The Holdouts: Urban Residents Cling to Old Ways

Habiba Ali and Pamela Downing inside their apartment at the Hotel Wales.
Habiba Ali and Pamela Downing inside their apartment at the Hotel Wales.


— They call themselves permanents.   Habiba Ali, 63, and Pamela Downing, 55, share a room at the end of a long, musty hallway in a boutique hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Excepting one other resident, they are the last of their kind.

Nostalgia, inertia and low rent keep some New Yorkers tied to their neighborhoods as the world around them changes. When Ali and Downing first moved into the Hotel Wales in the 1980’s, on Madison Avenue between 92nd and 93rd Street, the building was shabby and certainly wouldn’t have attracted tourists, but it was well situated.

Theirs was the neighborhood of  Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen, and Paul Newman.  Carnegie Hill, the stretch of blocks from 86th Street to 98th Street is named after the steel king, Andrew Carnegie.  Ali and Downing, hardly millionaires, managed to live among Manhattan’s wealthiest and most admired families for nearly three decades. Today the hotel has been renovated and an overnight stay costs around $200.

While many of the neighborhood’s more famous residents have died or left, the streets and stores still exude an air of  entitlement.  Ali and Downing’s lifestyle is anything but: their apartment is rent-controlled.  Ali and Downing  pay less in monthly rent than a guest of the hotel might pay for a week’s visit. No wonder they’ve stayed for nearly three decades.

Memories of New York Past

“We live in a posh five star hotel with no pennies in the pocket,” said Ali, who came to New York from Pakistan 1979, just after her father passed away.  Her plan was to complete a six-month course at the Pratt Institute’s School of Art and Design. She formed a close friendship with a French American woman Kathleen LePercq. The stranger was sympathetic to Ali, who didn’t know many people and was still mourning her father.   LePercq helped her to obtain a visa and ultimately her citizenship.

Ali moved  into the building in 1984, paying $225 a week.  Downing, a legal assistant, joined her the following year. The price increased by $35. Today, they won’t share their precise rent, but by Manhattan standards it is absurdly inexpensive.   Still, there are months when they have struggled to pay for it. When that happens, their families help.

The hotel may be posh, but their apartment certainly isn’t.  It totals 450 square feet, comprising one bedroom, a narrow kitchen, and a bathroom.  If a guest of the hotel were to accidentally step inside their apartment, he or she would not confuse it with their own room for a second. The sheer amount of stuff that is stacked on the floor or counter, nailed, taped or draped on the wall,  is overwhelming.  There is only one bed and it is Ali’s. Downing prefers the floor. She points to a folded up mat and blankets set beside a bureau, her bed.

At a small table near the wall, opposite the window and bed is a veritable shrine to Ali’s parents, Dr. Riaz Ali and Begum Amuzzinah Ali. Beside their framed photos are portraits of Kathleen LePercq, Ali’s “American mother” and mentor.

“My father was a doctor first. So, I grew up in a home where I didn’t know much about what difficulties are going to be,” Ali said. Her concept of America came from magazines like Vogue and Better Homes and Gardens. “I didn’t think there was poverty in New York,” she said.

Downing’s childhood was very different from Ali’s.  There was no television in her house, no store-bought toys and no alcohol. She was brought up as a Seventh Day Adventist. She actually did sleep on the floor in childhood as well, underneath a piano, oddly enough. Downing said the pets she kept in a bedroom she shared with her sister  chewed too loudly at night. Instead of moving their cages from her bedroom, she moved herself.

Downing came to New York after graduating college, to satisfy her curiosity about the city and perhaps to test her mettle.

Ali and Downing met at the Church of the Holy Redeemer, where Downing stayed in the community’s retreat house. She cooked meals for guests and managed the library.  Ali and her colleagues from Pratt came for a tour of the church . The two women connected, after discovering they had a mutual friend, and met often for lunch and walks. “We clicked to each other,” said Ali.

