Bye-Bye Benny’s

FOOD & DRINK, NEWS, NYC

Benny’s Burritos is closing tomorrow at the age of 26.

My heart sank when I heard this news. For someone who’d only had a margarita here once, late at night with a few friends, my sadness may seem exaggerated. But only recently I’d passed the Avenue A and East 6th Street corner where Benny’s stands, thinking, “That was a great place – I should go back sometime.” The problem is, Benny’s isn’t so much a place you go to but a place you stumble upon. And I never stumbled there again.

I’d only been to Benny’s once but knew it had history. The East Village gem opened its doors to the late ‘80s downtown scene where artist-types roamed the streets looking for a post-club bite. With its bright-colored walls and 1960s artifacts, Benny’s was always a bit kitschy, but that was part of its appeal. As New York Magazine wrote in 1990, “Benny’s Burritos is a rare find: a scene with no attitude.”

burritos

Photo by circlealine

These days Chipotles pop up all over Manhattan, but just 25 years ago the burrito wasn’t a fast food go-to. In fact, its rise has been fairly recent. Burritos existed at chili parlors, the burrito joint’s predecessor, but were slender, manageable tubes of rice and meat rather than the monstrous creations we know today. Benny’s was a big-burrito pioneer back when “Mexicali food was as rare as an East Village stockbroker,” according to New York Magazine.

Owner Mark Merker told EV Grieve “the world has changed” since he first opened Benny’s in 1988. Business has been good, but costs keep rising and competition from franchises like Chipotle doesn’t help.

OK, it’s not quite true that Benny’s is closing – it’s downsizing. Benny’s is shuttering its restaurant space and keeping just the takeout counter. (Its sister restaurant, Harry’s Burritos on the Upper West Side, will also close.) But for me this may as well mean the end of Benny’s – it was all about atmosphere. With a proliferation of other food options in the East Village, from fancy fries to authentic tacos, I don’t envision stopping at the takeout counter for a just-OK burrito.

orderbennysburritos.com

orderbennysburritos.com

The Twitterverse agrees, one customer lamenting, “it was never about the burritos (average) but the great sidewalk scene.” Reading other reactions on Twitter, it’s clear the burrito joint played a role in many New Yorkers’ formative years:

Benny’s will always be the taste of being 19, broke and spending my last $20 on a margarita and burrito

Mass foreclosure on my early NYC memories continues. Ate many a meal at Benny’s in late ’80s/’90s

Heard last night that Benny’s Burritos on Ave A is closing. End of an era in NYC

This one hurts.

I can’t claim the same disappointment as customers who frequented Benny’s during “Rent” years. But I’m sad for what it represents – continued rent hikes forcing a generation of beloved restaurants to downsize or shut down completely. Casual gathering spots like Benny’s, where the people and not the food take center stage, make New York what it is.

Benny’s had character and building character takes time.

Screen shot 2014-11-28 at 5.37.10 PM

The reality is that the city changes and we want it all – the new and the old. It’s sort of a paradox, isn’t it? New Yorkers are totally obsessed with newness – clothes, food, music – but gripe when change occurs to our New York. We feel protective over our visions of the city and the places within them that feel like home. For many people that cheap Mexican spot on Avenue A was one of those places, so despite more than 20,000 other New York restaurants and countless other burrito joints, it’s impossible not to feel loss.

Bye-bye, Benny’s. Your margaritas were strong and your guac not particularly memorable. But you’ll live on in my idea of New York, the one I’ll hold dear when I’m older and reminiscing about the city “back then.” I’ll remember the tequila bliss and late night chatter, the contagious laughter of a few good friends sitting on worn vinyl bar stools. I’ll remember it was you, Benny’s, even though it could have been anywhere. 

