Sunday, July 12, 2015

Mandel's Creamery...29 Baldwin Street, Toronto

Little did I know when I took this picture how important the subject matter was going to be.  I was going through my archives last night and found this photo taken on 8/26/11 when we were meeting Rosita for lunch in the Kensington Market area and ended up on Baldwin Street at a mediocre Mexican Restaurant across the street from John's Italian Caffe at 29 Baldwin.   I stared longingly at the satisfied patrons at John's who seemed to be enjoying their lunch, and rued our choice of eateries.  But at least I got this photo.  My curiosity aroused, I found out that the yiddish sign in the window advertised the wares at the former Mandel's Creamery, which closed in the 1970's after 50+ years in the business when the Jewish community there migrated to the burbs.

When John's moved in, they understood the value of this history and left the sign in tact.  In fact, this window appears to be the last remnant signaling the former thriving Jewish immigrant presence in the Baldwin Street area, and the yiddish lettering, the last of its kind in Toronto.  John's went out of business last year, and the storefront had been vacant for some time, a source of great concern for Dara Soloman, director of the Ontario Jewish Archives, who has been monitoring the situation nervously, re: the fate of the window.

Coincidently, the day after I retrieved this previously orphan photo and began to look into it, I happened into the middle of an ongoing "situation" exacerbated by recent rental of the place to a "bubble tea" shop and people who might not understand the significance of what they inherited along with the shop.  According to a 7/10/15 article in the Jewish Forward, the sign was being removed.  Clarification in a 7/12/15 article in the Toronto Star, indicated that while a small amount of damage was done, Soloman was able to contact the new owners, inform them of the importance of the situation, and enlist their cooperation in keeping this historical artifact in tact.  Disaster averted, for now!!!


Talking about relics from the past that somehow remind us of who we were and where we've come from, I've spent a lot of time on the Lower East side of NYC photographing, eating, and sitting on benches,  remembering.  The Lower East Side was at one time the center of Jewish immigrant life from the late 1800's till the late 1950's when slowly, one by one the old Jews started dying off and the younger ones moving to Long Island taking their businesses and/or their parents with them, until by 1995 or so, there was almost no trace of the former Jewish presence down there, much like Baldwin Street in Toronto.  In fact, as far as I can tell, the last Hebrew lettering on any window of a place of business on the Lower East Side was the sofer (scribe) Rabbi Eisenbach, inscriber of Torahs and mezuzahs, and purveyor of Jewish religious objects.  He has been gone since the 1997 or 1998  and all that is left is this orphan photo I took back then, and until now couldn't find a place to put it.


Thursday, July 2, 2015

East Fremont Street...disposable architecture, disposable lives...

                                Lost Vegas           

Its not exactly like we are Las Vegas (LV) people, although I do like to drink, play blackjack, and win.  Its just turned out that we like being in the vast, emptiness of the southwest a lot, and there is a non-stop Southwest flight from Albany to LV which makes life a lot easier, as do the good car rental rates there.  From LV, you are striking distance to New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, all of it.  So while I don't necessarily like being thought of as a Vegas guy, so be it.

Since we have been spending more than the average amount of time there however, I find myself gravitating over to East Fremont Street where, over the years, I have seen a very unsettling trend occurring.  Fremont Street was the original Vegas "strip" in the 1940's, 50's and early 60's, when it was one of the two main entry points into Vegas before there were interstates, if you were coming in from the east over the Hoover Dam along Boulder Highway.  It was lined with bright, clean, appealing interestingly Vegas themed motels with pools offering families, newlyweds, and travelers the promise of a few fulfilled days in the sun, pools and entertainment of all sorts.  The late 60's marked the beginning of the end for East Fremont as "Vegas" began moving uptown in a serious way, slowly abandoning the now aging and increasingly irrelevant old motels and gambling joints, and while the fall from grace was gradual at first, it picked up steam and by the late 80's  it wasn't a pretty picture, as the motels soon became SROs, housing the castoffs of the American dream for whom Las Vegas was the last stop.  A place to flop between shifts at a minimum wage job, buy drugs to kill the pain, sell yourself to afford the drugs and rent, or just disappear among kindred spirits.  But now things are changing fast as the powers that be have determined that this population is no longer consistent with the corporate image.   Now, the end of days is upon them, if any but a small few even notice or care.  Remove the buildings, you remove the problem.  It is a case study in ethnic cleansing, American style.

Once you leave the (west) Fremont Street Experience, an overwrought extravaganza of light and sound, tattooed people swimming in a sea of beer and iridescent alcoholic beverages in tall plastic spouts, you enter the East Fremont situation which is not a pretty picture.  It starts well enough with the El Cortez Hotel/Casino, the oldest existing one in Vegas built in 1946 and owned at one time by Bugsy Siegel himself.  The interior remains kind of old and shabby in a warm welcoming way where old people on a fixed income can spend their afternoons smoking at the $3 blackjack tables or loose machines, and if their luck holds up they will be comped a few drinks.