When her job at the Most Holy Redeemer Church ended, Downing still wanted to explore parts of the city she hadn’t seen.  “I’m a great procrastinator,” said Downing. “So, Habiba said ‘Why don’t you come and park your bags at my place,’” Downing said.  The two have not lived apart since.

Downing looks like a schoolgirl from a bygone era.  She wears her own kind of uniform every day: a long floral jumper over a blouse or other long-sleeved dress, her greying hair parted and clasped in a neat low ponytail, and glasses.  Her favorite joke is a pun involving papal edicts. Her favorite childhood story was Alice in Wonderland. She read it in Latin. And for years she has inventoried the flora and fauna of Central Park.  For nearly two decades, She worked in the same downtown office before retiring.

Ali wears a black canvas dress, like a judge’s robe, only short-sleeved with a blouse underneath and a cast on one arm—she fractured it in a fall.  Her hair is swept into a bun, her eyes dark and observant.  She speaks quickly tumbling over her words as if worried someone will interrupt her and occasionally Downing does.

When a guest or other listener looks confused by something Ali says or when Ali struggles to find the correct word, Downing inserts herself into the conversation. Neither has taken the traditional route of marriage and raising a family, though Downing has certainly thought about how her life might have been different.

“In a way I regret that I never did get married and have kids, but you know it’s too late now,” she laughed.

“You can do it,” said Ali.

“I’m too old. My knees won’t let me,” said Downing.

Fortunately Downing said she never felt any pressure or judgment from her relatives. “My family was always very unconventional and certainly nobody would judge anybody for how they wanted to live,” she said.

In the late eighties, the building’s first owner, Mr. Bernard Goldberg, converted 1295 Madison Ave. from an apartment building and transient lodging house to the elegant Hotel Wales. “Mr. Goldberg was a gentleman, a very nice man. He called all the permanents and asked them  if they want to go,” said Ali But to Ali and Downing he suggested, ““Just stay quiet and pay my rent on time.” He sensed that they if they left they would not be happy some place else. They agreed.

At that time, only 15 residents considered the hotel home. Most agreed to be compensated by Goldbeg and left.  The others died.  Today, guests change day-to-day, owners change every few years, and even the hallway art changes– Downing recalls sketches of Puss in Boots, from the famous children’s illustrator Alain Vaes.  Twenty-seven years later ,the only fixtures in the building are Downing and Ali.

When asked why they have stayed in New York so long, so far from their families. Ali restates her bond with Ms. LePercq, “my most important care person in my life”, after her immediate family.  Also, she said, “I found my love in New York real love. Genuine.”  Pressed for details, she resists. “That’s a special private question, I don’t want to go in detail.”

Living there is also comfortable. Ali doesn’t have to cook or clean. The hotel provides clean linens every week. There is a tea room, a rooftop garden and a large dining room on the second floor that where they can entertain friends as long as the hotel guests don’t need the space.  If there’s a problem, Ali will phone management and complain. They have defined roles. Downing cleans and fixes things. Ali supervises and on occasion, she cooks.

Sometimes, Ali, who is older, admonishes Downing for not doing something Ali asked, like cleaning dishes or not following precise directions.  “I sometimes feel that I get scolded unfairly when bad things happen with which I’m in some remote way connected,” said Downing. But Ali apparently gets her share of scolding too, from her own family.

“The whole family likes Pamela and they stand up for her against me,” she said.  “[They say] that I should be good to Pamela.”

Downing and Ali are not a couple. The insinuation that they are more than friends is offensive to them. When posing for photographs, they don’t touch and they keep a seat between them on the couch. Her eyes at once vulnerable, Ali said, “Once I told Pamela’s mother, ‘Mrs. Downing, people say all kinds of things about us.’  She said, ‘Leave it to God.”

Sometimes their fights threaten their arrangement.  “Pamela slams the doors and says I’m going away,” Ali said. “And if she wants to go now I says ‘Get out! Go! I don’t care.’”

“It’s true,” said Downing.

“But maybe,” Ali said, “I will call her the next day and say, ‘What are you doing? Are you coming back?’”

