Ralph Baker, Ahead of the Curve, But Out of the Money

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Local guy Ralph Baker, a long-timer in the Williamsburg, Brooklyn ‘hood, was in the news the other day. Despite being blind and homeless he had the wherewithal to (allegedly) steal a building in the Fort Greene neighborhood, from a man with whom he shares the same name, and possibly has stolen another building on Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg. Here’s Gothamist’s report about the Fort Greene building.

Click on the photo above to get the latest news regarding a trial against Mr. Baker, which began earlier this month.

Back in ’94, I ran a story in Breukelen (a ‘zine I published back in the early ’90s) in which writer Joe Maynard interviewed many residents about the Williamsburg waterfront, including the perhaps modern-day visionary Robin Hood—Ralph Baker. It offers a back story to this current and unfolding episode in Ralph’s life.

Ralph’s interview is mid-way in the article (highlighted in blue).

Here’s the full story from Breukelen ’94:  More > >

The Wild Dogs of Williamsburg—When Mangy Mutts Ruled the Streets

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Dogs of Wythe Avenue, curated illustration by Luisa Caldwell / (l to r) Wendy Klemperer, Caroline Cox, Jeff Davis, Susan Hamburger, Rebecca Graves, Matt Freedman, Mike Ballou, Rob Hickman, Anna Rosen.

By Genia Gould

They didn’t skulk to the edges, says Johnny L., an artist who lived on the Southside of Williamsburg in the mid-1970s. They ran up the middle of the street, usually at night.

Packs of wild dogs, as many as 20. A river of dogs if you happened to be in their way.

One night I had to keep turning around and throwing rocks at them, like eight or ten of them, or six. It seemed like a lot at the time. They were definitely doggin’ me, though, says Ken M., a Vietnam veteran and master woodworker.

Artist Mary Z., who continues to live in Williamsburg, recalls how her artist partner Greg B. once shimmied up a pole to get out of their way.

It was apocalyptic, Luisa recalls about when she stumbled onto some of the dogs on Wythe Avenue, close to the river, the World Trade Center as a backdrop.

It’s not easy to locate photos from those days, because for the few that were taken, the prints and negatives have been lost with time, squirreled under beds, in forgotten places.

Sometimes real memories become mythology.

The young artists moving to the neighborhood were like a pack of wild dogs. Free-spirited, and living in cheap, cavernous spaces that were sometimes abandoned or illegal, scrounging in the same garbage. They weren’t looking for food (hopefully) but for remaindered wood, things to function as furniture, industrial discards to be incorporated into home décor, sculptures, paintings, and performances.

Also in the mid-70s, there was Sian, a filmmaker, who shared a huge loft with 20 other people, on South 3rd Street. She felt like a sitting duck while at the entrance, fussing with three locks: Dogs were not the biggest problem; you could hear them, see them, you sort of knew what they were going to do; but you didn’t know what the prostitutes or junkies or people who hated outsiders  were going to do—we lived in the middle of their world.

Dog Rescue

In those years, up until the early 1990s, the waterfront was the largest piece of undeveloped property in all of NYC, and it was very convenient for people to dump their animals there, because it was desolate. No one knew and no one saw them, and the dogs could shelter in all those abandoned buildings.

Dogs have a pack mentality, and they have a way of finding each other. When they get into a pack there has to be a leader, an order, who’s the boss and who follows; that’s why it’s dangerous for tame dogs and cats and other animals. They go after cats for food, explains Vinny, who, with his partner Tony, has run a dog shelter in the neighborhood since 1986. It was survival mode when the dogs would come together, because they hunted food for each other, helped each other survive, protected each other. It’s a natural instinct they have, like wolves, to run in packs.

Vinny and Tony once witnessed a dog actually race up a tree after a cat. We tried to save the cat, but we couldn’t.

They picked up and lassoed many dozens of dogs down by the waterfront and in the streets off Kent Avenue, cleaned them up, got them healthy, and rehabilitated them.

Those were the days when all the stray and feral dogs in the neighborhood ended up as local pets.

