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BY FRAN LUCK | Many do not know yet that the Lower East Side/East Village is about to lose another one of its authentic, signature spaces to gentrification — the uniquely wonderful Whole Earth Bakery at 130 St. Mark’s Place, between First Ave. and Avenue A.
Peter Silvestri, the warm-hearted owner and creator of this unique bakery/gathering place, has, after struggling for more than a decade with ever-higher rent demands by his landlord, Ronald S. Friedman of Gibraltar Real Estate in Tarrytown, N.Y., is being forced to close. His last day will be Mon., Dec. 31. There will be a closing party all day on Sat., Dec. 29.
If stores were landmarked, Whole Earth Bakery would be a leading candidate. Everything about this vegan food mecca, from the mosaic floor tiles that date from the 1920s to the old-fashioned tin ceiling says, “Old Lower East Side.” The store has beautiful curved-glass showcases filled with the muffins, halvah, scones, healthy candies and hot meals, such as stuffed cabbage, vegan pizza and other original dishes (the vegan chocolate-almond “cheesecake” is to die for) that Peter has originated over the years — everything made with love — right on the premises. Peter is one of the most sincere human beings you’ll ever meet and creates a warm, welcoming atmosphere for everyone who comes into the place — you not only get a great snack or meal, but a hug. He’s cooked for untold local events and given away more food than was probably good for business.
Whole Earth Bakery was founded in 1991 by Peter and his mother, who was in her 80s at the time and worked in the bakery with Peter until she was 94. In the beginning, the rent was about $1,100, with a five-year lease stipulating that it would go up $100 per year. In 1996 the rent was jumped to $2,000 — and in 2007 the landlord refused to give Peter a long-term lease and forced Whole Earth into a month-to-month arrangement (probably to free up the landlord to find a more upscale store at an even higher rent).
At that time Friedman also started jacking up Peter’s rent and threatening to evict the bakery — which now had no protection without a lease. The many lovers of the bakery — both local residents and vegans from around the city — got together and held a rally in Tompkins Square Park to save Whole Earth, and thousands signed a petition that was sent to the landlord. Even the city councilperson, Rosie Mendez, sent a letter. This combined effort was able to temporarily save the store. But Friedman then raised the rent to $3,100. Over the next three years he jacked it up a number of more times — eventually to $5,300. Peter started falling seriously behind, since the store could not do the amount of business necessary to pay such a rent.
Some tried to advise Peter on ways to keep up — and felt frustrated when he was not able to start the kind of “side businesses” (a citywide delivery service for his vegan cheesecakes?) that they recommended. But Peter is a baker, not a yuppie with an M.B.A. His talent is in creating original baked goods and a warm atmosphere, not in the kind of business hustling necessary to satisfy ever-increasing, outrageous rents. As Peter said to customer-friends recently, describing what had happened: “At $3,100 rent I was able to eke by, but when the rent was jumped to $5,300 I started to fall seriously behind in being able to pay it.”
This has been the fate of so many “mom and pop” stores in our neighborhood, a sad process that continues to destroy important pieces of our local culture, and leaves us at the mercy of colonizing chain stores — the only ones who can afford such over-inflated rents. Some shortsighted people have blamed Peter for mismanagement — but the store did survive and thrive for more than 20 years — until its rent became stratospheric. So the fault is obviously the runaway gentrification and lack of commercial rent control. To blame Peter is to participate in the “blame the victim” psychology that is unfortunately spreading as an all-too-easy explanation for what is happening to us all under runaway, capitalist real estate.
Landlords who don’t care a hoot for our community see our neighborhood as nothing but a cash cow to milk — without any consequence whatsoever. Friends of the bakery — and of the Lower East Side — are in the process of planning an action (a legal one) to send a message to the landlords who are doing this to our neighborhood.
Luck is executive producer, “Joy of Resistance” multicultural feminist radio show on WBAI, 99.5 FM, the first and third Wednesdays of the month, from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m.