The building is almost a hundred years old – a tower of stone called Gottscheer Hall that, in October, will celebrate its centenary in the neighborhood. The occasion will mark a feat of continued persistence in a neighborhood known and admired for its stubborn hold on tradition, which has become an immense part of Ridgewood’s appeal.
The hall’s quiet and unfussy mid-block bar, where gentle sunlight crawls into a wood-paneled cavern, feels largely unchanged for most of that last century. On an ordinary weekend afternoon last month, the room was filled with a hundred or so of its longtime regulars, who had pilgrimaged there in sharp suits evocative of the post-war era, to mark another anniversary. It’s the 88th year, and counting, for one of the seven or eight local ‘gottschee’-themed clubs that call the building home. Gottschee is the old name of a once-isolated town in central Europe that had sprung up some six hundred years ago, which is now primarily a memory shared by descendants who gather here, and elsewhere. “They moved to industrial cities, settling in Cleveland, Ohio, and Ridgewood, Queens,” writes Lynette Chiu in an exhaustive story on the group’s history in the neighborhood.
“It’s definitely gotten smaller,” Robert Hoefferle told me, gesturing at the old-timers and their extended family members gathered for the event. Hoefferle is a local lawyer who also runs one of the clubs, called the Gottscheer Vereinigung, a kind of pension group that formed during the Great Depressions and ,Hoefferle, admits, is now down to about 20 or so aging gottscheers. He moves at a melancholy pace around the room.hands jerk around as he talks, distracted.
“Back in the day, it was standing room only,” he says.
A woman in her early 20s can be seen going from table to table, like a politician. She is wearing a tiara and, around her, the words Miss Gottschee. Growing up in nearby Glendale, Jennifer Sedler tells me that since the age of six she’s been involved in various local singing and dance groups that reguarly gather in the hall. Currently, she sings weekly with a choir that also gathers in there, where they perform what she tells me are the “old gottscher songs,” which remain a primary way of maintaining the existence of gottscheerish, a German dialect that dates back to the isolated town.
Applying for the position of “Miss Gottschee” requires writing an essay and being selected by a three-member committee that is part of a different group, also headquartered in the building, called the Gottscheer Relief Association. Responsibilities include attending events like these, one of the numerous dances meant to fundraise for Hoefferle’s group, which purportedly funds the pensions of the group’s members. The reward is a picture placed prominently in the entrance of the hall, startling the bar’s newcomers, if unfamiliar with the century of carefully maintained history that the bar maintains.
Like the hall itself, both Hoefferle and Sedler’s groups were creations of the economic and social dislocation that followed the First World War. The fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire resulted in the creation of Yugoslavia, which claimed Gottschee, as the town was then surrounded by people who spoke Slovenian, not the precise German dialect that had developed there. During negotiations over the Treaty of Versailles, residents tried, but failed, to convince politicians like Woodrow Wilson to make the city an independent principality, like Monaco. “The Gottschee effort was fraught with larger political implications, despite the Gottscheers’ simple wish to continue existing as they had for centuries,” writes Chiu. The city-state of Gottschee was not to be, and the town has since been renamed Kočevje.
“It was isolated. It was kind of like an island, it didn’t evolve,” Hoefferle told me. With more pride, he tells me that gottscheerish is of great interest to linguists, its grammar and style a fossilization of a language as it existed in the deep past and which is kept alive in songs and in the small schools in the neighborhood that have long provided afterschool services in the language.
“It’s like a shaft into what German sounded like 600 years ago,” says Hoefferle.
At times, Ridgewood can sometimes feel like a shaft into what New York — or perhaps, urban life writ large — was like for at least the last century. “In fact, Ridgewood stands in for quite a bit of the ‘South Philly’ neighborhood,” writes a blogger for the website movie-locations.com, about Ridgewood’s appearance in the 2019 movie The Irishman, which takes place in 1950s Philadelphia. Before a survey from Time Out named Ridgewood “one of the coolest neighborhoods in the world,” historic preservation laws were passed that had the effect of keeping the height of buildings in the neighborhood to those of the last century’s brownstones. There is a yearning among newcomers and longtime residents alike for the neighborhood to stay as it once was.
Their relative success in preserving the neighborhood has become central to drawing more people and camera crews to the neighborhood. John Wilson, who makes a TV show for HBO called “How To With John Wilson,” which is largely filmed in Ridgewood, tells New York magazine that “at first, it was just price that kept me here, but everything is just the right height. The buildings aren’t too tall.”
Some years ago, when I was talking to Ben Howell about why he decided to build a widely-celebrated and mildly-resented restaurant called Rolo’s in Ridgewood, of all neighborhoods, he told me that the neighborhood “has this character that reminds me of where my parents grew up in South Brooklyn and Bay Ridge.”
