In Joon, Our Fall
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By Caitlin Hawke
The WSR story caught the eye of filmmaker Christopher Ming Ryan. Chris co-owns Wheelhouse Communications. In his spare time he makes films for himself. This closing, he thought, should be documented. And so, for Joon's farewell, Chris grabbed his equipment and headed over. The result is a gem of a short film "Disappearing NYC: Joon's Last Day" that I first saw in the Rag (again, thanks Avi). It exposes a sad story about less than level dealing, but it also holds the mirror up for each of us to look into since we -- with our new-fangled habits -- probably precipitated the loss.
I reached out to Chris, and he agreed to be interviewed. It turns out that Chris is a born and bred Bloomingdaler. Though he moved away as a grown-up, his parents continued to live on Broadway around W. 98th Street, and this kept him connected to his childhood streets. He gave me permission to repost his film below and kindly agreed to answer some questions (for the interview, keep scrolling down). His four-minute documentary is a parable for our changing times. And more than anything it captures the personal toll that a closure can exact on faithful, hardworking employees.
There's a lot more to say about this and a lot more we're going to have to do together as neighbors and voters to ensure we're living in a community that values neighborhood and is a fair dealer when it comes to small business. We've done it before thanks in part to efforts of Block Association members.
For inspiration on this front, I caught up with Chris.
Q&A with Christopher Ming Ryan
Caitlin Hawke: Chris, you made a beautiful short film documenting the closing of Joon's, the Mom & Pop fish store at W. 98th Street on Amsterdam Avenue. Did you have any personal connection to that store?
Christopher Ming Ryan: Thank you for the remarks. No personal connection. I grew up on W. 98th and Broadway so this particular part of the Upper West Side is home to me.
Caitlin: I understand your film about the last day at Joon is part of a bigger project. Can you say more?
Chris: I can't get into the details of the proect too much because we are just beginning. I have spent some time in Greenwich Village documenting the scene on Bleecker Street. Generally, if I hear of a Mom & Pop that is being forced to close, I'll go down and investigate with camera in hand. I've been a producer/director of marketing and communications videos since the mid-90's. About six years ago, my company Wheelhouse Communications invested in film equipment, and I hated to see the cameras and lights in my storage closet sitting there idle when I didn't have paying jobs. I started making short films with collaborators that I hired in professional jobs, and I began editing the films because I didn't want to pay anyone to do it. I keep returning to the theme of celebrating "old school" ways of doing things. You can see some of my past work here.
Caitlin: I noticed your film's title "Disappearing NYC." Do you have any connection to the great Jeremiah Moss, aka Griffin Hansbury, author of the blog and book Vanishing New York?
Chris: I have corresponded with Jeremiah Moss, and I'm well aware of his work. I just finished his book, Vanishing New York, which is terrific and puts hyper-gentrification into a context. His advocacy is so important and he has motivated lots of people like me to gather, protest, and do outreach about the issue of saving Mom & Pop stores. In 2015, when Moss was getting a lot of press for the #SaveNYC campaign, I first reached out to him and created this PSA for the Small Business Survival Act. The last image should have probably been Katz's Deli but, hey, I'm an Upper West Sider! I'd love to collaborate with him.
Caitlin: In a poignant way, your film makes a compelling case to shop locally. The store manager Polo's loss of his job at Joon is deeply felt by the viewer. And we are connected immediately to the people who give life to small businesses. What do you think shopping locally in this neighborhood (or others in the city) will look like in 5 years? In 10 years?
Chris: I don't want to speculate. As Jeremiah Moss says, people created this problem -- people can fix it. Thinking that this is just evolution or the ways of capitalism is the wrong way to think. Advocacy can do a lot. We should celebrate small victories like the new rollback of the Commercial Rent Tax. Small incremental changes like restoring the original look of the Hotel Belleclaire on Broadway and West 77th Street on the surface looks like a grain of sand when it comes to change. But, more grains will turn into piles, and soon we'll have a castle.
Caitlin: We've had cyclical outcries to protect small business owners by instituting policy changes. But I am unclear about whether there's any progress except the recent rollback of the Commercial Rent Tax. What is your understanding of the issues and what could be done to reverse the tide such as move toward commercial rent control, vacancy taxes, etc.? I know Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is a big proponent of small retailers and trying to protect them.
