people walked by, along with that American English accent that’s particular to New York, and a spattering of Spanish and what I assume is Russian or Ukrainian (there’s a long-established ukrainian neighborhood east of 2nd Ave.).
The cultural bounty extends around the block from St. Marks Place. If you start from 3rd Ave. and walk along one block north, 9th Street, you’ll find Sunrise Mart (a tiny but well-stocked japanese supermarket crammed into a second-floor space), Yoko Cho restaurant, Panya bread and pastry bakery and Sharaku restaurant, on one short diagonal stretch that curves into 9th Street proper.
Then there’s Hasakim Tsampa Tibetan natural home cooking restaurant, Hoshi Coupe offering shiatsu massage (it’s a salon, not a restaurant), La Paella Spanish restaurant, and Yakiniku West restaurant all next door to each other. Farther down the street: Cha An Tea House, Soba Ya noodle restaurant, and a tiny walk-up place called Otafuku, serving only three items: yakisoba fried noodles, okonomiyaki, a Japanese egg, veggies and meat pancake, and takoyaki, tasty balls of fried octopus.
The place is simple. And very popular, with lines waiting to step inside to order, and folks sitting on the bench out front, waiting for their food.
It was hard to hold off from pigging out on japanese food the other night. I was glad, because I had a great Ukrainian meal that started with borscht (beet soup) and was topped off with a meat combination dish that included pirogis and kielbasa sausage.
I know if I go back next week, I can choose from all those Japanese joints down the block. The challenge will be to pick one instead of having multiple meals.
But if I wait 10 years and go back, who knows what the old neighborhood will be like? There’s one clue: kitty corner from Veselka at 2nd Ave. and 9th Street is a Starbucks (where, I admit, I sat and had an iced Matcha — green tea — Latte while I waited for my dinner date.
Maybe in a decade, the area will be all yuppified. After all, it’s happened in lots of other bohemian areas of New York.
That’s the thing about the evolution of a city — you can’t stop it. You can sit stop by and have a bite to eat at whatever sprouts up. For now, I’m thrilled that there’s a semi-J Town there.
Note: Here’s a thought-provoking essay and response (and counter-response) about “How to Tell a Real Japanese Restaurant.” I’ll blog about this later, after I digest all of the text, because this is a subject I think about a lot.
I don’t quite agree with the original writer — I think he goes off on a tangent and I think the guy who wrote the response was at least partially correct in his assessment of the writer. But the concept of “authenicity” and what’s a “real” Japanese restaurant is something I experienced just a few days ago…. More to come!