By James Maher
Name: Sheila Rothenberg
Occupation: Production Manager at Works in Progress NYC
Location: St. Mark's Place between 1st and 2nd (the photo for Part 2 is at the Tile Bar on 1st Avenue and East 7th Street)
Time: 6:30 pm on Thursday, Feb 5
Picking up with the end of Part 1
I opened my own restaurant on 2nd Avenue, between 1st and 2nd. It was called Dine East. We bought it from Sam of Sam’s Luncheonette. We didn’t know at time, but the reason he made money was because he had poker games in the back. I bought all the equipment from some cokeheads who had a restaurant in Chinatown. I was there from ’83 to ’86 and that’s where I met my husband — he was teaching at La Salle across the street.
It was so much fun and so much hard work. It was like a greasy spoon. My dad was working as my dishwasher. I’m still friends with everyone who worked with us. I really had my regulars. But in ’85, ’86 the crack stuff started happening. The heroin wasn’t so bad because they would not bother you so much. They'd ask, ‘Do you sell bottled soda? Do you have a bathroom?’ They wanted the bottle cap. I’d say, ‘No, because you want to shoot up in the bathroom.’ But crackheads were crazy, so it got a little sketchy. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I had five years left on the lease when I left. It was 28 seats. I made $100, $200 a week. I didn’t know about business so well and I gave a lot of stuff away, but it was really fun. I just realized that I couldn’t really go on with the life we were planning.
After that, I went to cook at Florent on Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District. It was a hot place. I made salads for Madonna. But there I really learned how to cook. I learned French cooking and how to make sauces.
Then I got pregnant and left. My next job was at the Telephone Bar as a cook for three years. That was great. Barbara Sibley was the general manager and Abe from the 2nd Avenue Deli was the owner and I loved him. Barbara has a lot of integrity and working for them was… like I got paid vacation. What you got at that restaurant was unheard of. She got group insurance for people. She was so flexible with time off. Working there was wonderful.
Today I am a production manager at Works in Progress NYC, a not-for-profit silk-screening company in the East Village. We provide internships for approximately 15 students annually from a growing list of New York City high schools and work readiness programs.
We are often able to provide paid summer jobs for high school students who have interned at WIP and several former interns are currently full-time staff. I like working with teenagers the best. It's fun being with kids and making shirts for people in the neighborhood and meeting great people.
Even though the neighborhood is changing, I still feel like it’s my community and I still have a lot of friends. We got very involved in the schools down here when we had children. We were founding parents of The Neighborhood School on 3rd Street. My husband was the first PTA president and I was the second. We got much more active politically because of the schools and trying to make better schools for kids.
My husband was teaching conflict resolution and I got very interested in the concept, so I did a training and learned to be a facilitator in conflict resolution. It was called Peace in the Family, which is sort of a misnomer. It was about just working with parents about active listening and good communication with your kids and bringing parents in to talk to teachers and to not be scared or intimidated. Then I went back to college since I had never finished college. I worked for Educators for Social Responsibility and then on 12th Street was an organization called the Girls’ Project and I was program manager there.
This block [St. Mark's Place between First Avenue and Second Avenue] was always pretty nice. I’m also a landlord. In 1993 we bought this building. I saw a for sale sign during the savings and loan scandal, so you couldn’t get a commercial loan and this was a commercial building. However, we got a great deal. I think the building dates back to 1840s [and belonged to] Peter Stuyvesant’s son. This was all Stuyvesant’s land.
It amazes me what these tenements are renting for. You know the Groucho Marx thing, ‘I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member’? I don’t want to rent to anyone who can afford to live here. We did, and the first rental we had here were these trust-fund kids and they called me to change a light bulb, and they were paying below market. I’m like, ‘That’s not the way it works. You gotta change your own light bulbs.’
I’m one of those people who came here and made good. There’s kind of this balance that people miss in terms of the gentrification. There was a time on 1st Street between 1st and 2nd where you could not walk on that block. I had a friend who lived there, a waitress at the Kiev and they said, ‘No you can’t come in.’ Shooting galleries were a real thing. They had bodyguards and they wouldn’t let you up the steps. I was like, ‘Fuck you, my friend lives up there, I’m going.’ That was the kind of person I was. It was not good for kids; it was not good for anybody.
As I heard de Blasio say on the radio [the other day], ‘When things are done without a plan, it gets screwed up.’ You’ve got to develop and you’ve got to change, but you have to have a plan. It’s greed on the part of people who own stuff but it’s also that there isn't any regulation. Everyone talks about mom and pop and small business and it is so difficult. I could never open a restaurant now.
Read Part 1 here
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.
Great story about an amazing person. My daughter went to the Neighborhood School when Sheila was involved and she made things happen! The community is better because she lives here.
Thanks for the trip down memory lane, SheilaQ
Florent! I had soooo much fun there.
Sheila is right. We know that everything changes and nothing stays the same but the changes that are happening in the Lower East Side and East Village reflects un-regulated greed. If you look toward downtown from First Avenue and Houston, the building skyline is brutal... Those ugly, tall, nondescript glass and brick towers are built on top of some of the most historic building in NYC. They are built with no regard to the surrounding architectural context of the neighborhood, the history of our neighborhood or the quality of life of the existing residents. The tenement buildings are a statement to and represent the very core of our immigrant past. They were built specifically for that reason. Long overlooked and passed over by any landmarking committee, they will all soon disappear and be over shadowed by new slick development.... maybe that is the master plan of the "new unregulated greed", to destroy that history and create a new entertainment zone for the rich, wanna-be-rich & tourists. To me that is one of the saddest aspects of the direction this change is taking.
I know this woman. Great story. Love You, Sheila. Plus she takes care of the plants on Firt Ave. between Tile Bar and International.
This was a wonderful interview. Thank you James & Sheila. A very cool history lesson.
Great story, and wonderful representative of this great and Grieve-ous community!
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