Two Boots started as a fun, family style restaurant on the Lower East Side, back in the days when these kinds of places were rare. As a kid, I was friends with Leon, the son of owners Doris and Phil Hartman. The restaurant became a refuge, where I was able to stuff my face with delicious, spicy thin crust pizza. I remember spreading my crayons and coloring books over the glittering tables — those smooth surfaces housed artful collages full of old record sleeves and Mardi Gras beads.
This year, Two Boots celebrates its 25th birthday, with 25 events in and around the Lower East Side, a “thank you” to the neighborhood that helped make its early success possible.
Kicking off the festivities at the Avenue A shop last week was a packed unveiling of a new mosaic mural by artist Carlos Pinto, celebrating the great LES poet Bimbo Rivas. It was his 1974 paean to the Lower East Side that originated the term “Loisaida,” an enduring part of the local dialect.
Seeing this crowd, devouring free pizza pies as well as beer and wine, brought back memories of the block parties and local gatherings of my childhood. It was an eclectic mix of artists, fresh young faces, longtime locals and hungry homeless who wandered in off the street, drawn in by the revelers and tantalizing scents of bubbling cheese and tomato sauce.
Three generations of Bimbo’s family were there to recite his famous ode and community activist Chino Garcia regaled the party goers with his own memories of a Lower East Side he and CHARAS helped build up from ruins. Started in an abandoned building turned into community center, CHARAS was displaced by the City of New York. This was met by boos from the crowd and shouts of “Viva CHARAS!”
“Es mi barrio,” called one zealous photographer.
“Bimbo worked with and helped hundreds and hundreds of people. It’s a lot of hard work and sweat,” Garcia acknowledged, in a sweet speech that was both nostalgic and hopeful for the future. “Next, we’re working on another piece at the Theatre for the New City dedicated to the history of political theater in the Lower East Side.”
Bimbo’s children and grandchildren climbed atop Two Boots’ plush leather benches to lead everyone in a call and response rendition of “Losaida,” smiling hugely as they shouted the words “Losaida, I love you! I dig the way you talk. I dig the way you look. You live always in my mind.” The poem also reflected the changes seen in the neighborhood over the past two decades, alluding to drug riddled public parks, tenements fallen into shells of disrepair, young kids hanging out in the streets, desperate for love, but turning instead to violence. The warmth and love generated by this community was clear. Influential figures like Bimbo, Chino Garcia, muralist Chico as well as the home and support system Two Boots has provided were huge parts of that makeshift support system.
The evening escalated as the Stumbledown Brass Band began a rousing set, half rock n roll, half jazzy New Orleans inspired tunes. The small restaurant filled with soaring saxophone and banging drums. The band then led a parade down 3rd Street, singing and dancing our way to the Nuyorican Poets Café. As we moved through the streets, smiling passersby danced, sang and joined the procession, or snapped along as we passed. People leaned out their windows to catch a glimpse or snatch of song from the energized band. Indeed, this sassy, sensuous spirit, a sense of owning the sidewalks and rejoicing in neighborhood, is something I have not felt in the gentrified Lower East Side in a long time.