By Hannah Reale
“It used to be a community. Now it’s just a neighborhood…. It’s not about the politics, it’s about the people, the residents, the families that get affected from the landlords doing what they’re doing.”
Last week, Upper West Side community members gathered in front of Caesar’s Palace Pizza, which just closed after 36 years due to a rent hike. The event, organized by City Council candidate Mel Wymore, was formed to rally around Caesar’s owner Dimitri Vezyrakis, who’s known as Jimmy by his customers. Raymond Vasquez, Jimmy’s longtime friend, ended the press conference with that line, and the same sentiment dominated the event.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, City Council candidate Mel Wymore, and City Council candidate Cary Goodman stood with Jimmy and his son, Michael.
“Thank you very much to the community, to my customers, and I’ve seen children have children have children,” Jimmy said. “I’m heartbroken the way it happened…. The contract was outrageous and it wasn’t fair the way they treated me. They just gave me two weeks to make the decision, which was impossible. Again, I want to say to everybody, I love you for the support, for being with me, and with the help of my customers, I lived the beautiful, great American dream. I have three beautiful children…”
At this point, Jimmy got too choked up to speak, so his youngest son, Michael stepped in. “He’s made a great life for all three children. He was able to pay for college, he was able to have a beautiful home, a beautiful life…. He grew up with nothing. He came here from Greece when he was 14 years old and he built something at 21 years of age. He was able to turn that into a 36-year establishment that was loved by so many children who are here today. Like Evelyn”—he gestured towards one of the women in the crowd—“she was here since she was 7 years old with her family…. This neighborhood is beginning to lose its character, and it’s going to lose the soul that it has, and pretty soon it’s going to be unrecognizable. So please try to vote for someone who can help you and change these laws, so landlords and management companies can help us out. And thankfully we had someone reach out to us. His name is Mel Wymore. He’s here to support us. He was the first one that came to us and I just want to say thank you for coming, and thank you for organizing this.”
“This is not a political movement,” Jimmy added. “All together, we have to come together… and do the right thing…. Help the small people to stay in business because this is what America’s all about. We started from nothing and we made something…. This is the place where I met my wife, Maria. She was my customer. I wanted to say that.”
Jimmy and his son, Michael, standing by the door of the now-empty storefront. Photo by Adam Mueller-Martin.
Many members of the community stepped up to share their stories about Caesar’s and their personal experiences with Jimmy over the years. Evelyn and her 16-year-old daughter Kayla Rodriguez both spoke to the crowd. “Jimmy’s like another father to me,” Kayla said.
Another woman from the neighborhood, Cynthia, said that, when she was 8 months pregnant, she came to Caesar’s in a storm because she had a craving for pizza and, after seeing how heavily pregnant she was, Jimmy drove her home in his truck with her pizza. “You tell me where you’re going to find a Starbucks, or any other pizza store around here that’s gonna do that for you.”
“I’ve lived in this neighborhood 43 years,” Goodman added. “I had one of the first slices coming out of this oven…. There are a lot of people who used to work here. Delivery people, pizza makers. 60 people.”—“60 families,” Jimmy interjected—“And we need to think about them, too, because Jimmy has done a fabulous job of bringing this neighborhood together…. It’s a lot more than just about Jimmy, it’s about the people who work for Jimmy, it’s about the people who were his customers, and we do need to come together.”
“This is a gentleman who is the definition of what it means to be a neighborhood institution, in terms of a Mom-and-Pop, owner-operated store,” Brewer said of Jimmy. “I do think that two weeks’ notice is beyond outrageous. It’s almost a crime…. It’s very hard to regulate the rents by law, but it isn’t hard to regulate how much time they have in order to discuss the rent.”
While the event was mainly about supporting Caesar’s there was also a clear political undertone. Wymore began to criticize the City Council’s inaction with regard to the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which Rosenthal supports, although no progress has been made since it was officially proposed in 2014. (The act is designed to protect commercial tenants from their landlords, preventing rent gouging and “exorbitant lease demands,” according to Take Back NYC.)
Rosenthal said to the crowd, clearly in reference to Wymore’s remarks, “Don’t let anyone fool you that something simple can be done.” Rosenthal and Wymore have publicly fought in the past, as we most recently reported on at a rally against the new development at 200 Amsterdam. When one woman from the crowd attempted to continue escalating the situation by yelling at City Council Member Rosenthal about her work for the neighborhood, a chant of “Jimmy! Jimmy! Jimmy!” rose up to drown everyone else out, and the crowd refocused on the issue at hand.
Daniel Gleick, Wymore’s campaign spokesperson, later emailed Wymore’s subscribers, “Helen Rosenthal has hardly mentioned this issue for four years. Upper West Siders recognize that showing up just before an election is too little, too late. If Helen plans to keep following Mel’s lead on community issues, they should trade jobs.”
Rosenthal released the following statement in response:
“Supporting our vital small business community has been a top priority for me since taking office. I was one of the first New York City Council members to take advantage of the ‘Chamber on the Go Initiative’ started by the City Council, which conducts aggressive outreach to small businesses. My team and I carry out regular neighborhood walk-thru’s with NYC Small Business Services and the Department of Consumer Affairs to speak with individual store owners about their concerns. In response to what we’ve learned during these walk-thru’s, my office launched a series of clinics for small businesses, offering pro bono attorneys available to work with business owners on real estate, regulatory, and other issues. I am a lead sponsor of legislation which would provide financial relief to thousands of small businesses by excluding them from having to pay the Commercial Rent Tax. I am also a co-sponsor of the Small Business Survival Act, which would give commercial lease holders an affirmative right to renew their leases. That means it would establish an arbitration process for setting the rent of a renewal lease. I and my colleagues have spent the last three and a half years tackling the plight of small businesses on multiple fronts — the loss of our local establishments is a long-term crisis in New York City, and clearly one of the toughest challenges facing the City Council.”
When asked about what can be done to protect small businesses, Wymore said, “Vacancy fines. Many cities do it. If you keep your storefront vacant for a designated number of years, you get fines…. It incentivizes landlords to rent their space, to drop the price…. [The] red tape that businesses have to go through is enormous. Just to be certified, to get inspections, especially food-oriented businesses. We can streamline that red tape significantly. [Finally,] the Small Business Administration and the Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise. Those two organization are just completely dysfunctional, and they should be reorganized—with small business advisors, and not real estate landlords—to really support small businesses.”
“Outside of legislative issues, we could also start a merchants’ organization,” Wymore added, “because small businesses don’t really have the time to spend [on these things], so you really do need outside support.”
“What would really be great is if we can get the word out to small business owners to come to our office and come to small business services to get immediate cash loans, which they can get, to get lawyers to help them negotiate their leases,” Rosenthal said at the event when asked what action Upper West Siders could take to prevent these types of closings around the neighborhood. “We’re always looking for people to come to those small business clinics so they can get the help they need. But the truth of the matter is that, in this situation, the business owner did the best he could and, in this situation, the building owner said, ‘No, I’m doubling the rent, and that’s it….’”
We attempted to contact the landlord for a response and to confirm the facts but did not hear back.