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ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Enoch Wu

CAREER, JOURNALISM, NEWS, PHOTOGRAPHY, TECHNOLOGY

Photo courtesy of Enoch Wu

Enoch and I met two summers ago while I was interning as a reporter for The Toledo Blade. He is a photojournalist for the nearby Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune, and we ended up on the same assignment out on an airport runway in Millbury, Ohio. I noticed he was holding an iPad (back then they still seemed pretty scarce!) so while waiting for our interviews and photo opportunities we began discussing technology and the future of journalism.

Enoch is a talented photographer who is also technologically savvy. He says his interest in technology goes back to childhood, when he was exposed to computers at an early age and “always had a sense to tinker [with] things and break things.” When he used a computer, Enoch said, he would dig into the software to see what he could change or manipulate. As a child, he even mischievously figured out how to subscribe to PCWorld Magazine and have it charged to his parents’ credit card. Today, his morning ritual includes keeping up-to-date with the industry by checking various photography and technology sites.

In addition to his work for the Sentinel-Tribune, Enoch shoots event photography for Toledo.com. He is also a freelance wedding and portrait photographer. For Enoch, whose primary passion was music before college, photojournalism is more than the act of capturing a moment with a camera.

It’s about telling a story through an image.

“Henri Cartier-Besson, the father of photojournalism said it the best: ‘Photography is nothing — it’s life that interests me,’” Enoch said.

Here are the highlights from my Q & A session with Enoch, including some of his work from the Sentinel-Tribune. And make sure to check out more of his photography at enochwu.net!

Copyright © 2012 Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune. All rights reserved.

SF: We’ve all heard the common expression, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”  To what extent do you agree with that? What do you think a photo can portray that a written story cannot?

EW: I tend to think that in today’s world, with technology and mobile phones, a picture has become a commodity and there is not enough emphasis put into making a photo worth a thousand words. The process is so instantaneous that people don’t think about how and what they are photographing—a proper photo is worth a thousand words. 

It’s hard for me to say what a photo can portray that a written story cannot. Both photos and stories can evoke emotion and thought; both can open doors to new ideas and take people to new worlds. I’d say the main difference is that in reading, people must imagine a scene and a moment, whereas with a photo, that information is provided in a condensed visual form and does not require as much imagination.

SF: Who are some interesting people you’ve gotten to photograph or work with through your job?

EW: Oh, there are so many interesting people with interesting stories. Perhaps too many. [Recently] I photographed a smart 10-year-old, deemed the youngest developer with an app in the Apple App Store. It was exciting for me to see such a young “geek” doing something cool. It was also exciting to associate a little one with technical jargon and to see the wonderful support of his father, who is an intellectual property lawyer. What a perfect team.

Copyright © 2012 Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune. All rights reserved.

SF: Dream subject to photograph?

EW: I don’t “dream” to shoot anyone since I believe that it’s about my subjects, I care more to hear their story and to photograph them the best way to tell their story. My subjects are on level ground, whether it is a three-year-old or the president of the United States.

But now that I think of it, it would be interesting to photograph Paypal/SpaceX/Tesla founder Elon Musk, or Jonathan Ive, the lead designer at Apple. There are musicians, too—it would be interesting to shoot Andrea Bocelli, the blind Italian classical artist, or Regina Spektor, Fiona Apple, or Björk, for that matter.

Copyright © 2012 Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune. All rights reserved.

SF: Clearly, the newspaper industry is in a state of rapid change, and must transform drastically to survive. If you had the power to revolutionize the industry, offering different forms of digital content, what would you do? 

EW: I would use my entrepreneurship knowledge to find a way to raise the bar for journalism once again, to bring long-form journalism back and to draw people to enjoy reading again. Some of us still love reading, but I have a sense that it can be made enjoyable for those who may not necessarily enjoy it at the moment, and for those who are glued to the television.

In my work, quality is key, and I stand firm in the matter that my work should speak for itself. Therefore, I would expect the same had I the power to “revolutionize” the industry.

Copyright © 2012 Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune. All rights reserved.