Basketball City Warms Up to Change the Game

Basketball City still needs a paint job before opening. When the hoops come down, the facility could change the way basketball is played in the Lower East Side.

— Beautiful Saturday afternoons draw Lower East Side ballers to Hester Street Playground. This is where some of the neighborhood’s best basketball players bring their Nike sneakers—and their game faces. All three courts were full on a recent Saturday, with two teams of five players on each court. The sun beamed down on the players, who battled for loose balls, rebounds, and ultimately, for a victory. Above the courts along the sidewalk, residents watched and gave their criticisms of every misstep.


The Neighborhood’s Courts Up Close

Though the 80-degree weather was perfect for hoops, the players had to overcome the less than ideal court conditions. Cracks ran through the concrete and across the withered-away half-court line, causing the ball to bounce in unwanted directions like a football. The hoops were naked with no nets. And there were barely any distinguishable boundary lines; a feud broke out after a player stepped out-of-bounds during an acrobatic lay-up, but no one was sure where the boundary lines actually were to decide whether he stepped out of bounds or not.

“Maybe you should paint the lines,” said the player whose move was under question.

This is New York street basketball. It has its own rules, its own quirks and its own traditions—and it’s the way the game has been played on these streets for decades. Here in the Lower East Side, basketball stars learned how to shoot and dribble at the Hester Street Playground and built toughness while fighting for rebounds at the Lillian M. Wald Playground.

But basketball on the Lower East Side could change this summer. A new $12.5 million basketball haven, situated between the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges, is set to open after five years of community negotiations. Once a gas depot for city vehicles, the facility, called Basketball City, will feature seven pristine hardwood courts, all of which will be lit by bright overhead LED lights. Each court has two NBA-quality Spaulding hoops with perfect nets. The newly installed air conditioning system will keep players cool during the summer, and a second-floor bar area will refresh players while giving them views of the East River. This is not a venue for streetball. The courts are level, the hoops are all at regulation size, and there are no game-altering craters in the court.

“It’s like a Madison Square Garden in our backyard, and we have access to it.”
– Tom Parker,
Community Board Member

“It will be a great place for kids to hone their games,” said Bruce Radler, the president of Basketball City. “Playing on outdoor courts deals with a lot of variables, and they’re unusable in the winter. Basketball City will be reliable.”

It’s also much more expensive. It’s tough for local families to spend $250 for youth basketball programs that span six weeks. And the five-day summer camps for kids ages 8 to 17 will cost more than $300. Basketball City will run 13 of these sessions.

The adult recreation leagues are more costly. For a 10-week season with playoffs, a 10-member team has to come up with $2,150. Each player then has to pay nearly $100 for uniforms, lockers and other fees. Recreation leagues are attractive to big companies; Monday leagues at Basketball City’s Chelsea Piers center matched teams from the New York Post and Daily News with squads from the Food Network, Goldman Sachs and Ernest & Young.

These costs may not seem so extravagant at first, but 40 percent of the households surrounding Basketball City (three surrounding census tracts) make less than $20,000 income, according to the American Community Survey (five year estimate, 2006-2010).  There isn’t much room for a recreation team that represents the nearby Valdeck Houses when the costs are so expensive.

But Radler has discussed his intentions on helping the Lower East Side residents in need. This includes holding free summer camps, sponsoring sponsorships and running clinics.

“Any time you have kids in an organized activity, not on the street,” Radler said. “They’re better off they’re better served, they learn life skills, being part of a team. That’s why we think the organized activity is so much more important than just free play.”

Though Basketball City is a pricey luxury, Radler is working with the community to give them services, according to Tom Parker, a Community Board 3 member. Parker worked with Radler to offer $25 basketball clinics to community children ages 7-16 on Sundays. For at least nine hours a day, the courts are open for local schools, not-for-profit organizations, and other local groups.

“It’s a multi-million dollar facility,” Parker said. “It’s like a Madison Square Garden in our backyard, and we have access to it.”

But Victor Papa, president of Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, a Lower East Side advocacy group, views Radler’s Samaritan side differently. It took too long to get some programs that benefited the Lower East Side, Papa argues, adding that he believes Radler should be more willing to help.

