In an attempt to tough out an economic downturn exacerbated by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, members of New York’s restaurant industry gathered on Sept. 25 to discuss ways in which they could band together and survive.
The meeting-which took place in the late morning at Cipriani 42nd Street, an ornate, soaring catering space owned by father-and-son restaurateurs Arrigo and Giuseppe Cipriani-included Cipriani fils; restaurateur Alan Stillman, the owner of Smith & Wollensky and Cité; Marc Packer, the owner of Rue 57 Brasserie, Tao and Harley Davidson Cafe; David Swinghamer, chief financial officer at Danny Meyer’s restaurant group, which owns Union Square Cafe and Tabla; Drew Nieporent, whose Myriad Restaurant Group owns Montrachet, Nobu and Tribeca Grill; and Keith McNally, the owner of Balthazar and Pastis. (Messrs. Stillman, Cipriani, Packer, Nieporent and McNally either did not return calls left by The Transom or declined to comment.)
The Transom hears that the restaurateurs discussed ways in which they could unite and get government assistance, in the form of sales-tax abatements and low-interest loans, for any restaurant affected by the downturn. Their reasoning was that it would be to the city’s-and the state’s-advantage to help the restaurants stay afloat rather than pay unemployment to thousands of out-of-work restaurant employees affected by the economic downturn.
In a week when organizations such as the League of American Theaters and the Theater Development Fund announced efforts to prop up ailing theater business on and off Broadway, there was growing sentiment among restaurateurs that the city’s dining establishments are at least as important to the fabric of New York culture as Broadway, and probably a larger employer.
And though Mr. Giuliani has urged New Yorkers to return to restaurants, business is off at many establishments-especially below Canal Street, where, at press time, taxis and cars were still not being permitted. Although many of the area’s restaurants had reopened, business was down 30 to 80 percent, according to an unscientific poll of the restaurateurs. “There’s no relief that the city has coordinated for us,” said Christopher Chesnutt, owner of El Teddy’s, a moderately priced Mexican restaurant on West Broadway, between Franklin and White streets. At 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 24, Mr. Chesnutt said he had three customers at the bar of his restaurant. Earlier that day, he said, Con Ed had told him it wasn’t giving him any leeway on the Friday due date for his utilities bill. “We feel that we’ve been forgotten in this quadrant,” he said, meaning the part of Tribeca west of Broadway and north of Chambers Street.
The fates of other restaurants near the Trade Center were much more uncertain. At press time, David Bouley’s restaurants Danube and Bouley Bakery had not opened, and his phones didn’t seem to be working. And though Mr. Nieporent’s Myriad Restaurant Group reopened most of its restaurants, including Tribeca Grill, Nobu and Montrachet, Layla, which offers Middle Eastern cuisine, remained shuttered.
Eliot Rennert, special-events director of American Park, which is located in Battery Park, said that damage to the restaurant was minimal. “We look great again,” he said, “but what is standing in our way is that the police are using part of the facility as a command post, and we’re being told by Verizon that our phones will not be operational for another three weeks. So it appears unclear when we’ll reopen.” As a result, Mr. Rennert said, “our future revenues have been devastated.” He estimated that the restaurant, had lost in excess of $500,000 worth of events and à la carte business for the next three months.
Still, Mr. Rennert said, “It’s the intent of the ownership to ride this out, whether it’s next month or next year. We hope the other local businesses will be here as well.”
Stuyvesant’s 26 Minutes
Stuyvesant High School, one of New York’s premier selective public schools, gained another distinction on Sept. 11, as one of the schools closest to the site of the World Trade Center attack. The 3,000-odd students, along with teachers and administrators, fled the school at 10:30 a.m., and the sleek, capacious building was set up as a triage center. The city’s Office of Emergency Management later transformed the school into a command post for the New York Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Schools Chancellor Harold Levy announced that Stuyvesant students would temporarily be attending Brooklyn Technical High School, a highly regarded selective school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. He said Stuyvesant would get its school back on Nov. 1.
It seemed a civilized solution. But Stuyvesant parents went nuts. For four class periods a day, Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech students would share the building, which meant that up to 40 classes might have to be held simultaneously in the auditorium, using portable chalkboards.
“It was potentially damaging to these kids who had been traumatized, and we got really angry,” said Sol Stern, a parent of a Stuyvesant sophomore.
“That academic plan was a joke,” said Marilena Christodoulou, president of the Stuyvesant Parents Association. “We felt this was academically indefensible.”