“I fell in love with Ridgewood as soon as I came here,” says Toni Binanti, who’s interest in a popular corner of Ridgewood, a block away from the traffic of Myrtle Avenue, dates back to the early 1980s, when her uncle decided to move Rudy’s, his corner bakery in Astoria, to environs further south in Queens. His gesture of keeping the same name the bakery has had since 1934 gave the business a kind of continuity that Binanti embraces. She has become something of an open ambassador for the neighborhood’s charms.
“I consider Ridgewood to start from wherever I am and go on behind me,” she says, laughing.
Stories of gentrification tend to involve displacement; beloved cultural institutions forced to leave town. In his recent book Vanishing New York, the writer Jeremiah Moss memorializes, as totemic, the loss of a “perfectly preserved Italian-American pastry shop, unchanged on First Avenue since 1904” whose departure represents “what’s happening to New York.” But the corresponding transformation of Ridgewood — which comes by way of what Moss calls “the L train, that hipster express” — feels more like a slow, festering growth than the “virus” of hyper-gentrification that Moss posits as a source of the city’s ills.
Just a few blocks away stands the growing shadow of Myrtle Point, a 17-floor luxury apartment complex that has been under construction for much of the past decade. (“I’m an old-fashioned person, I like the structure to stay the same,” is what Binanti has to say, about that.) But it’s notable, perhaps, that Roland Belay, one of the people who runs Gottscheer Hall on behalf of the holding company of Gottschee businessmen who came together to buy the property in the 1920s, told a localnewspaper in 2014, that the bar had already been on the verge of shutting down before the waves of “hipsters” had arrived. Now, “it seems like the hipsters will keep this business alive,” he says. Gottscheer Hall is bringing in the kind of business that evades most small corner bars that fade into the collective memory of old New York.
Binanti echoes this general idea.
“The customers have changed, but everyone who walks in that door, just somehow falls in love with Rudy’s,” she says. Sitting a block away from the neighborhood’s major thoroughfare of Myrtle Avenue, business has always clocked in with the regular ding of the bell that rings with each entering customer. Binanti is quick to point to her new regulars for refreshing the bakery’s offerings. When they asked for gluten free pastries, Binanti took note. “The other day, red velvet became really big,” she reminisces. “Now Rudy’s does red velvet,” she says, her rasping voice animated by pride.
Like Binanti, family also brought Herbert Morscher to Ridgewood. His father had opened the butcher shop that carries his name in 1955, where it has been remarkable as one of the few to remain there.
“Just here in one block, there was (sic) five butcher shops,” Morscher tells me;. His voice booms, his fingers point vigorously around at the nearby intersection. Across the street is Porcelain — a listing in Michelin touts its “vegan lasagna layered with tofu” — it had been a butcher shop too. It’s a dying business, Morscher admits. But he laughs this off easily. At the sign of any problem, he’s given to exclaiming, “It’s not easy.”
Morscher can recall, with ease, the days of supplying the neighborhood’s knitting mills with turkeys for thanksgiving; the town had been “the knitting capital of the world,” he says. The mills vanished quickly in the early 2000s, but Morscher doesn’t resent the businesses that have taken their place.
“They patronize us and we patronize them,” he tells me. The flow of new business keeps him employed and earns his respect. On the menu of new restaurants in the neighborhood, the name of Morscher’s shop as a purveyor is often invoked as a token of authenticity. He shares the same problem they do: rising rents. His own rent has more than doubled over the past year, Morscher says Morscher refers to the neighborhood’s new “artisans” and says he likes them because “they like to patronize the small guy,” he says, adding, “they’re entrepreneurs like us.”
By the time Ridgewood was rediscovered by the artisans who had fled Bushwick and previously had fled Williamsburg, the knitting mills were old news and could be converted cheaply into artist studios. At Gottscheer Hall, people who moved into those studios have found authenticity. A retired insurance salesman, a regular for decades in a two-piece olive-green suit, has another explanation for the bar’s survival. “The hipsters like it because the beer is cheap,” he said.
This story was produced as part of the Small Business Reporting Fellowship, organized by the Center for Community Media and funded by the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.
Images taken by Andrew Karpan.
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Why does this article say that both Gottscheer and Morscher’s are on corners? They’re both mid-block. It’s obviously not important, but it’s a weird quirk of this article.
Not even with Bushwick have I seen such a coordinated effort to overhype a mild influx of hipsters into full blown gentrification… I’m curious to see how the future pans out. Will the 450 articles a week about Ridgewoods transition and the 15 cafes/art spots located across the Bushwick borders actually result in a material change.