Volume 17, Number 49 | April 29 — May 05, 2005

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

John Harty mixes a drink at Walkers.

Walkers watches Tribeca’s creation through the years

By Amanda Kwan

It is a wet Wednesday afternoon, and Massie Odiotti, 60, an information technology specialist for the Department of Homeless Services, is on his fourth cup of black coffee topped with Amaretto liquor.

“You’re going to be jumping around when you get out of here,” said bartender John Harty, 45, as he placed the coffee on the bar. Odiotti has been sitting at the wooden bar in Walker’s, a restaurant and bar in the lower West Side of Manhattan, for more than five hours. He came in to read a newspaper and have a bowl of soup around 2 p.m., and it is now 7 p.m. When he meets the friend that he has been waiting for, he may finally leave the bar. Or he may not.

Odiotti’s reluctance to leave is not entirely puzzling, as Chris Conefry, 34, a stock trader at Knight Equity Markets, said, “It’s always somewhat festive here.” The noise level from the multiple conversations in the bar area, on top of the loud jazz music and the sounds of servers placing drink orders — “Three waters, three Bass please!” — has hit a new high with the latest group of diners coming in and shaking off the early spring rain.

The restaurant and bar, which is in a tenement house built in 1880, is one of many businesses in the area that changed when the neighborhood, now known as Tribeca, became the target of a real estate boom, transforming the once-desolate Washington Market district into a family-friendly community.

Walker’s at the corner of North Moore and Varick Sts. serves American food like burgers and fries, cowboy chili, and sirloin steaks. There is no pretentiousness to the place at the corner of North Moore and Varick Sts. — even the ash-brown floors are stripped to bare wood with no shiny polishing or color staining. Martin Sheridan, 59, found the cast-iron storefront in 1987 during a walk around his Tribeca neighborhood. Sheridan and his partners — Jerry Walker, 55, who also owns the Ear Inn on Spring St. with Sheridan, and Scott “Skippy” Perez, 51, who owns Toad Hall, a restaurant on Grand St. — transformed the two-room shot-and-beer bar on Varick into a three-room bar and restaurant.

Walker’s is a remnant of Tribeca’s past, a past marked by the produce and wholesale warehousing industry. “It was a funky little place,” said Perez of Vic’s, the bar that existed at 16 North Moore St. before Walker’s. “Women would never come here. There wasn’t anything in Tribeca back then.” The neighborhood during Vic’s time was a “rapidly deteriorated” ghost town, as a reporter in a New York Daily News article from April 1968 noted. By that year, produce merchants from the Washington Market had deserted the 24-block commercial area bounded by Barclay, Hubert, Greenwich and West Sts. to sell in Hunts Point, Bronx. The abandoned city-owned blocks became a $190 million real estate development area designated by the 1966 City Planning Commission with plans for new housing, commercial centers, and the Borough of Manhattan Community College. The intersection of North Moore and Varick Sts. missed the urban renewal plan by two blocks.

Now, large residential complexes like the Independence Plaza dwarf even the high-rise cold storage warehouses in Tribeca , while small tenement houses with a commercial ground floor like the building that Walker’s is in appear run-down and out-of-date. Apartment buildings on the last two development sites in the renewal area, still known as Sites 5B and 5C on Warren St., are expected to open in a few years. Business owners like Perez and Walker, had to update their stores in order to keep up with new real estate projects.

When Sheridan, Perez and Walker took over the place, the pressed tin ceiling was covered with a lower ceiling painted black, and the solid wood bar was under seven coats of black paint and a Formica bar top. Even the windows were painted black. Walker, for whom the restaurant is named, described Vic’s as “ ‘50s renovated,” referring to the period when bars and lounges competed with the newly invented television to stay in business. “Bars would attract people with things like air-conditioning and colored televisions,” Walker said. Vic’s customers were the truck drivers that delivered produce to and from Washington Market a few blocks away, many of them lodged into the single-occupancy hotel in the building’s top four floors. Despite its worn-down appearance, Perez saw potential under the paint. “We could see parts of the wood floor under the linoleum,” he remembered. “All of the wood walls are original.”

