Read all about it: Community wants newsstand back


By Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke

At one point during a rally last Thursday to reopen the news kiosk at Thompson and W. Third Sts., Reverend Billy was leading his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir in a song called “Struggle for the Newsstand.” As their voices rose in harmony, former operator Afzal Shaikh ceremoniously opened the stand’s metal roll-down gate to reveal a large American flag and numerous leaflets detailing its closure.

Nearly a year has passed since the Village newsstand was shut down, but local residents and elected officials have not forgotten.

The stand was closed last December by the Department of Consumer Affairs, an act that continues to spark protest.

The newsstand enjoyed 80 years of continuous use, a fact reiterated by many of the speakers.

“We don’t like change. We like newsstands like this, not buildings like that,” said State Senator Tom Duane, pointing to New York University’s oversized Kimmel Center and new Law School building. “We are Greenwich Village, and we are going to beat back the D.C.A.”

For the five years before the stand was closed, it was owned by Afzal and Altab Shaikh. The brothers came to America 13 years ago, and both support a wife and children. Since the newsstand closed, the brothers have struggled to make ends meet. Afzal has applied for a cab license, but is still waiting.

“I am 100 percent looking forward to coming back here,” said Afzal. The brothers expressed their appreciation to the community, and those in attendance celebrated the Shaikhs’ appearance at the rally.

“This newsstand is a service to the community,” Catherine Feeks said to the assembled crowd. “It represents the American Dream.”

Feeks’s uncle, Joe Cutri, and his brother owned the newsstand between 1945 and 1973. When Feeks read about the recent closure in The Villager, she immediately drew parallels between the two Italian immigrant Cutri brothers and the immigrant Shaikh brothers.

Feeks recalled helping her uncle sell watermelon by the slice to Eartha Kitt, corn on the cob to Lou Costello and lifesavers to Ed Koch. The stand was famous for its 5-cent ices, which Feeks remembered as the “best ices around.”

“The stand was a neighborhood fixture,” said Feeks. “When parents dropped their children off at N.Y.U., they would ask my aunt and uncle to keep an eye on them. And they would.”

The newsstand continued to serve the same function in the neighborhood, and neighbors reported an increase in crime since the Shaikhs were forced to leave.

“This was the sentry on the block,” Stacey Kaufman, a neighbor, told the crowd. Kaufman has been very active in organizing the protests, and first notified city officials about the situation last December.

D.C.A cited the newsstand’s location under a fire escape as a violation of the fire code, even though a fire official toured the site with City Councilmember Alan Gerson and deemed the location not hazardous to fire safety.

“Well, the newsstand’s still under the fire escape, only closed. Does that make any sense?” Kaufman asked. She explained that, because a previous owner did not fill out paperwork, the location was not grandfathered and is subject to the regulations for new newsstands. “Can you say ‘Kafkaesque’?” she asked the crowd.

Additionally, D.C.A charged that the stand is an inch too close to the curb. However, it is in line with the stoops on the block.

“It is not a proposed newsstand; it has been there for 80 years,” said neighbor Andrew Gold. “It is not blocking any more foot traffic than the rest of the buildings on the sidewalk.”

Feeks said that the same issue came up back when Dwight Eisenhower was president, but city officials at that time found that the newsstand’s benefit to the community outweighed any potential violations. The stand’s dimensions, she noted, had not changed in the intervening years.

“What we are asking is very simply for D.C.A to exercise discretion,” said Kaufman, noting that the agency maintains the ability to use its judgment to override codes precisely for cases like this. “Maybe we can’t end the war in Iraq right now, but we can save this newsstand,” she added.

“We will prevail because we are in the right… Actually, we are the left. But in this we are right,” said Councilmember Gerson. “I will keep banging my head against a wall until the newsstand is reopened. Luckily, my mother always said I had a hard head.”

Gerson announced that he was late to the rally because he had been meeting with City Council lawyers to go over legislation to submit to the Council.

“If we have to correct the legislation, then we have to correct the legislation,” Gerson declared.

Among the speakers was Sam Gunsberg, a lawyer who defended Liz Willis, a 60-year-old great-grandmother and owner of a Midtown newsstand, in a similar case in June 2006. Willis stood beside her lawyer and offered a sense of encouragement to the crowd.

In both instances, said Gunsberg, there was community support to reopen and both were closed due to a technicality. They won in the case of the Midtown location, he said, when he proved that Willis would be forced to go on welfare and wind up costing the city much more money if she was not allowed to reopen her newsstand.

“Give the brothers the same opportunity that your grandparents had!” Gunsberg said at the rally.