An old woman named Teddy, who was in a wheelchair and lived on Wythe Avenue near Slick’s motorcycle shop, used to have a revolving pack of dogs. Many of them used to wind up at her place, says Vinny, because she would feed them. Vinny and Tony would come periodically to take some of the dogs off her hands.

We even got one of the litters of puppies that one dog kept having in an abandoned warehouse at North 7th Street and Kent Avenue where there used to be an old train engine. We finally had that dog fixed. Her name was Precious, a pit-shepherd mix. (They were mostly shepherd mixes, before pit bulls started appearing.) They always had mange.

Why did we decide to write about the wild dogs, right now?

Because we see them returning, but in suits.


Goodbye La Villita Bakery

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Top: Alfonso Sosa in the kitchen area of his bakery looking out. Center: Display cakes in La Villita Bakery were made of styrofoam and meringue. Below: Alfonso with wife Patricia Meza, son Alfonso, Jr., daughter Patricia, sister-in-law Maribel Meza, and daughter Alma. PHOTOS BY MARA CATALAN

By Genia Gould

The birthday and wedding cakes in the La Villita Bakery window would turn brown over time, and with figurines of bare-breasted mermaids and muscular men, the result was a distinctive campy visual (which everybody in the neighborhood loved). The cakes were made of styrofoam but decorated with real meringue and sweet cream. The white-haired Alfonso Sosa, the owner of La Villita for 17 years, said he replaced the cakes with fresh ones every six months or so.

The familiar sight of the styrofoam cakes, and the bright orange building at the corner of Grand Street and Bedford Avenue was a reliable landmark in the neighborhood. It was a place one could still buy a cup of coffee and an egg sandwich for $2.50. One could, without worry, request a hot coffee with “leche caliente”—hot milk. It was a moment of knowing a gentle family of Mexican heritage. Every day there was the bustle of activity in the no-frills store, and a true mix of community.

Patricia Meza, Alfonso’s wife, would be at the grill making egg sandwiches with generous portions of bacon and fresh breads or croissants made on the premises. Sosa’s sister-in-law, Maribel Meza, an outgoing, good-natured woman, employed at the bakery for 13 years, managed the customers, took orders, and worked the cash register. My guess is Maribel was teaching Spanish to several dozen regulars, including myself, in short exchanges while buying coffee, pastries, and sandwiches. “I love to talk with people, and to be in the front of the shop,” she said, revealing her ideal job description, as she’ll need a new one soon. Her people skills were widely known and already new job offers are in the works.

The glass display cases featured over 40 different kinds of pastries, including cheese and cinnamon danish, el pan de mais, banana cake, carrot cake, pan Mexicano, borrachos, conchas and cookies, pound cake, you name it, and don’t forget the 35 cent sugared donuts that put Dunkin’ Donuts to shame.

Every day Alfonso would be in the back work area, at a large table, with a door open, so one could see him shaping and kneading dough for pastries and breads onto multiple pans. His croissants rivaled the French ones. “It was the butter,” said Maribel, “the croissants are crispy and rich, not too fluffy or full of air.” A testament to the croissants was the customer, who travelled to the bakery from 14th Street in Manhattan for ten years:” She would buy seven croissants, one for every day of the week,” said Alfonso.

The bakery, with its low prices and relaxed atmosphere, was a haven for babysitters, office cleaners, and construction workers, explained Maribel. “Sometimes babysitters would come in three times a day for a tea.”

We won’t be seeing those artful cakes in the window anymore. You won’t have the opportunity to try their croissants. We won’t be seeing Alfonso making bread and pastries in the back, and our Spanish lessons with Maribel are cut short. The reason is that in January the building’s landlord doubled the rent, from $5,000 to a whopping $10,000 making it impossible for Sosa to renew the lease. Adding insult to injury even though they agreed to leave, the landlord (not their original landlord) harassed them until the day they left. He attempted to wrangle from them all the equipment in the store, including a prized, old-fashioned style dough mixer. On their last day, the community came to say goodbye throughout the day, and relatives came from Mexico to be of assistance.