Changing Vic’s from its dark past to Walker’s meant stripping off decades of redecoration. The three partners decided to use what was already there, Perez said. The tin ceiling was restored and painted dark green, and black paint was stripped away. They installed a new storefront, and stripped away linoleum flooring to reveal wooden boards that show their age when stepped on; they groan and shake slightly when pressure is applied.

The road to turn a trucker’s bar into the neighborhood bar and family restaurant it is now was long and “full of mistakes,” said Walker, although he wouldn’t say what they were. The business still sells alcoholic spirits, as the space has been licensed by the city to do since July 19, 1895, but the restaurant sells more than the beer and Stewart sandwiches — frozen sandwiches that can be reheated in special microwave-like ovens — that Vic’s sold. Walker’s sells 10 beers on tap as well as wines and cocktails, and serves hearty meals that regulars come back for. Peter Garst, 45, a catering chef for Bridgewater’s at South Street Seaport, walks 20 minutes from work to have a Guinness beer and the daily special for dinner at least once every other week. Others like Odiotti, goes to Walker’s up to four times a week, sometimes twice a day, to talk with buddies and drink a Michelob beer, but “mostly for the food.”

“This is a comfortable neighborhood place,” said Iris Lewis, the 42-year old manager of Walker’s. “The food is better than regular bar food. The burgers are great and the large variety of beer on tap pulls the crowd.”

Daniel Kim, 30, a Wall St. investment trader, drops by once a month after he gets out of work at 4:30, because Walker’s has his favorite beer — Sierra Nevada Pale Ale — on tap. He is part of the increasing afternoon crowd that Perez calls the effect of Sept. 11 on the neighborhood because “people didn’t want to party as much as they used to.”

Perez attributes the World Trade Center attacks and the economy to poor business for the restaurant industry, but he is optimistic about the future. “The regulars are coming back more often, 3 to 4 times a week instead of 2 to 3,” he said. “The neighborhood’s been very good to us,” said Walker. Lewis agrees. “The industry dropped around Sept. 11 but it is up again and the area is booming again,” she said. “Real estate is creating the boom.”

This wasn’t the case four decades ago when the city government’s concern for unemployment and commercial vacancy led to the area’s re-zoning. The decline of the city’s industrial base left the area somewhat deserted in the 1960s; Tribeca was zoned for light manufacturing and commercial warehousing. With the reconstruction of the area from cold storage warehouses for eggs, cheeses and butter to residential lofts, the city prevented further loss of jobs by making it illegal to convert ground floors and most second floors to living spaces. The large building across from Walker’s is an example: the 12-floor cold storage warehouse whose construction can be seen in tax photographs from the City Municipal Archives is now a luxury residential building with lofts and a catering hall on the ground floor.

The rise of these residential spaces has changed the area significantly to a neighborhood for families. Walker, who lived around the corner at 90 Hudson St. for 11 years, said Tribeca was “one of the few places in town where the space’s big enough to handle families.” People moved into the area and stayed; Odiotti, whose office was transferred to 60 Hudson St. more than 15 years ago, noted there is not a high resident turn-around. While these residents moved into lofts, the homeless and vagrants that roamed the area were chased out, according to Odiotti. “When this area became a valuable real estate area, the police cleaned up vagrancy,” he said, referring to the First Precinct, which is a block north of the restaurant. “The neighborhood used to be kind of deserted at night. You wouldn’t walk a block past the police station, but there is night life now. It’s safer.”

Families are part of Walker’s regulars, filling the two dining rooms every Friday night with parents and children. It is a long way from the dark trucker hang-out of Vic’s, and Walker and his two partners cannot be happier. “We wanted a place that people could come to four or five times a week, like an extension of their living room,” said Perez.

Looking around the restaurant he helped build, with the satisfaction that he knew the names of his regulars like Odiotti, still waiting for his friend and working on his fifth coffee, Walker sat back in his seat. “As the neighborhood changes, the businesses have to, too,” he said. “But right now, I can’t imagine this place as anything else.”

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