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 City Lore                                                                February 26, 2010  


Gage & Tollner an Arby’s?No Name Gospel Singers
Let the Great World SpinHaitian RainIs Sex Play?

Dear Citylorists,

Please enjoy our Tours and Tales February e-letter!

Marjorie Eliot
Photo by Harvey Wang

• Gage & Tollner an Arby’s? • Just a few weeks ago, our Place Matters program highlighted the reopening of the historic, landmarked structure at 372 Fulton Street, the former Gage &Tollner restaurant, as "the world’s most beautiful" Arby’s. Back in 1990, City Lore helped publish Harvey Wang’s New York, highlighting a Gage & Tollner waiter, Aston "Robby" Robinson (see left). Up until the 1970s only black waiters worked in the restaurant, and each waiter had his own customers. When Harvey’s book was published, the restaurant had recently hired the famous southern chef Edna Lewis to return the eatery to its former glory, but it closed in 2004.

The notion of Gage & Tollner as an Arby’s is so striking that we couldn’t help but stop by for lunch. For us at City Lore it was a chance to see the landmarks law in action, first hand. The regulatory City Landmarks program does not consider a building’s "use" — only architectural (and, occasionally, historic or cultural) significance. But the crazy thing about Arby’s is that it IS, after all, an eatery! Certainly this seems better than preserving the façade and interior for, let us say, a bank.

Marjorie Eliot
Photo by H Kazama

So this past Monday, my colleague Amanda and I hopped off the F train at Jay Street Borough Hall, and walked a few steps to the Fulton pedestrian mall. There, amidst the discount shops, across the street we saw not the landmarked building hidden in the background, but 6 large Arby’s banners, with the Arby’s logo suggestive of a comic book hat, obscuring the once grand wooden façade. A giant videoscreen in the window broadcast an array of roast beef sandwiches on plates. We looked hard, and did catch the small, gold handlettering on the glass, "New York’s Oldest Restaurant, 1879."

Marjorie Eliot
Photo by H Kazama

Inside, though, the beauty of the old Gage & Tollner is preserved, with the wooden booths and patterned rear cushions, plexiglass etchings of the Brooklyn Bridge, and even the original chime with the sign that reads, "If the service is good, ring the bell." The building’s Victorian interior was designed to recreate a historic Pullman dining car, and that appearance is retained, much to the credit of the Arby’s management team.

Yet, one of the historic grand mirrors is plastered with a sign for a surprisingly good deal on a milk shake. The Arby’s fast food counter and friendly Brooklynites greeting customers with a hearty, "Welcome to Arby’s" all seem a little out character, to be sure.

On the other hand, the place is packed with Brooklynites who seemed to be drawn to the fast food establishment by the appealing atmosphere of historic wooden booths rather than plastic seats. It certainly seems to be the kind of populist eatery that can thrive in the Fulton Pedestrian Mall. Certainly, you could sit in an Arby’s anywhere across the U.S. and not know where you are; at this unique Arby’s you do have the feeling that you are in Brooklyn, and that this was once some place vaguely special.

Vaguely. The Gage & Tollner-to-Arby’s experience should serve as a useful case study for the Landmarks Commission. What was missing most direly was signage about the original restaurant, a mini exhibit — or even a few framed of photographs — on the history which would have given those patrons who cared a sense of why this place was indeed special. To us, it seemed as if this should be part of the landmarking process. The Arby’s probably does service far more Brooklynites than Gage & Tollner once did, and reaches across social and ethnic boundaries. Yet, it seems to us that a requirement to provide some historical signage would dramatically enhance the value of the landmarking process. Our hunch is that the number of posters plastered up in the interior will only increase over time. We invite you to visit this wild and crazy Arby’s for lunch, and let us know your reactions and thoughts for our next Tours and Tales.

