Volume 80, Number 18 | September 30 - October 6, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

“Three Cupcakes” (acrylic, 8 inches by 10 inches), one of Donna Gould’s paintings of Sweet Heart Bakery’s treats that was on display in the bakery when it suddenly closed.

Commiserating over a loss of cupcakes and community

By Kathryn Adisman

Fans of Sweet Heart Bakery gathered in Jackson Square Park on Aug. 30 across the street from the neighborhood coffee shop, which closed in July without warning. The get-together was organized by artist Donna Gould as a way for people to “share information, feelings and memories.”

One by one, Villagers described what they missed about the shop. They painted a portrait of a place both unforgettable and irreplaceable. While everyone had a “favorite thing” and some identified themselves by their favorite sweet — “I was the Bread Pudding Lady,” said one — what came across was a kind of spiritual sustenance the bakery provided to the community.

Former Horatio St. Association President Kathleen Deegan, a neighborhood resident since 1963, confessed, “I fell in love with the apple turnovers,” which she’d take around to local businesses — “the nail salon, the hair salon” — and old people who live alone.

“It’s a Village custom,” said Deegan, in keeping with the bakery’s own hospitality. “They seemed always glad to see you.”

She blamed the bakery’s closing on “these landlords who just want to get into the small-business pockets and take the soul right out of the block.” Only Village Pizza was left on the block, a last holdout.

Writer Alberto Ferreras, whose first novel, “B as in Beauty,” won the 2009 International Latino Book Award for Best Popular Fiction in English, has lived in the building above the former bakery for 17 years. He remembered the block, Eighth Ave. between 13th and 14th Sts., when it consisted of stores that provided services — shoe repairs, lumber, flowers — “to us,” but which are now being replaced by businesses for tourists. “That’s the problem with the Village,” he said. “It’s becoming less and less livable.”

Denis Glennon, an advertising executive who works in the neighborhood, called the bakery “a respite.” Sweet Heart had “a certain human innocence,” unlike a profit-oriented business, he said. The transactions were “more about the human spirit — the coffee and baked goods almost secondary.”

Nevertheless, Glennon admitted succumbing on his way home to an “enormous” chocolate chip cookie. “Sweet Heart was a great name for the place,” he said, “because there was a lot of heart in everything they baked. The stuff wasn’t being punched out of pans.”

“Hell, no!” chimed in Jacky (“The Bread Pudding Lady”) Levy in agreement. For Levy, who grew up in Brooklyn, Sweet Heart was “very casual and homey, like something in your hometown.”

A young woman starting a side business as a baker decided to show up spur of the moment to see if anyone wanted her service. She concluded: “I don’t think they’re looking for treats; I think they miss that particular spot.” 

Mimi Miller and Dina Paisner recognized each other from Artepasta restaurant, one of the first casualties of the St. Vincent’s Hospital closure, which remains empty.

Miller, who said, “I’ve always lived here,” went around asking everyone, “Are you a Sweetie Pie?” While not a Sweet Heart regular, she said, “It’s still painful. There aren’t many community-oriented places left.”

Actress/model Paisner testified to the specialness of the place, with its five small tables, “yet if you wanted a table you never had to wait. Somehow or other, a space would open up,” she recalled.

She loved watching “all these adults, like kids in a candy shop, trying to figure out what delicious thing to eat,” calling it a slice of life.

“This cafe closing is indicative of all the little places we West Villagers would find and own as our own secret place,” she said. Asked where she would go now, she replied, “No place.”

Not everyone was from the neighborhood. Leon Nicholas Kalas, a Greek-born painter, used to come all the way from Brooklyn just for the apple turnovers.

“They were so great!” he said. “And the coffee was so fresh-brewed, and the cream on top… .”

He was “shocked” they had closed. “This place reminds me of St.-Germain in Paris,” he said, noting there was “nothing commercial” about it. As for where he’s going now, Kalas, echoing Paisner, said, “That’s it!”

Everyone had a different favorite treat. Rick Mathews, a West Village resident since the ’70s, loved the croissants, “and they made the milk very frothy,” he noted. It was part of his morning routine to chat with the owners.

“The guys recognized you!” he said.

“The guys” were Daniel Merlo, Argentine-Italian; Eric, Egyptian; Jose Luis Alonso, Cuban, and Marco, a worker.

Ferreras, the source for Sweet Heart history, credits Merlo, the original owner who opened the cafe in the early ’90s, with creating “that safe space” for people to interact.

“People of every age and social background would stop there — from movie stars to garbage truck drivers,” he recalled.

Celebrity sightings included Kristen Johnston of “3rd Rock from the Sun” and drag queen Lady Bunny. Legend has it Merlo baked muffins for Balducci’s on Sixth Ave. There were free tarot readings Thursdays and Christmas parties for folks without families in town.

Many recalled when the shop was boarded up for months. Speculating on why it closed, Glennon surmised the rent was increased and they were forced out. Levy echoed, “The landlords are so greedy in this area.” Ferreras believes it was a combination of factors — that their lease was up and they wanted to move on.

Latecomers John and Lorraine contributed their memories: Longtime neighborhood resident Lorraine recounted, “My ex was sort of cheap, and when they first opened, they had a sandwich board sign: ‘Coffee 95 cents.’ Eric gave me his cell phone number so I could call him in the morning and see if he had bagels. I never used it, but I still have it in my wallet.”

John, who can be seen Saturdays selling vintage paperbacks outside Jane St. Garden, was a fan of their corn muffins.

“It was the only game in town,” he said. “The empanadas were exceptional — pumpkin goat cheese! They had a knack of spicing those items in a way you remember them.”

In short, no one suffered short-term memory loss when it came to Sweet Heart Bakery.

Would the owners be surprised to know they’d inspired a meetup?

What was it all about? A tribute to tasty baked goods? The product seems emblematic of something else people are starving for — that’s being bleached from the landscape. It’s a microcosm of changes in the neighborhood.

Talk turned to what else was gone (Toons, Café de Bruxelles, La Focaccia) and what was coming (a CVS chain in the bank building on the corner of 14th St.). Meetup organizer Gould thinks this is not New York reinventing itself from one authentic thing to another.

More bad news: Paper Works, the stationery/card shop on Seventh Ave. between 12th and 13th Sts., is closing Sept. 30 after 25 years, the latest casualty of St. Vincent’s shutdown. So far, 500 customers have signed a petition to the landlord. Proprietor Adam, whom many consider a friend, embodies authenticity, in their view.

The good news: Gould reported 10 more people had responded to her fliers. Ferreras announced he’s creating a “Sweetheart Fans” Facebook page.

“There’s a way to go on,” said Paisner, who’ll be performing in a dance on the High Line in coordination with Hudson Guild Senior Center. “The lost energy of these places is found elsewhere.”

So for now, the Sweet Heart legacy lives on, at least in the hearts of its former patrons.

 

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