My LES: Michael Little

Michael_Little_Lost_WeekendNYC

For our regular feature spotlighting the people who live and work on the Lower East Side, we talked with Lost Weekend NYC owner and creative director Michael Little.

How long have you lived on the Lower East Side?

I have lived on Norfolk Street at Rivington since 2006.

Why did you move here?

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, then lived up and down the West Coast from Alaska to Oregon to Northern California. In 2003 I received a fellowship to graduate school at Syracuse University, so I packed everything I owned in the back of my Land Rover and drove east. After grad school I came to New York City to teach 8th grade in the South Bronx. My first six years in New York were spent between the LES and the South Bronx.

I wanted to live in the Lower East Side to be close to the Bowery Ballroom, Mercury Lounge and Pianos. I wanted to live near the venues and galleries I’d heard about as a kid north of Seattle. I remember the Rancid video for Timebomb which was filmed on the corner across from Streit’s and remember a younger version of myself thinking what a cool place to live! This would have been ’95. And I have spent the past ten years a block from that corner.

What do you do?

I am the owner/creative director of Lost Weekend NYC. I surf a 5’10” Mini Simmons. And I make coffee sometimes.

Tell us about your apartment – the good, the bad and the ugly.

I love my apartment. I found a rent stabilized 1 bdrm the summer of ’06 and have been here ever since. I’m on the fifth floor – it’s good for the calves. For the past ten years I’ve lived here with my German Shepherd. I got to know the streets and neighborhood through walks with her. First the bar owners and supers of the buildings on my block. Then guys that opened restaurants, the bouncers late-night at the speakeasys, the bodega owners. Very quickly I became aware of a very neighborhoody vibe on my block.

What’s your favorite spot on the LES?

I love the block of East Broadway between Essex and Grand — tree-lined, red brick, families. I run from Lost Weekend down to the East River Park and always hit this stretch. In a certain light it could be New York twenty years back; a New York in an era of fedoras, trench coats & Checker cabs.

Favorite cheap eats?

I am a creature of habit. Every day I get a kale salad from either El Rey or the Fat Radish. Breakfast is usually a Juice Press juice on the way into Lost Weekend.  Classic Coffee Shop has great peanut butter toast.

Favorite place for a special night?

When Mission Chinese was on Orchard I was there four nights a week, now that they’re even closer to Lost Weekend I go more. Other faves are Bario Chino, Forgtmenot and Fung Tu. Late nights lately I’ve been spending time at the Leadbelly. I’ve gotten to know the people behind these spots and I love getting to support their projects.

How have you seen the neighborhood change?

The neighborhood has changed substantially in the decade I’ve been here. I moved to the LES pre-Blue Building, pre-New Museum, pre-Wholefoods. Most of the building where I live was home for small families. Now it’s mostly renovated and young professionals – or whatever they do. When I first moved to the LES I didn’t have much of a reason to come south of Delancey (esp. on Orchard). When I opened Lost Weekend in 2011 the neighborhood was just beginning to transition. There was Classic Coffee and Brown, Fat Radish had recently opened. And then Lost Weekend.

I am a new business, and in the tradition of generations of small businesses in the Lower East Side –

… as I’m writing this Grace Koo who lives next to Lost Weekend comes into the shop to let me know someone has tipped over a motorcycle down the block belonging to a girl we both know…and can I help her put it back up…so off we go, dig the bike out of a snowbank, get it righted & move it away from the corner, Grace has me take a picture and we text it to the girl who’s bike it is…and we’re back…

The fabric of the LES since the 1700s has been built by a culture of people coming from other places to make a life in New York. Businesses opened and closed and employed and sold and bartered and opened and closed. I was part of a Tenement Museum presentation on the legacy of businesses in the LES and was humbled to see what I’m doing at Lost Weekend (surfboards, coffee), albeit original in content, is completely part of an historic tradition dating back to the first Irish, German, Italian and Chinese immigrants to the neighborhood. Which goes something like this: I live here, I want to make a living in my neighborhood and open a business.

It’s an honor to be a part of this longstanding trend and to have had the success I’ve had – at the same time I acknowledge the successes are bred into the fabric of this neighborhood in a tradition much bigger than me. Lower East Siders are enterprising. We now have a tie shop, something like 130 art galleries, skateboard shops and in the tradition of the bargain district of past times: a handmade leather-goods store. Much of the transition from a neighborhood based in bars and nightlife, which transitioned into garments and bargain clothing, has shifted to reflect other niche commodities more reflective of the emergent demographics.

And what’s to come in the next 5 years as the SPURA project takes place, these smaller, enterprising business are going to be representative of a new generation of heritage in the LES. When there are pedestrian malls and condos and ultra-modern skyscrapers photosynthetic lighting panels and passive solar heating facades – it is going to be the businesses like the ones now on Orchard and Ludlow – the small businesses – that are going to be responsible for retaining the identity of the Lower East Side.

What do you miss from the old LES?

