There’s a reason I shouldn’t like the Smyth Hotel in Tribeca, and it’s this. When I lived in the next block – in The Loft From Heaven as we modestly referred to it – I used to buy my shoes in a store called Craig’s Shoes. It was a down-at-heel footwear store on the corner of Chambers and West Broadway, kinda scruffy, with peeling paint and a green vitrine facade that gave way to brown wood and worn carpets. It wasn’t Barneys, so Simon Doonan wasn’t required: the window just showed shoes – superior footwear in black or brown.
Customers requiring trainers were redirected to sportswear emporia because Craig’s only sold quality leather. Possibly with rubber soles. Tribeca used to be the “shoe area” of Manhattan, and loft-dwellers who’ve paid $4m or more for their converted industrial space have often found mysterious numbers painted on the bare brick walls, preserved under the heading “original features”. They’re actually shoe sizes from storage days long ago.
Pedro was one of those New Yoikers who instantly engaged customers in debate about the Yankees or yellow cab drivers with passion, a loud bar conversation just momentarily interrupted
Craig’s unprepossessing nature reflected the gentle demeanour of its eponymous owner, a quietly-spoken man whose loyal, long-term assistants included Pedro, a snaggletoothed Puerto Rican whose Brooklynese rasp could cut metal. Pedro was one of those New Yoikers who instantly engaged customers in debate about the Yankees or yellow cab drivers with passion, a loud bar conversation just momentarily interrupted. Even after I’d moved back to London, Pedro would still pick up the argument whenever I walked through the door of Craig’s, as if I’d just popped out for a fag (cue New York snigger) on the sidewalk rather than flown across the Atlantic.
I was fond of Craig’s Shoes. Then 9/11 happened.
In the immediate aftermath, I flew to New York to produce a series of TV programmes in the area, interviewing my old neighbours as they tried to describe the full horror of what had happened on their doorstep. Tracey Nieporent – a partner, with his brother Drew, in Robert de Niro’s restaurant business – described how he couldn’t clean his shoes: “That dust is partly human,” he explained. And I had the camera on Pedro as he recounted scarpering up West Broadway, “as fast as my liddle legs would carry me”, as the first tower came down, gargantuan clouds of dust chasing him like those tower blocks which bear down on the little guys in Czech cartoons, but which appeared to us all on our screens as a real, living nightmare.
It was bizarre enough to stand inside Craig’s with a camera crew, but as we packed up and were bidding farewell, preparing to head back out into the wreckage and chaos of Lower Manhattan, I heard Pedro ask Craig, “What about dem boots?”
“What boots?” I asked.
Craig mumbled something, didn’t want a fuss made, it was nothing. After some persuasion, he revealed that Craig’s – this tiny little corner shop – had supplied 700 pairs of boots to the rescue workers as a kind of service, a catalyst, in an otherwise sleepy – or broken – supply chain, ensuring that the hundreds of volunteers could scramble over the World Trade Center rubble as quickly as possible, just in case there might be survivors which, as we all now know, there weren’t.
Craig didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want caught in the glare of the limelight. He sold shoes for a living. No big deal.
So I kept buying my shoes at Craig’s, even though I lived in London. One time they even gave me a ten dollar discount (on two pairs) for putting them on TV. But only if I paid cash.
And then I turned up to find the door closed. That was no surprise as they’d always kept odd, old-fashioned hours: half-days on Saturdays, shutting up shop at 5pm and so on. There was no big banner declaring “ALL STOCK MUST GO!”, or even “Closing Down Sale”. Instead, on the glass door, there was a scrap of lined paper torn from a jotter on which somebody had scribbled in pencil.
“Thank you for fifty years of custom,” a spidery hand read. “We’re closing due to redevelopment. Thank you and goodbye, Craig.”
End of. Gone. No more Craig’s Shoes.
And so, just a few years later, standing on Craig’s grave, if you like, is this smart, shiny block, this glass and metal construct which is Smyth’s Hotel.
Tribeca isn’t overloaded with hotels (yet) so after I’d stayed at Robert de Niro’s Greenwich Hotel, revisited the old Tribeca Grand and mooched around another couple of places I ended up at Smyth’s, not quite knowing what to expect.
The concierge, a proper New Yoiker from Queens, had been long enough in Tribeca to remember Craig’s Shoes, and was in possession of a quite staggering wealth of knowledge
Scott at the desk welcomed me on what turned out to be the wrong day of arrival (long story) and profusely apologised that they couldn’t give me the room they’d set aside for me the following day. I said this was OK, mainly because it was actually me that was at fault. God knows what they’d set aside, because up in 610 the long glass floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows gave me a view of my old ’hood I hadn’t seen before and the bedroom was big enough to host its own sleepover party for a dozen or so close friends.
The concierge, a proper New Yoiker from Queens, had been long enough in Tribeca to remember Craig’s Shoes, and was in possession of a quite staggering wealth of knowledge about the immediate locale, its residents, the shops – including off the top of her head a currency exchange place within walking distance that opens on a Sunday.
She recommended the hotel restaurant, Plein Sud. “Have the steak tartare,” she said. “I can’t resist it.” Because it was Saturday night, because I hadn’t booked anywhere, and because I didn’t feel like standing in line at Odeon, my companion and I walked next door to Plein Sud, where we shared the tenderest calamari (not battered, but chopped, chillied and lightly sautéed) before I ate a peppery spicy, steak tartare which I really didn’t want to end, while my companion had four big meaty scallops which she declared wonderful – almost as wonderful as the side of mac n’ cheese she wolfed down.
Outside the door is Chambers Street subway station, from where the express train will whisk you to the Upper West Side and Central Park in 15 minutes, or downtown to Wall Street in five. Around the corner, Puffy’s Tavern (next door to the original Nobu) has always been the most welcoming bar in Lower Manhattan and the shops and gentrified knick-knack parlours of the “new” Tribeca continue to evolve and improve, filling and brightening the one-time storage lofts and industrial greyness that’s been très chic for more than a decade.
And just a short stroll away is Bubby’s – the legendary brunch joint of Bloody Marys in jam jars, pancake stacks and pies – where I’m going now to spend a lazy Sunday eating and talking and reading the Times supplements, just as I did when I lived here.
Farewell Craig’s Shoes. Progress happens. And sometimes it’s good.
Derek Guthrie flew to New York with American Airlines; aa.com
Smyth TriBeCa, 85 West Broadway, New York 10007 USA,
212-587 7000; thompsonhotels.com/hotels/nyc/smyth-tribeca
Derek Guthrie is a TV producer, travel editor and writer