Vegans are sickened as favorite shop at risk


By Gerard Flynn

When Peter Silvestri moved into the new space for his Whole Earth Bakery and Kitchen on March 29, 1991, he probably couldn’t have asked for a more memorable opening to his vegan-food store, on St. Mark’s Pl. near Avenue A.

Just across the street in Tompkins Square Park, then a stew of squatters, mayoral promises under David Dinkins to clean up the city’s grimy image were in full force and facing fierce resistance in their efforts from locals and park residents, a scene Silvestri recalls vividly.

“I walked down the street to take possession of the store and get the keys and in the park there was a huge riot,” he said.

“There must have been 500 people coming out, surrounded by police, throwing bottles, garbage cans burning, and I said, In God’s name what did I get myself into over here?”

On Sat., Feb. 3, however, in Tompkins Square Park, the police presence this time was significantly smaller as was the crowd’s, though it was still a big gathering: More than 100 activists and regulars of Silvestri’s shop called on his landlord, Friedman Management, to reconsider his eviction, scheduled for April 1, and to rally for rent protections to preserve similar small businesses in the neighborhood.

The loss of the local store following gentrification figured foremost at the rally, which was catered by Silvestri, who laid out trays of vegetarian pizza, chocolate cake and steaming hot apple cider to keep the lively crowd warm on the chilly afternoon.

Platinum-blond performance preacher Reverend Billy Talen, who mingled among the crowd singing “I Got Vegan Food in My Soul” with his Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, said the loss of his close friend’s store would be resisted.

“The East Village is made up of local businesses, local shops,” Reverend Billy said. “This one goes and then the next one goes and then what do we have? We have 12 Starbucks in one block. Forget about it.

“We count on this place to get our healthy food and meet each other; that’s the essence of our community,” he continued. “Peter has been a very generous friend for many years and we have to be able to defend the independent shops from developers. We have to have protections from the chain stores, the yuppie bars, the dormitories,” he said.

John Philips, executive director of the New York League of Humane Voters, which organized the rally, recalled the park riots and described Silvestri’s addition to the neighborhood as “part of the healing process the neighborhood went through” during the following year, which saw the area swamped with police officers.

During the rally, community activist and former squatter Fran Luck called on the crowd to boycott landlords and businesses that contribute to the upscaling trend, and urged them to contact Silvestri’s landlord and ask them to reconsider Silvestri’s eviction.

“We have to take matters into our own hands,” Luck said. “People who care about the bakery, let the landlord know that you will not be frequenting any business that moves into that space.”

Although Silvestri was supposed to have been evicted before, letters to his landlord from City Councilmember Rosie Mendez, in addition to a petition drive that collected 3,000 signatures, saved his business last August, when his lease was extended for another seven months.

This time, however, Silvestri is a little more despondent and when asked what would happen if evicted, he said that he would simply “Cry.”

“You know how much it cost to build that place? I went there with a hammer in my hand back in 1991 and it cost me $25,000, all of my savings,” he said.

“I pay $4,500 per month at the moment and could perhaps do $5,000 or even $5,500, but look around the neighborhood. You couldn’t find an apartment for that; it’s impossible,” he said.

David Barish, a local for 20 years, said he came out to support Silvestri and to protest that New York is becoming exclusively a “city for rich people.”

“Bloomberg made it so no one can live here,” Barish said. “In my neighborhood, N.Y.U. and Cooper Union are putting up all the buildings and rents are sky-high. They are doing away with all the rent protections.

“All the mom-and-pop stores that had low rents have been pushed out and little by little the neighborhood has become gentrified, but now it’s happening faster,” Barish said. “It is kind of like global warming, coming much faster than you thought it was going to be.”