When The Cornelia Street Café closed earlier this month, I realized every restaurant I mentioned in my 2015 memoir has now closed. Besides Cornelia in Greenwich Village, where a hilarious date scene once took place, I described dates set in Coffee Shop, Caffe Vivaldi and Cafe Condesa. When I wrote those pages, I did not think I was recording history.
I never thought these places would be gone in a few years. I was just telling my story.
I’ve lived in the West Village since 1997, and I resided in the East Village for 22 years before that. I have never seen anything like what’s happened in the past five to 10 years. When I take the bus across Christopher Street and Eighth Street or walk along Bleecker Street, I’m aghast at the many empty storefronts. By some estimates, 20 percent of Manhattan retail space in some areas is vacant.
I’ve heard different reasons for it, including the rise of online shopping. But the main one is that landlords can get tax losses because their empty storefronts don’t generate rental income. There’s no incentive to rent them until landlords get rental top dollar.
The rent of Cornelia went up to $33,000 a month, forcing the closure of a 40-year iconic eatery that hosted music and readings. We all have lost favorites. Neighbors in the West Village still lament the closing of Tortilla Flats, while others haven’t got over the loss of Baby Buddha or Florent. Beloved institutions are disappearing and our neighborhoods don’t need more banks, drugstores or designer shops.
The closures and empty storefronts are in the mind of many — including people in my acting workshop, in my building, and even on the street corners. There is a long heated thread about this topic on the bulletin board Nextdoor West Village. Many are writing letters to city officials. People who have never been activists are getting involved.
We cannot go through another year without ways to address this growing blight. Mayor Bill de Blasio was right to recently hint at a vacancy tax to penalize owners who hold out to land top rental money.
I recently wrote to my City Council member, Speaker Corey Johnson, and suggested he call a town hall to address the crisis. When I posted the letter on the bulletin board, someone replied that I was too polite, not angry enough. Trust me: I’m angry — and sad.
Kate Walter is the author of “Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing.”