Chris: I recently attended a town hall with President Brewer, State Senator Brad Hoylman, Jeremiah Moss and Tim Wu. There were not a lot of answers. There was a lot of looking at the ceiling, shaking of heads, and blaming the whole thing on Albany and the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY). Borough President Brewer has her heart in the right place, but it seems to me she has been resting on the laurels of her work in the City Council when she introduced and succeeded in putting in zoning laws on the UWS. The Small Business Survival Act which she helped write up as a Council staffer has been languishing for over 30 years. I don't know if it's ever been put up for a vote. I found this article in Our Town that shows that MBP Brewer wants to focus on smaller steps. I'd like any steps at this point.
Caitlin: I understand you grew up in the neighborhood and that your parents lived here until they passed away. What was life like here during your childhood and how did it change over time and for your folks who remained here? Do you recognize the old streets?
Chris: I grew up on W. 98th Street in the 1960's and 70's. Our neighbors were artists, musicians, social workers, and teachers, and I don't remember one lawyer, doctor or Wall Streeter. We spent a lot of time in Riverside Park, the public library on W. 100th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus, and in movie theaters (matinees were 75¢). But let's not kid ourselves. There wasn't a lot of diversity. In our building, the only person of color was my mother who was Chinese. Everyone was Caucasian. I'm sure the landlord forbid people of color to rent in the building. The big change happened in the mid 80's when they tore down the Riviera and the Rivoli at 96th and Broadway and put up the Columbia apartment building.
Caitlin: Do you have a lot of ghosts when you look at new storefronts but see old "friends"?
Chris: No ghosts really. I miss the cobble stones on West End Avenue. I miss old people who were all dressed up on the Broadway malls. I miss the movie theaters. The neighborhood has kept its character, but its soul is gone mainly because it's not a place for the middle class anymore. One thing I get a huge amount of nachas from is that my kids love the taste of Sal's pizza.
Caitlin: What were your favorite shops growing up?
Chris: Well, speaking of Sal's....Every Friday night we would have Sal's. Saturday night we would go to various haunts: Hanratty's (Honey-dipped fried chicken, Carol King on the Jukebox and Mucha posters on the wall), Eastern Garden (those green steps transported you to a timeless place), Harbin Inn (great spareribs), Willouby's (which was this old bar my Dad liked that Dock's took it over and now there is pricey vegetarian place). We often went to The Library for the comfort food and the warm pumpernickel bread on the table. Sometimes we ventured to 79th street to Tony's Italian Kitchen. Growing up, I loved Berman Twins where in the basement they sold model kits of planes and rockets. We shopped at Morris Brothers on W. 98th to get our Mighty Mac coats in winter and our names sewn into our undershirts and underwear for camp in summer. I miss the Chinese laundry on the corner of W. 99th and Broadway that would wrap your items in brown paper and string. They would ring you up on an abacus. Cake Masters was a daily addiction for my mom. I miss the simple Saturday night entertainment which for me at 10 p.m. was getting the Sunday Times on W. 96th street and devouring the Arts & Leisure section. You start with the counting of Hirschfeld's "Ninas" and then study the movie ads, then the articles.
Caitlin: Yes. Wow, I think your reminiscences are going to touch a lot of people. Did you ever go to the Metro theater? I find that old landmark to be a painful example of a changing streetscape, as it sits empty, right in the shadow of Ariel West and Ariel East whose newer storefronts are also often empty. Overall those towers left gaping holes in Bloomingdale's Broadway commerce over the last decade.
Chris: The Metro had many incarnations. I remember seeing The Towering Inferno there in the '70s. Then, they chopped the place up into a few screens and later on they returned it to its original glory and played art films. In the '80's, I saw The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover there with my girlfriend (our second movie together) who became my wife.
Caitlin: Thank you for looking back with me. It's always a pleasure to meet a neighbor of longstanding. Let's end by looking forward. What is your New Year's wish for New York City?
Chris: Shop less on Amazon. Shop more on Broadway.