Kim’s Video Pizza War


Almost any restaurant is better than, say, Alan Greenspan at analyzing the economy. After the 1987 crash, eateries in New York and elsewhere began a process that I, as Village Voice restaurant critic, named “bistroization,” by which I meant a dumbing down of the astonishing menu invention of the previous decade to a more affordable steak frites yawn that would keep customers coming into the same expensive space. Prices did begin to crawl upward as business improved, but the kitchen creativity that made the ’80s the most thrilling culinary decade in 20th century America took much longer to follow.

We’re seeing Depression — not Recession — specials in restaurant windows again, to keep tables full and barstools warm. Corporate Christmas parties, already trimmed or deleted from media companies years ago, are looking awfully pot-luck for everyone this season.


So, if we want to lament our losses at home tonight with a DVD and pizza, one half of that has become easier: at least on St. Marks Place in Manhattan, where a Pizza War has begun. But we’re in trouble with the other, because the video part of Kim’s Video, Manhattan‘s mother lode of cinema-rental intelligence that’s located on the very same battlefield block, is closing.



No question that New York is a grand walking city, but even a peripatetic paradise has only a few places where those with time on their hands can stop being traffic and just hang out. St. Marks Place between Second and Third avenues is a renowned, worldwide destination for time-warp punks and seedy loungers. Density is high; proud, oblivious NYU students act as neighborhood filler. (No, not your kids, dear readers, or you, I mean the others.) Lime-and-orange Japanese joints selling olive-oil-fried chicken and tame yogurt custard sprout like anime enoki and turn irredeemably grungy days after they debut.


A few months ago, a narrow storefront called The World Famous 2 Bros. Pizza opened at 32 St. Marks, with a sign that electrified the locals: “Grand Opening Special Pizza Slice $1.00.” Almost every day, from noon till who knows when, lines wind out into the gutter.




New Yorkers haven’t been able to get dollar street food for ages. The fast-food 99-cent deals don’t count. They’re cynical, national clones that scream “less than.” 


Even a Gray’s Papaya hot dog is now $1.50, and Gray’s classic Recession Special, two garlicky links plus a kiddie-pap drink, this year leapt from $3.50 to $4.45. Hey brother, can you spare a fin?


Then, just a few weeks back, the always empty pizza parlor on the northwest corner of St. Marks and Second, the one that followed the much-hated Gap, taped a pathetic scrawled sign on its door: “Reg Slice $1, $1.” Bigger place, cleaner, more light — but few takers.




One afternoon I budgeted in a taste-comparison lunch. Both are flat Neapolitan slices. The 2 Bros. came right from the no-frills oven, crisp rim-puff, drooping body, oily surface (I use a paper napkin to blot calories), with an inoffensive sweet-tomato flavor. It’s a lot like the 35-cent slice I grew up with at New Park Pizza in Howard Beach, Queens — perfect après-bowling. The other dollar slice had a more sophisticated crunchy crust, but it was two-thirds the size and needed to be warmed up because there was no constant demand. A better slice in concept, but much less satisfying.


I’m a writer. I like spending a buck for lunch. Cool New York tap water from ancient woodland lakes surpasses anything bought in a bottle. I’m lucky to live where the pizza free-market works.



Auteur Video


It could easily be that Netflix has more titles, and I know of video boutiques across the country with cult sections as personal as a face. But dirty, makeshift Kim’s was a video miracle. It started in Youngman Kim’s dry cleaning shop on Avenue A in 1987 and moved to St. Marks Place a few years later, right above where that failing corner-pizzeria is now. Then, I climbed the stairs, checked out the boxes, and … word spread like mad among downtown film critics, academics and movie obsessives that the videotapes were arranged in a new way: first by country of origin, then by director.





By director! Kim’s Video was Andy Sarris (who had worked nearby, at the Voice) to Blockbuster’s Pauline Kael. Each shelf was a crash course in national, personal cinematic history. No matter that quality took a back seat to rarity. Why, there’s that TCM icon again. Why is this British bonbon dubbed in Romanian? Does he pay his grandmother to tape these off her rabbit-ear TV? Bad Mr. Kim.


Kim branches opened and closed, but the move to a spacious site at 6 St. Marks Place allowed the addition of CDs and digital paraphernalia. But only the videos drew me and other addicts into the moldy elevator week after week. The building had before housed the New St. Marks Baths, a gay-sex meeting place shuttered because of AIDS (a complex story in itself), and a semigay Turkish bath before that. Mr. Kim had plenty of cleaning to do — not all of it completed, as far as I could tell. I also recall a plaque on the old building: ”On this site stood the winter residence from 1834-1836 and the last New York City home of the novelist James Fenimore Cooper.”


Who went just to rent The Last of the Mohicans?


A shiny remnant of Kim’s has just opened on First Avenue between St. Marks Place and East 7th Street, in the site of the just gutted and much mourned Kurowycky (cur-VITZ-kee) Meat Products, properly famous for its succulent dry-cured, basement-smoked Ukrainian ham. (It’s probably wise at this point to squelch any comparison between Kurowycky’s and the St. Marks Baths.) But there’s only purchases here, no rentals, and the indefatigable owner is reportedly looking to donate his 55,000 video examples en masse and undivided, with a stipulation that paid-up Kim’s members will have access. Yeah, sure.


Leon Trotsky and later W.H. Auden lived around the corner from the new Kim’s, at 77 St. Marks Place. After Auden died, in Vienna, someone threw his books out into piles on the street. Now, with luck, you can probably find a grimy copy of Auden’s Selected Poems, or maybe something odd, like his verse play, The Dance of Death, in one of the dollar bins outside the Strand on Broadway and 12th.


pizza slice.jpgThat, or a slice. It’s your choice.






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