It’s more complicated than just digital content and pay walls. We need to reevaluate newspaper business models and practices that rely on a world when print journalism was at its peak. We need to bring the right people in—visionaries who are concerned about the future of editors, journalists, photojournalists and other newspaper staff rather than people [only] concerned primarily about monetary gains, finding Band-Aids to put off bankruptcy. We need to include people who look at the web seriously in all aspects: security, intellectual property, design and digital content, of course.

Solutions must be concrete, not half-baked ideas that fail. This is no time for failure as the jobs of so many great newspaper staffers are at risk. The medium of written journalism and the importance of reading are at stake, too. Written journalism is an imperative part of our future—our democracy and its success depend on it.

SF. What are your goals for the future?

EW: Right now I’m taking life as it goes—taking advantage of my full-time position at the paper and freelance jobs in Northwest Ohio, with the goal of building my ideal collection of gear and continuing to meet new people and create connections.

One of my personal goals is to return to music with a greater passion towards it. My standing long-term goal, lets say a period of five years, is to utilize my entrepreneurial sense to develop something that will secure my future as a photojournalist as well as the future of many other newspaper staffers. I’ve always wanted to run my own design firm too, but that is a tabled goal until the ones above come to fruition.

SF: Interesting fact about yourself?

EW: I secretly aspire to be Steve Jobs, to change the world…and photography is a cover.

*This interview was condensed and edited.

Header photo: Copyright © 2012 Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune. All rights reserved.

Election Eve in NYC

NEWS, NYC, PHOTOGRAPHY

It’s Nov. 5 and New York City is glowing red, white and blue. On this chilly Election Eve, the city buzzes with excitement as people anticipate tomorrow’s close race between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney. It’s uplifting to see so much color, light and energy in the city again after Hurricane Sandy took such a toll on New York residents and others from the area.Below are some shots taken tonight in Times Square and Rockefeller Plaza.

ND students’ thoughts on Facebook Timeline

NEWS, NOTRE DAME, OPINION

“Tell your life story with a new kind of profile.”

This is Facebook’s advertising slogan for the new Facebook Timeline, a different profile format that offers users the opportunity to sort and highlight life events chronologically.

Students at Notre Dame — many of whom have been Facebook users since the site’s inception in 2004 — have mixed feelings about the new profile.

Sophomore Marisa Iati recently switched over to Timeline. She said that while she likes the appearance of her profile, the new format also “feels invasive.”

“It bothers me that anyone can see things I posted in 2008 just by clicking one or two buttons,” Iati said. “I don’t like how easy it is to dig into someone’s past…It has actually made me consider deleting my Facebook page altogether.”

Sophomore Adam Lllorens agreed Facebook Timeline forces users to be more transparent about their pasts. Embarrassing or regrettable moments are no longer covered up by layers upon layers of wall posts — they are now accessible with the click of a button.

“I don’t like that it is in fact better organized,” Llorens said. “The organization is a blessing and a curse. Some Facebook friends of mine whom I may have not talked to in months can look at everything I have ever done.”

But Iati said Timeline has definite upsides, especially in its visual appearance.

“I really liked the large cover photo at the top, and I thought Timeline’s layout was more attractive than the old layout,” Iati said. “It’s more eye-catching and clean-looking.”

Senior Elissa Cmunt said she also likes the banner photograph at the top of the page.

“I think it’s neat and gives you yet another way to show a part of yourself.”

Senior Grace Concelman, who still has the old profile, said Timeline is much too public. She said she is toning down her Facebook usage.

“I got annoyed with all of the changes, especially the changes to privacy settings and email notifications that adjust with each new version but require me to manually change them back to the level of privacy and notification that I had before the new versions came out,” Concelman said. “I also decided that I just don’t need to spend my time looking at pictures and statuses that I’m perfectly happy not to see.”

Cmunt said she thinks Timeline is just one of Facebook’s many changes, and that most students have overreacted to it.