The association called an emergency meeting. Stuyvesant parents started sending Chancellor Levy so many angry e-mails that he had to ask them to stop; they had clogged his mailbox. A few parents placed calls to Governor George Pataki’s office-apparently unconcerned that the Governor might be a tad busy these days-and on Sept. 17, the Parents Association posted the following on the Stuyvesant Web site:
“The conditions at BTHS [Brooklyn Technical High School] during the ‘overlap periods’ raise serious safety and educational concerns for both the Stuy and the BTHS student bodies. It is essential, for the sake of both student bodies, that Stuy students return to the Stuyvesant building as soon as possible, and certainly much sooner than November 1st.”
Mr. Levy came up with a new plan: Brooklyn Tech would attend school from 7:15 a.m. to 1:20 p.m., with 37-minute academic periods, and Stuyvesant students would attend from 1:30 p.m. to 6:28 p.m., with 26-minute academic periods.
But the parents are still simmering. “We are still very disturbed,” said Ms. Christodoulou. “Stuyvesant students have 26-minute periods, Brooklyn Tech has 37 minutes. But now we have classrooms.”
Adding to the tension is the fact that Brooklyn Tech is Stuyvesant’s biggest rival. On Sept. 20, the day on which Stuyvesant kids began attending class in Brooklyn, a Stuyvesant student posted a report on Stuynet.com claiming that Brooklyn Tech kids were spitting on the Stuyvesant kids as they came in.
But that was the least of their worries for Stuyvesant seniors, whose minds are focused like laser beams on college applications. “We lost a week of school already, and for people who are taking A.P. classes and Regents classes, and classes that involve SAT II’s, for classes to be shrunk down to half the size for another two weeks means they aren’t getting the education they need to be successful,” said Michael Vogel, a senior at Stuyvesant.”
Meanwhile, the parents of Brooklyn Tech aren’t too thrilled, either. On Sept. 19, Stephen Gales and Gordy Thompson, co-presidents of Brooklyn Tech’s Parent-Teacher Association, posted a letter to Tech parents on the school’s Web site:
“Like all New Yorkers, we welcome the opportunity to do our fair share to help the victims of Tuesday’s tragedy. But we felt that it was patently unfair to expect Tech to bear the entire burden of Stuyvesant’s misfortune, and to savage the integrity of its own educational environment in the process …. Not only is this ‘solution’ unfair and overly burdensome to Tech, but it is NOT in the educational interests of EITHER school.”
“They get 37 minutes, and we get 26 minutes, and despite all this, they were complaining,” said Stuyvesant parent Sol Stern.
The parents backed off a bit on Sept. 24, when they learned that Stuyvesant students would be back in their classrooms by the second week in October.
Not everyone is happy about that. Gary He, a senior at Stuyvesant and the founder and editor of Stuynet.com, said he likes the current schedule. “I’m a senior,” he said. “I appreciate losing class time.”
The laughs that David Letterman and Conan O’Brien have been coaxing out of their television audiences are proof that this city is hungry for some comic relief-and on Sept. 29, those yeomen of yuks, the Friars, plan to do their part.
The Friars Club has decided to go ahead with its scheduled roast of Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner at the New York Hilton Hotel, which will be taped by Comedy Central, edited and cablecast on Nov. 4.
“We had some anxiety about going forward,” Friars director Jean-Pierre Trebot told The Transom. “But we reached the decision to go ahead primarily because the Mayor and the President [said] it was time to get back to some semblance of reality.”
Mr. Trebot also said that all of the parties involved in the roast will donate money to the relief effort: The Friars and the Friars Foundation have earmarked $200,000, Comedy Central $250,000 and Mr. Hefner $100,000, Mr. Trebot said.
Mr. Hefner’s generosity might buy him some good will in New York, but it won’t soften up the dais members. At press time, the list of roasters included Drew Carey, Gilbert Gottfried, Sarah Silverman, Jeffrey Ross and Rob Schneider. The Transom asked Friars dean Freddie Roman if, given the circumstances, any topics were off-limits to the comedians. “No one’s going to do jokes about what went on here. That’s a taboo subject,” Mr. Roman said. “But jokes about Mr. Hefner’s penis won’t be.”