“Radler has made arrangements with schools with groups would use the facility,” Papa said. “But no effort was made to secure free time for our individual kids who are not part of institutions. Kids who need it most are the kids not attached. They’re aimless and the most likely to get in trouble.”

Many of these kids are also unaware of Basketball City’s eventual presence in the neighborhood. Basketball players at Henry M. Jackson Playground on Henry Street were baffled when asked about the new seven-court facility not too far from the playground. They had never heard of Basketball City. During an audit and report of city playgrounds, Comptroller John Liu cited the Henry M. Jackson Playground for having “tripping hazards or cracked safety surfaces.” These are all problems Basketball City will never have.

“I know a lot of people will probably love it,” one Jackson Playground player said. “But it sounds expensive. I’ll probably stick to my slanted hoops and cracked concrete.”

Greenpoint Businesses Adjust to Younger Crowd

Eva Wieczorek, the owner of the hair salon in Greenpoint, Brooklyn bearing her name, serves her customer for 40 years. "It's a big honor to have customers like that. I must have done something good". Photo by Natalia V. Osipova
Eva Wieczorek, the owner of the hair salon bearing her name, serves her customer for 40 years. "It's a big honor to have customers like that. I must have done something good"

— “I miss my old customers,” says Eva Wieczorek, the owner of a well-groomed hair salon bearing her name on Nassau Avenue in Greenpoint. Since 1970, when she started her business, the regular customers were her compatriots, working-class Polish immigrants. But in the last decade, most of them left the neighborhood that didn’t fit their budget anymore.


Play the Change Game

Hear From Merchants

From 2000 to 2010 in Greenpoint, the population of 30-year-olds, the largest age group in the neighborhood doubled, Census comparison show. And as they moved in, they brought new tastes and consumer habits to the formerly conservative, Polish neighborhood.

Over the same period of time, the population of Polish-born immigrants in New York declined from 61,546 to 55,581, the Census bureau reports.

Vintage boutiques with names like Fox&Fawn and Kill Devil Hill, hip bars and cafes such as Papasitos and Troost have supplanted the neighborhood’s mom-and-pop shops and old-fashioned pizzerias that Wieczorek and her customers had come to love.

The businesses that have remained have had to adjust to the new, younger residents. Some of them have done it successfully and found their own ways to prosper.

Eva’s salon, for example, now orders more extravagant hair dyes like purple and green.

That’s what “yuppies” often ask for, says Wieczorek, 62.  New residents also increased demand for services that Wieczorek’s former customers likely never requested, services like hole-head bleaching for men and straight and sleek hairdos for women.

Wieczorek, however, smartly made changes.  manages the salon with her son Daniel, 34. She realized she could no longer handle demands for the newly popular services so she began recruiting people with the proper skills.  She haired several stylists the same age as the new clientele.

Older customers still opt for perms and wavy styles, but Wieczorek says the salon doesn’t do them as often as it did in the past.

“We are getting modern,” says Wieczorek.

“When you think of somebody working manually, ‘skinny’would not be a word to describe what people typically would wear.”- Ed Veneziano,
Clothing Store Owner

While she misses her old client base, she confesses, the change has been good for business. In the past two years, she has seen demand for beauty services grow by 20 percent, and people who live in the area now have more money to spend. “We love them,” she says.

Another family business a couple of blocks away, Greenpoint’s Toy Center on Manhattan Avenue, also welcomed the change in neighborhood demographics. When owners Herman and Nancy Hernandez took over the shop eight years ago, the local community was predominantly Polish. But Hernandez now says more non-Polish young families seem to moving into the area. “They are very faithful customers to the store,” he says.

Hernandez, 48, a former policeman, says traditional toys like Lego and Barbie dolls still sell well, but in the past five years different types of toys have risen in popularity. Durable wooden toys, as well as ones made of eco-friendly recyclable plastic, fly off the shelves.

“The young hipster families are looking for more earth-friendly type of toys,” he says.