“I don’t have the Timeline yet and I don’t plan on getting it…It will be eclipsed by some other change in a few months,” Cmunt said. “I don’t think it is all that different than the current Facebook home page, which is basically organized by date anyway.”

While Timeline makes it easier for others to look into her past, Iati said, it has also caused her to be more aware of the digital footprint she leaves on Facebook.

“It has made me more conscious of what I post because I know that people will be able to easily see it years from now,” she said.

Facebook breaks wall between digital, real life

NEWS, NOTRE DAME, PUBLISHED WORK, TECHNOLOGY

Published in The Observer

Take a photo. Photoshop. Upload to Facebook.

The steps sound simple, but Notre Dame professors said more thought goes into the process than most people realize.

Jessica Collett, assistant professor of sociology, said we are much more “intentional” in our online interactions with others.

“It’s not that we want to put up an image of ourselves that is untrue or inaccurate,” Collett said. “[But people] are going to look for clues about who you are. Because we only have that split second, that first impression … we’re going to choose pieces of information to put up there that we think reflect who we really are.”

As a result, the effects of Facebook can extend far beyond online profiles and into people’s lives and relationships.

She said others will often treat us according to the image of ourselves we present on Facebook. In turn, we act according to how we are treated.

“If we have a preconceived notion about somebody, then we’ll interpret any kind of information in ways that support that [notion],” she said.

Collett said Facebook also prompts us to define and categorize ourselves based on our interests.

“Facebook is really about us putting forth our identities,” she said. “That when we say that we like a particular [TV] show, we’re not just trying to say that ‘This is what I watch,’ we’re saying something about … the kind of person we are.”

Susan Blum, a professor of anthropology who has studied the effects of new media on the “self” for the past decade, said Facebook can function to prove or validate occurrences in our lives.

“People are very aware of the way they’re being seen,” she said. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, wait until I post this on Facebook.’ So as they’re acting, they’re simultaneously conscious of the fact that their real-life action will become almost ‘realer’ when it’s posted.”

Dangers to identity

Blum said one of the potential downsides to using Facebook, or any similar social media site, is that it causes people to perform an exaggerated identity that may or may not be real.

“I think there’s plenty of motivation to do that in our lives anyway, and so Facebook increases that tendency,” she said.

Collett said these exaggerations of identity can trigger anxiety as relationships transition from the digital world to the real world.

“Sometimes you can believe that what you’re presenting isn’t accurate … maybe you choose your most flattering picture, and then you meet people who maybe you haven’t even met in person yet, and then there’s just this stress [of] living up to expectations,” she said.

Facebook use also becomes risky, Collett said, when digital identities are too calculated.

“I think it can be dangerous … if people get too caught up in the way that they’re presenting themselves, and don’t have a space where they feel like they can be their authentic selves,” she said.

Blum said she questions whether online interaction makes face-to-face interaction even more “scary” than it already is.

“Facebook, you can control because you do it at your own pace. You can almost post something, and change your mind,” she said. “In speaking, there’s all this sort of uncontrollable stuff that happens, which is why human speech is so powerful.”

But Blum said interactions on social networking sites can actually augment real life interactions.

“There’s been what sociologists call ‘moral panic’ about social media, [concern about] the fact that people are more comfortable interacting digitally than they are face to face,” she said. “But there was a recent study from the Pew [Research] Center [that shows] the more active people are in social media, the more real life interactions they have as well.”

Public sphere

Anita Kelly, a professor of psychology who has researched the effects of public versus private self-representation, said what we choose to say publicly has a much greater impact on our identity than what we say privately.

She said the public nature of Facebook is what makes it so influential.

“To the extent that Facebook is more public, it has great potential to help or harm that identity,” she said. “Once you think others have this view of yourself, you feel you have to behave in a way that [confirms] those views.”

Collett said that on Facebook, we must live up to a multitude of identities because different “types” of friends see us in different ways.