Marjorie Eliot
Photo by Harvey Wang

Rare Footage of the No Name Gospel Singers • Harvey Wang's New York published in 1990 also highlighted Reverend Floyd King of the legendary No Name Gospel Singers. In 1993, we gave one of our first People’s Hall of Fame Award to Mr. King, who brought his talent for preaching and singing from his native Birmingham, Alabama and rose to prominence in the New York gospel community. This month, City of Memory is pleased to highlight some rare footage from a never completed documentary about the group by Ashley James and Ray Allen called "I’ve Got a Home in that City Up Yonder."



Marjorie Eliot
Photo by Amy Touchette

Let The Great World Spin • After reading Colum McCann’s, Let the Great World Spin, I considered whether or not to declare this the great American novel, but have no trouble recommending it as the Great New York City Novel. A single image taken on August 7, 1974 appears on its pages, a photograph of Philippe Petit who appears as a tiny speck upon a tightrope walking between the World Trade Towers. Hauntingly, a jet plane, far larger, looms above as it passes innocently above the Towers. In this book, which at first seems a series of disconnected stories, some of the characters gaze in awe at the tightrope walker dancing upon what appears to be a thread strung across the towers, but, gradually, a series of coincidences begins to weave them together — a grief support group of mothers who lost sons in Vietnam, ‘70s doper/artists based in the Village, a mother/daughter pair of hookers who work under the Deegan, phone hackers calling stray people in phone booths in Lower Manhattan to ask if they can see Petit on his tightrope. The coincidences pile one surprise upon the other, but ultimately speak to the woof and warp that knits rich and poor, black and white, the Bronx, the Upper East Side, Lower Manhattan, all it within its urban fabric. McCann creates vivid characters ("There wasn’t much left for anyone to die for," he writes, "except for the right to remain peculiar.") He penetrates their hearts and minds, elevating all of them, till the city itself seems to lift as one. McCann’s research is as in-depth and profound as any we’ve done at City Lore — an elegiac, tragic and hopeful symphony to City Life.

Haiti Update •This just in from City Lore’s Accounts Manager and ethnomusicologist, Lois Wilcken of La Troupe Makandal:

Third Avenue EL at 100th Street
Directed by Tequila Minsky

When I was in Port-au-Prince in November 2008, on the heels of four storms that ravaged the northern area of Gonaives, the sister of Master Drummer Frisner Augustin took me on a walk through a teeming shantytown on the side of a ravine. Through my 26 years of trips to Haiti, I had never seen such dire conditions, and I knew that many of the people of the ravine were refugees from the storms.

Today, following the earthquake of January 12, 2010, more than half a million people have evacuated Port-au-Prince, about one-third of them back to the Gonaives region. They leave behind some million homeless people who face the spring rainy season. Only about one-tenth of those needing shelter have received it to date.

While we of La Troupe Makandal cannot make great miracles, we can bring relief to people we’ve long regarded as our sister community in Port-au-Prince. Three of our company will travel to Haiti on March 13 with tents, mosquito netting, water purification tablets, and other survival supplies. To make this happen, we have sent out an appeal for tax-deductible contributions. A contribution of $50 will shelter two people. You can find out how to make such small miracles happen at On the home page, click on "Earthquake Relief" on the upper right.

And while you are there, please navigate to our slide show. It leads you on a tour through our neighborhood, where Mr. Augustin, who won a People's Hall of Fame Award from City Lore, was born and raised. The photos, taken on January 31, fill one with a sense of urgency, but also hope, especially in the play of children.

A Haitian proverb says, "With many hands, the burden is light." Our heartfelt thanks to those who can lend their hand.

Is Sex Play? • Check out my new commentary in the wonderful magazine Voices, published by the New York Folklore Society.

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Enjoy the City!


City of Memory is sponsored by City Lore and Local Projects.  It was funded by The Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

City Lore is part of a cultural coalition called CATCH, to promote the City’s cultural heritage. Check out the web sites of our wonderful partners, the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, the Latino Children’s Theater, SEA, and the World Music Institute.

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