Art, Life & In-Between
On Monday, Sept. 24, members of New York’s performing-arts community mustered downtown for a benefit production of The 24 Hour Plays at the Minetta Lane Theater. That morning Julianne Moore, Rosie Perez, Mary-Louise Parker, Billy Crudup, Kyra Sedgwick, Benjamin Bratt, Natasha Lyonne, Robert Sean Leonard, Marisa Tomei, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Fisher Stevens, Lili Taylor and Liev Schreiber had showed up cold to learn lines and rehearse scenes for a number of 10-minute plays that had been written the night before. The premise was that the entire creative process-writing to final bows-would take place within 24 hours.
None of the plays made explicit reference to the events of Sept. 11 or the World Trade Center, but their content was a Rorschach test of the city’s psychology.
In Kiss and Tell, by Slums of Beverly Hills writer Tamara Jenkins, a teenage girl in the middle of a make-out game says, “I hear loud noises …. I can’t sleep at night …. I’m scared of things, even in the day sometimes.” Her partner, played by Brendan Sexton III, grows up to hear the same words echoed by an adult partner, played by Drena De Niro.
In Sandcastle, by Chris Shinn, Sam Rockwell and Ms. Taylor played a couple who fall out of love as they drive from Los Angeles to New York. When they reach the shores of the Hudson at dawn, they step out of the car, gaze at the New York skyline and reconcile. “They stand, a pair: risen, reflecting, alive,” the narrator says of the couple.
The audience-which included Ms. Sedgwick’s husband, Kevin Bacon; Ms. Moore’s boyfriend, director Bart Freundlich; and Ms. De Niro’s father, Robert-laughed less and less nervously as the night went on. The play that seemed to appeal to them most was Nine Ten, by Sideman playwright Warren Leight, which observed a group gathered for Jury Duty at 100 Centre Street.
Mr. Leight’s dialogue was a time capsule of what New York conversation was like before the Trade Center attack. Robert Sean Leonard and Natasha Lyonne played bond traders from the same graduating class at Wharton Business School. Ms. Perez, a “spiritual dancer and healer,” deadpans, “I must have just missed you guys by a year.”
As the selection of the jury draws near, a foreman comes out and assures the group that though they’ll have little luck squirming out of jury duty, “most of you should have your lives back in just a few days. Welcome to Civil Court, Monday, Sept. 10, 2001.”
Intermission saw Mr. Leonard out on the street with the rest of the audience, smoking a cigarette in the suit he wore onstage. He told a story to some friends about his father’s reaction to a lecture by F. Murray Abraham. Mr. Abraham had apparently whipped out his Oscar statuette and asked if anyone in the class “wanted to touch it.” Mr. Leonard’s father was evidently appalled.
Ms. Sedgwick and Ms. Moore were on the street too, gushing to each other about how they really should do a film together as their partners, Mr. Bacon and Mr. Freundlich, stood at attention.
When the event was over, Mr. De Niro-wearing shorts-rushed outside and into a livery cab, where he waited for his daughter to emerge from the theater. When she finally appeared, she opened the car door and could be heard telling her father, “No! I don’t want to go.” Eventually, she relented-after convincing her father to give Ms. Lyonne a ride, too.
Ms. Tomei came out soon after. “There was a lot of making stuff up going on in there,” she said with a smile. “A lot!”
Finally came stately, plump Mr. Hoffman. He’d come on his Gary Fisher mountain bike. As he was unlocking it, he said, “I’d say we got about 70 percent of it. I was really fudging. Man, it was fun!”
-Ian Blecher and Rebecca Traister
Heroes of P.R.
One might not immediately think of women in public relations among the heroes helping the city recover from the World Trade Center tragedy. But a small army of them, equipped with their cell phones and Rolodexes, have flocked to Red Cross headquarters on the Upper West Side since the tragedy to serve as spokeswomen, escort TV crews around the crash site, write press releases, answer the phones and even get coffee. They included Karen Bailey, Glamour magazine’s director of public relations; Jamie Drogin, an associate at Burson-Marsteller; Laura van Straaten, an independent television producer; and Samuella Becker, vice president at Stanton Crenshaw whose clients range from CIT Group Inc., the financial-services giant, to uDate, the world’s largest Internet dating company.
At a recent meeting of the women, Anne Sommers, the American Red Cross of Greater New York’s official director of public relations, said she looked around the room and thought: “This is like a sorority party [where] everybody is attractive, articulate and well-connected.”
And Type A. Recalling the multitasking talent of one female flack, Ms. Sommers said: “While getting an NBC producer on the line, she was cleaning my desk at the same time.”
-Ralph Gardner Jr.