“You have this clash of worlds … and it can incite drama,” Collett said. “So, it’s not just your Notre Dame friends, but it’s your high school friends … and it’s your friends from back home and it’s your grandmother and your aunt.”

The question is, who will see that wall post or status update?

Blum said college students usually think of their intended audience as their peers despite having a wide range of Facebook friends.

“You’re creating a persona, as we do all the time in our real life, but you have time to create it and you’re aware of all the eyes that will be seeing it,” Blum said. “Although if you have 1,000 friends, that’s a lot of eyes.”

Kelly said people should be more aware of just how much Facebook profiles impact the way others view us.

“People should be more careful,” Kelly said. “There’s a mentality of ‘it doesn’t matter what people think,’ but no one [really] believes that,” she said.

She said negative images posted on Facebook can be forgotten, but not if they are vivid.

“People remember things that are prototypes of a broader category, [for example] dancing on a tabletop without clothes, that fits the prototype of wildness,” she said. “It’s hard to undo that.”

Past, present and future 

Blum said the extent of the cyber footprint we leave on Facebook is striking.

“There’s a sort of a digital self that’s out there, and even though Facebook only started seven or eight years ago, it’s going to predate itself [for example] by finding our baby pictures that people have posted, so pretty soon our whole life and biography will be digitally mapped,” she said.

She said psychologists and sociologists have conducted extensive research on the way Facebook affects identity, but the enormous amount of data Facebook houses is used in other settings as well.

“It’s an interesting idea that there is all this data out there … which is somewhat terrifying,” Blum said. “And Facebook, like Google, can analyze it and organize it with no volition on our part, no intention on our part.”

Collett said the new Facebook Timeline profile, which offers users the opportunity to sort and highlight life events chronologically, also makes it easier for users to look back on the past.

And sometimes, looking back on the past lies outside our comfort zones.

“We like to be selective about what it is that we remember, in the same way that we like to be selective about what it is we put forth [on Facebook],” Collett said. “I do think the Timeline is about people suddenly feeling, ‘Oh my goodness, am I defined by this page?'”

But regardless of how Facebook is formatted, Collett said the site still reflects our identity in much the same way.

“[People] are reacting against the fact that [Timeline] feels like it’s defining your life for you, but ultimately actually that’s what we’ve been doing for a long time,” she said. “I would argue that for a long time Facebook has been representing who we are, as far as our identities go.”

Farewell, Toledo.

LIFE, NEWS

On May 25 I arrived in Toledo,  Ohio, a city where I knew no one and didn’t remotely know my way around.  On August 12 I left, knowing the city more intimately than I could have imagined, but not coming close to feeling like it was “home.”

From the rooftop of my apartment building in Toledo. Photo courtesy of Enoch Wu.

When I first arrived in Toledo I had a difficult time getting a sense for the city. I saw oversized banks, tall buildings, and wide streets. I saw litter rolling through the roads and candy wrappers melting into the tar. I saw crooked “For Sale” signs hanging in dusty windows.

I did not see people.

I soon realized that downtown Toledo is a divided area. People who arrive in suits at 9 a.m. are privileged. People hanging out at the bus stops, on benches or in front of the library are not. The downtown empties out after 6 p.m. — the suits file into their cars, turn down the road and go off to their respective suburbs. In an hour, the banks are just looming, vacant towers, too big and strong for the city. The parking lots are open spaces filled with broken glass — like no one was ever there.

Parking lot between The Blade and my apartment building.

Since my apartment was downtown, I straddled the boundary between those who work in Toledo and those who actually live there. Sometimes after working a late shift I’d walk the two blocks home, past people with ripped backpacks sitting indefinitely on bus stop benches. I walked briskly but couldn’t escape the stares — my pencil skirt and heels gave me away from the moment I stepped onto the sidewalk. It was pretty clear what “side” I was on.

Here are some things I didn’t expect from Toledo:

Safety issuesBefore coming to Toledo I knew it wasn’t the safest of places. My mom had done her fair share of research and her fair share of worrying. But I knew I wasn’t as naive as she thought — as long as I was careful everything would be fine.