Hernandez says young customers pay more attention to design now, and look for exercise toys, something to ride or to play with outdoors. Electronic and innovative toys such as micro robotic bugs and spiders or “beyblades”, metal toy combat sets, are also among top sellers now. “I get more of this stuff now,” says Hernandez.

In the donut and pastry shop Peter Pan across the street, the owner Donna Siafakas says she also has witnessed her clientele change dramatically from about two years ago. Long lines of young customers patiently waiting to be served is something Siafakas didn’t expect to see 10 years ago.

“Even myself, if I see a place with a crowd I would keep going. But these people come in and wait patiently in line, even in cold. And it’s amazing to me,” says Siafakas, 55, who has run the bakery with her husband Christos for the past 20 years. She says, if previous customers saw 10-15 people in line, “in a couple of minutes, they would be out.”

At Peter Pan, which opened in 1950, business is blossoming thanks to Greenpoint demographics’ change.

Siafakas says a few years ago she installed a coffee machine to offer espresso and cappuccino. “Before then we just had plain American coffee,” she says. Traditional Polish customers weren’t big espresso drinkers.

Jelly donut sales are another indicator of the changing tastes of  Peter Pan’s customers. “Polish people were big fans of a jelly donut, because they made what they called punchki which is a Polish donut with jam inside,” says Siafakas. Once a best seller, jelly donut now is the least popular item in the menu.

To fit new customer tastes, the bakery added a red velvet donut. “About a year or one and a half ago, we began to think about what they would like. And red velvet was very hot at that time,” says Siafakas.  The bakery substituted traditional red velvet cake’s crèam cheese frosting with glaze. She says, it’s better to eat them on the go this way, just as young customers prefer.

The neighborhood’s young hipsters and artists, Siafakas points out, seem to like the new offerings, but also appear to appreciate what the store has always been known for: its old-fashioned donuts.

For 20 years the bakery has kept low prices: for two dollars customers get a donut with coffee.

“It’s something that we had before that appeals to them. I think, it’s nostalgia of the place,” says Siafakas.

Before her family took over the bakery in 1993, it had been in Greenpoint for 42 years already.

The family did not change the recipes or the interior. The round bar stools remained – and they still do. Siafakas, who was born in Greenpoint, says, her mother always took her there to treat her to donuts after going to the movie theater that was nearby.  “I used to twirl around, and my mom always tried to stop me. Children still do, and I don’t stop them, because I think it’s fun.”

Inside the Greenpoint’s retail old-timer across the street, Cato’s Army and Navy, hardly anything has changed in the past decade either, or so it seems. The shop started as a men’s clothing shop 37 years ago and catered mostly to blue-collar workers, which were the main settlers in the neighborhood. Now business is shifting from practicality toward fashion. That’s what new Greenpoint residents crave.

The shop sells the same items, but in smaller sizes and brighter colors. The owner Ed Veneziano, 57, says, 10 years ago he wouldn’t even order size 28 for male pants.

“It would be too small for our traditional customers,” says Veneziano.  “When you think of somebody working manually, “skinny” would not be a word to describe what people typically would wear,” he says. “Greenpoint has been a blue-collar neighborhood forever,” says Veneziano. His traditional customers would have looked for clothes comfortable to work in.

Now the offerings are more stylish and appeal to women too. Veneziano said, he recently started selling female Western and military clothes.

“The challenge of local businesses was to figure new local residents’ needs.  And for some business it has not been successful. There are a lot of empty storefronts on Manhattan Avenue,” says Veneziano.

He refers to of Valdiano’s pizzeria across the street. Its closed door now carries the announcement: “Thank you for years of support.” The pizzeria, which had been there for decades, went out of business at the end of March.

Veneziano says, fortunately, his shop’s usual assortment became fashionable outside the blue-collar workers’ world.  But his survival, he says, depends ultimately on the fleeting preferences of consumers.  He just got lucky.

“It’s like a lottery ticket,” says Veneziano.

PNG icons in multimedia courtesy of Julia Soderberg, Olivier Guin and The Noun Project