On February 28, they packed up all their belongings and every last piece of equipment into a truck, and drove it to Wilkes-Barre, PA where Mr. Sosa, his wife and children, are setting up a new life, and another bakery. They were able to fall back on a small property they own there, where Sosa once had a bar, also called La Villita. He closed the bar to set up the bakery which will have a new name. It’s a new chapter in their lives.

The couple had no intention of leaving the neighborhood. Their lives were good in Williamsburg, the bakery was thriving. They raised three children here, all of whom went to the local schools. Alfonso is originally from a village in Mexico called Santana Tecolapa. When he came to the States as a young man, he worked at restaurants and other local bakeries, and eventually was hired at the same bakery he now owns. After many years of apprenticing, he took over the business when the owner decided to sell, 17 years ago. He has since woken up every day at 3 or 4 in the morning to bake, staying until 6 or 7 at night.

The reason, he says, he kept the door open in the baking area was, “I wanted my customers to see that it was clean, that everything was freshly baked, and mostly, so they could see that I loved what I was doing.”

When neighborhoods don’t have choices about the price of a cup of coffee or how much to spend for breakfast, and everything becomes the same, then the neighborhood becomes less interesting and less vibrant. Our fantasy for La Villita is that they come back, even if it’s in a large food truck.

43 Magazine Launches—Interview with Allen Ying



Allen Ying, well known and much admired in skateboarder circles for his gravity-defying shots of skaters flying through the air, celebrated the results of a Kickstarter fundraising campaign this past August, earning more than the goal of $20,000. This means a green light for his brainchild 43 magazine, a handsomely designed bi-monthly, with a focus on East Coast Skaters. The first issue launches in mid-October. Ying will also curate a gallery exhibition with each issue, the first one to be held in New York City. 43 magazine will feature many talented skate photographers and artists.

In this interview, we learn more about Ying and his new magazine, and present a photo essay of his New York work.

GG—How’d your love of skateboarding and photography come together?   More > >

HAPPY NEW YEAR! Welcome 2010!


XOXOXOX  WG News + Arts staff

“Hipsters Are Afraid of Color” JoAnn Berman


I didn’t get a chance to attend JoAnn Berman’s fashion show at the Castle Braid on Saturday, but she sent me photos of the pieces that she presented on the runway. Her store on Metropolitan Ave didn’t last long, but it seems to have given her back the time to be creative and inventive. You can see that in her no-holds-barred riffing and sampling of pan-Asian elements.  The photos speak for themselves.

I also wanted to ask Berman to talk more on the subject of the local hipster fashion scene. She said something in her conversation with our fashion blogger Anne Szustek, last week, that I thought was provocative, and needed more clarification in her own words. She said,  “I think Brooklyn needs to go crazy and take it beyond tattoos and nose rings. They need to [return] to dressing to promote a feeling.”  More > >

Local UPS Guy Delivers New Restaurant—Phorum


Mary Yeung, WG food writer, and I, were invited last week by local UPS driver-turned-restaurant-owner Enzo Gugliuzza and his wife Anna Maria Palmiotto, to experience their new establishment on Starr St in Bushwick. Lucky for us to be regaled with such quality food, friendly staff, and the opportunity to chat with Enzo, his son, and their talented chef, a New York native originally from Ridgewood, Queens, John Cicinelli.  Cicinelli trained to be a chef in France and Italy, and has worked in top French restaurants in New York City and Florida.  More > >

Random Act of Kindness on Bedford Avenue


Electric bicyles get flats too, I learned this past Sunday, Father’s day.  The eye-catching bike that I’m riding these days, an electric A2B produced by Ultra Motor, allowed me a swift ride from Bed-Stuy to the Upper West Side, (as well as the added badge of pride that I made it to dinner with my dad, on time).

On my way home, riding a path alongside the West Side Highway near the Hudson, it started to rain … but that wasn’t too bad because the air was warm and the ride still pleasant, almost like sailing.  Until … the bike seemed to halt.    More > >