Hard to say. As a business owner I know full well there is a push/pull dilemma in  neighborhoods and communities as they develop over time. I am bringing something to the LES, the LES is changing and new people are moving in and businesses are opening. However, in the wake of these new businesses residents people have been displaced, priced out. I am part of that. I moved here in 2006.

Someone lived in my apartment before me and someone before that dating back to the 1900s when whomever first moved into 106 Norfolk was part of a neighborhood in the midst of evolution. Lost Weekend’s customers are people who are relatively new residents to the LES, however recent their tenure, as important to me as their patronage is the rich cultural fabric that helped make the LES the vibrant destination which has attracted new inhabitants for hundreds of years.

So what do I do? I attempt to cultivate both. Lost Weekend offers free coffee to teachers in the neighborhood; during Sandy when the neighborhood lost power I brought a grill onto the street and grilled coffee for the neighborhood; other business owners and I began charging peoples’ cell phones in the blackout – and those of us still in the LES banded together to make ourselves available to the people around us; I collaborate with schools and local fundraisers in the LES; and I work with several local non-profits directly representative of resident interests in the neighborhood.

Ask people who have lived here long enough and they’ll tell you they miss the old LES. I have a photographer friend who reminds me this neighborhood is nothing like it was in the 80s. He has had a studio in the LES for three decades. He says he had to hide his camera gear in the sleeves of his jacket when he left the house after being mugged several times. Even when I first started coming down Orchard Street in 2006/7 it was dark, quiet. Storefronts were gated, graffitied and largely vacant.

Does this mean I want to see Walmart or Duane Reade on every corner? Likely not. But do I want to see the new generation of ‘legacy’ business owners – like Mike Forrest of Galli, Paul Sierros of Forgtmenot, Danny Bowien at Mission Chinese and myself – make it? Of course I want them to succeed. One hundred years from now history will look back at these new businesses in a spectrum of businesses who’ve helped shape the landscape of the Lower East Side. And 100 years from then it will be the businesses who come long after we’re gone who will be lamenting the ‘Old Days’ of the Lower East Side. And so it goes.

Is there a new arrival you love? Why?

Robert and Petra at Petee’s Pie Co. make amazing pies. They are from Virginia and their day looks something like this: they come in at 10am, brew coffee and start baking pies. When you walk in you are immediately bathed in the smells of butter and baked fruit reminiscent of countryside and State Fairs and tire-swings. I am there too often and have gotten to know Robert and within five minutes of talking with him I was ready to buy into the idea that what’s been lacking in my life is pie.

What drives you crazy about the neighborhood?

Not much drives me crazy about living and working here. I am a satisfied customer. I would like to see fewer cars and more bikes. A dog park maybe. Some more green space (but the people at the LES BID and the 1Million trees project are working on that).

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen on the LES?

Two days after Sandy, Jullian Plyter of Melt Bakery came walking down Orchard with a generator strong enough to power an entire block and asked me if I’d like it. I plugged it in, fired it up and in the midst of an entirely dark and desolate Orchard Street, I had a fully-lit coffee shop with lights and heat. Which isn’t the strangest thing.

When the sun went down I wheeled the generator down to Forgtmenot for Paul Sierros to use and I showed up – generator in tow – to a fully-lit, running restaurant he’d rigged to run entirely off the power from his van. Lights, music, kitchen, drinks. All from a lone cord running from a Nissan Quest idling in the street.

I’m not sure this is totally legal, but when people were holed-up in their apartments, huddling under blankets and eating canned goods by candle-light five days after we’d lost power, they had a place a called Forgtmenot with heat and warm food and good company.

Who’s the best neighborhood character you’ve met and why?

There’s a guy who comes into Lost Weekend every day who’s name is Caps. Though he thinks my name is Bill, so someone will have to fact-check this. Caps hasn’t bought anything at the shop to my knowledge in three years. Once I gave him some cash for a cell phone. When he comes in, Caps uses the bathroom and as he’s drying his hands will ask me how I’m doing. He says ‘God is good!’ That he’s ‘doing Him. 25/8.’

Once he told me he had a girl at home who was pregnant but was down in the LES to see his other girl…that God had blessed him with too many women. Usually he’s wearing several sweaters and a Jets jacket. Then he says he’ll be back tomorrow to drop some more DNA.

Tell us your best LES memory.

Sundays in the summer we’ve had this tradition of BBQ-ing at Lost Weekend. Usually someone will text me Sunday morning and ask if we’re cooking. Then people start coordinating and by 6pm the neighbors start coming through with hot dogs and hamburgers and Tecates – all coordinated with little effort on my part. Someone will bring wine. Someone else brings ice. Someone brings a football. And what would look like a family picnic anywhere else in the world takes place on Orchard Street until the sun goes down.

Then everyone pitches in and doing dishes and pushing in chairs. I get the sense this would happen totally without me being there. But these are the memories I value most: the people I’ve gotten to know through the business and living here have a place where they want to be on Sunday nights, people gather, talk about the waves, eat and commune.