From there, it starts going down quickly!!!

It is June 4, 2015  at 11:30 and it is already over 90 degrees, the pavement is buckling and as you can see from the photos, there is no place to hide from the heat, if you have no place to go.  It is the first time I've been back on East Fremont since 2011, and seeing how quickly things are changing,  I wish I had more foresight back the I would have taken more pictures back then, but what can you do.   I'll take a lot now.

East Fremont is far from the new Vegas, the psychotic, delusional frenetic frenzy of the "strip", Las Vegas Blvd., the grand buffet of the Bellagio, the pyramids of Luxor, the faux Manhattan skyline of New York New York, the understated, over the top "elegance" of the Wynn, the part of Vegas most visitors will never see and certainly the on the PR people don't want you to see.  The skid row of LV.
Its hot under the unforgiving slate blue sky, the relentless predatory sky searching to reclaim the souls of the homeless and hopeless left to die amidst the rubble and faded glory of the Vegas that was before it moved uptown and left them behind lost, lonely and desperate, cowering in the shadows of what once was and will soon no longer be, driving them further into the desert and certain death.

The old, the sick, the addled, the lame and informed, former young men and women who dreamed and gambled away their dreams, sentenced to wither away in the gutted husks of old motels that still dot East Fremont Street, discarded, forgotten, and slowly being disposed, as I said, ethnic cleansing, American style.

When I took this photo 8 or 9 years ago,  I was stopping in for a bottle of Jim Beam to get me through  my 2 week trek through the Nevada wilderness.  At the time, the Atomic Bar was still a faded, run down remnant of the old Vegas, the perfect place for an old guy hide away and have a beer or bourbon far from the omnivorous tattooed beer swilling swarms invading the strip for 3 days of "fun".  So I sat down and had a few.  Opened in the 1940's as a cafe by a woman on the run from a bad marriage, it was re-imagined in the 1950's as the Atomic Bar, a tip of the hat to the atomic bomb testing being carried out in Nevada back then, and apparently visible from the city.  To walk inside was to step back in time 50 years.

If you look to the right side of the photo, you can see the terra cotta roofed Ambassador East Motel.  By then it was closed down by then and vacant.  Didn't know it at the time but the fence around it was a signal of its imminent demise.  Indeed, it was torn down in 2007, and 8 years later as you can see below, it is still an empty lot used for parking.

If it wasn't too clear in the above photo of the Atomic Bar, 2015,  the Ambassador East is gone.  They tore down the lovely Mediterranean style motel with the stucco walls and terra cotta roof and put up a parking lot.  In defense of the powers that be, they did paint the sign.

Got a bit of a scare a couple of years ago when they closed down the Atomic Bar for "renovations" which can sometimes be a euphemism for another parking lot like the Ambassador, but thankfully it was still there when I returned although the crowd has changed.  It is now mostly hip 20 somethings, the craft cocktail/tapas crowd looking for action on the wrong side of town..  But at least it is still there and reminiscent of other times, although I did feel kind of out of place when I walked inside, as if I didn't belong, which I didn't.

Growing up in the 1950's when the cold war, Russia, the A-Bomb, the Rosenbergs, and imminent nuclear annulation were the backdrop to our otherwise idyllic suburban childhood, the Atomic Bar has a particular resonance for me, when all those things were quite important.


On East Fremont Street, a fence around an old motel is the kiss of death, particularly if the building has no redeeming architectural qualities, although that is no guarantee of anything.  The stately, formerly upscale Ambassador East demolished a few years ago, and the Vegas Motel and the Blue Angel, both classy upscale places to stay in their time, were torn down in 2015.  All that remains are empty lost that will remain that way until they can come up with some use for them which may take many years, given their fringy location, but at least the "roaches" that formerly inhabited these motels are gone.

This large empty lot is where the Vegas and Blue Angel stood side by side since the 50's.  They left the Blue Angel alone by herself to stand alone and desolate presiding over the empty lot that was her domain.  Is this someone's idea of a cruel joke.

During this trip, 5/15, I was taken by the large number of old motels that were operative last time I was here which now have the dreaded fence around them, and the now empty lots, where motels once stood.   The Alicia, of which there were 3 by that name,  provided shelter and sustenance to the poor and marginal.  Now they are fenced in and appear to lack any architectural justification for their continued existence when the time is right for a new parking lot or whatever.  It is questionable whether this end of Las Vegas will ever regain any degree of relevance.

Same for the now fenced in,  former so called Lucky Motel whose future does not appear to include the descriptor "Lucky".  Another utilitarian establishment from a former time that will cease to exist soon.

There is a small strip of motels further down East Fremont that have so far eluded the wrecking ball and they are as follows....

This used car lot was obviously once a motel,  but I have been unable to track it down.

There is more to come, but I have been struggling with this entry so if I just post it as is for now,  I will be looking it over and adding to it and editing it along the way.  It is a work in progress.