Volume 80, Number 2 | June 9-15, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Lesley Sussman

Kathryn Donaldson with the certificate of appreciation she recently received from Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, for her volunteerism.

Villager file photo by J.B. Nicholas

Ray poked his head out of his storefront window on Avenue A at Seventh St. in February during a “Save Ray’s” sidewalk rally.

Helping preserve a piece of the real East Village

By Lilly O’Donnell

Since Ray opened his store right across the street from Tompkins Square Park in the ’70s, he’s had a front-row seat from which to watch the changes that the East Village has gone through. When, just out of curiosity, I asked him a few years ago what he thought of gentrification, he said that more money in the neighborhood was good for business, that it meant more customers and a safer job for him; it meant he could put away the baseball bat he used to keep under the counter.

I guess he didn’t realize then that the growing popularity and desirability of the neighborhood might force him to close his store to make room for another cookie-cutter, über-chic store-in-a-box. Though all of this time he has only been making enough money to barely support himself day to day, living off leftover French fries and ice cream, and can’t afford even a meager retirement, let alone the cushy one that he so deserves.

About a year ago, during one of our regular middle-of-the-night chats, Ray told me that there was a good chance he’d have to close down. He couldn’t afford the renovations that the Health Department and his landlord were demanding. He didn’t even know if he was going to be able to pay the next month’s rent.

I’ve been going to Ray’s and chatting with the man himself for my whole life. My mother went there for egg creams and French fries when she was pregnant with me. Ray’s meant ice cream as a child, and later served as the outpost for my teenage years in Tompkins Square, where we’d go for cigarettes and iced coffee when we occasionally ventured out of the park.

It was bad enough when CBGB’s closed down. I was there along with all of the punk kids and aging rockers, chaining ourselves to the filthy monument to a subculture that had long since sold out anyway. When we lost CB’s we definitely lost a symbol of something important about New York, something that drew people here and for many was at its core.

But Ray’s is more important. His store is easy to overlook; just one of New York’s thousands of shabby little shops with flickering lights and a clutter of signs from the early ’90s advertising cigarettes, coffee, ice cream and hot dogs, small enough that it’s difficult for two people to pass each other inside. Ray’s represents the background against which all of New York’s glamour takes place. It’s the part that’s not for show, the home that will always welcome you, that is taken for granted and is now threatened with extinction.

When Ray told me that his shop might close, I knew that couldn’t happen, no matter what. I’ve mostly made peace with the fact that this neighborhood isn’t — and never will be — what it used to be, that the flux is just part of New York City. But Ray’s can’t go anywhere. Without Ray’s this wouldn’t be home anymore, and I’d have to pack up and move away.

So I organized a benefit show for Ray at Otto’s Shrunken Head last July. I had never organized a show before and didn’t know what I was doing. But I asked a bunch of my musician friends to play (some of whom were also locals who knew how important Ray’s is). And the management at Otto’s was thrilled to help, saying that we could keep 100 percent of the proceeds, and even giving us some of what they made at the bar during the show. We raised about $400, which we knew was not enough to save Ray’s sinking ship, but it was something.

A few months later, my best friend, Haley, who grew up on 11th St., and I were talking about what more we could do to help him. During the winter he was having an especially hard time, without as many late-night bargoers wandering around in need of carbs. We considered standing on the street with signs, collecting money Salvation Army style. Or making buttons and T-shirts and selling them the same way. Then we realized that we live in the 21st century, and Facebook is there to save people from standing on the street when they want to tell lots of people about something. We started the Save Ray’s! Facebook group and invited everyone we knew to join, and asked them to do the same, and requested a $20 donation to cover Ray’s rent for long enough for him to figure out how to pay for the remaining renovations.

With the help of another local, Leah Milstein, we threw another benefit, this time at Sidewalk Café. This one was even more successful, and between the show and the PayPal we were able to give Ray more than $2,000. This sparked yet another benefit show, organized by Barbara Lee, the most successful yet, raising $3,000, as well as T-shirts (sold at Ray’s and online) and a volunteer Saturday night delivery service.

While bursts of help like these from those who love him and his business helped Ray get through the winter, and kept his store open for long enough to win his Social Security battle, what he really needs is continuous support from the community. The Shadow’s Chris Flash introduced me to the idea that “every dollar is a vote” for which businesses you want to stay open, and in this economy every vote really does count. Decide what kind of New York you want to live in and vote for Ray!

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