While everything was fine, and I lived in the nicer area of downtown, I didn’t expect to have to be on guard every time I was walking alone after dusk or early in the morning. I’ve lived in places with crime before, but I usually felt safe as long as there were people around. The lack of people in Toledo was pretty unsettling.

A major street in downtown Toledo at 8 p.m. No cars in sight.

For some time my roommate would go on runs outside our apartment — in broad daylight during the work day — until a complete stranger approached her in the apartment elevator and told her to stop. It was too dangerous. We were pretty shocked the woman had gone out of her way to say that. After that we rarely walked anywhere within a few blocks of our apartment, and definitely did not walk around at night.

No grocery stores. I lived in the downtown, the center of the city, and there was not a single grocery store within walking distance. The closest things were little shops that sell candy, soda, bread, and canned goods.  These mini marts don’t have meat, produce, eggs, or milk, are only open during weekdays, and have kind of irregular hours.

“Real” grocery stores (Walmart, Meijer, Kroger, and Target) are all a fifteen minute drive away.

The mini mart across the street from my apartment.

While living in Toledo I saw firsthand the irony of  “food deserts,” or areas lacking healthy, affordable food. Northwest Ohio is one of the agricultural centers of the country, yet some Toledoans living just miles from the farms had no access to fresh food, surviving off high calorie, processed foods and 95 cent Burger King burgers. At 29.6%, Ohio has the 13th highest obesity rate in the country, according to an annual report put out by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Food deserts like Toledo’s certainly don’t help that situation.

Boredom. My definition of “bored” is not being busy. I don’t think I understood what true boredom was until I had to drive through poorer parts of Toledo, where I saw that boredom wasn’t a state of mind but a state of being. People live for each day because there isn’t a future . The swimming pools in Toledo were closed a few years ago to prevent gang violence, but now young people have nowhere to go in the thick of the summer. Instead they drink outside mini marts and walk leisurely right in front of cars. They sit on their front porches in silence, shirtless and shoeless, watching the sky change from blue to gray to black.

Taken while on assignment at an arson fire in Toledo. Arson flared up in East Toledo this summer but also has spread to other neighborhoods.

In the newsroom, the scanner day after day called out shootings, robberies, and arson fires. The cops reporter was constantly running in and out of the office. There were 27 shootings during the month of June alone.

It’s been a hot summer. There are no jobs. Sweat and boredom are a deadly mix.

So much news. Toledo may feel like a small city but there was always something going on. Working for the City Desk I covered a range of stories, including robberies and shootings, a poetry festival, car show, gay pride march, controversial city investments and school board meetings. My job took me through bad areas, nice areas, to beautiful islands, the shores of Lake Erie, and sleepy towns I’d never heard of. I drove through miles and miles of  flat land and cornfields. I got lost, but my GPS always took me back.

I may have been out of my comfort zone, but that only made me a better reporter. I was homesick but would never trade the experience.

Sunset from the rooftop of my apartment building.

On May 25 I arrived. On August 12 I left. Lots of articles, interviews, coffee, crime, heat, hamburger joints, farmland, and a pretty cool newspaper experience in between.

Thanks to all the wonderful people I met along the way — you’ve given me a lot to write about.

You can check out my Toledo Blade story archive here.

When it rains it hails … in August??

NEWS

Video taken where my Grandpa lives in New Hyde Park, Long Island. He’s lived there for almost fifty years, and in the NYC area his entire life, and has never seen anything like this before…

Hail the size of golf balls hit parts of Long Island and Queens Monday, denting cars, shattering windshields, and pummeling the roofs of homes. The Long Island Railroad experienced severe delays due to a lightning strike, but no one was injured.

Residents were largely at a loss for words to describe the storm. “Shocking,” “wild,” and “incredible,” seemed most adequate.

Not a beach day, to say the least.