In recent years, locals in Greenpoint, Brooklyn have called the store at 723 Manhattan Ave. the Disco Ball Rite Aid. Before that, the building housed a skating rink. But for Rosie Cavaciuti, who grew up in the neighborhood, it will always be the Meserole.
Soon, the 100-year-old former theater may be nothing but rubble. It is slated for demolition to make way for a five-story residential complex. That work has currently been halted by a partial stop work order for permit violations, according to the New York City Department of Buildings.
“It breaks my heart,” said Cavaciuti, 51. “I have tears in my eyes right now because besides the memories, the architectural work should be a landmark.”
Designed in 1921 by architect Eugene De Rosa, the building reminds Cavaciuti of her childhood. At 11, she would leave the now-closed St. Cecilia’s school and run 15 blocks to see her grandmother, who worked behind the candy counter.
Her aunts also worked at the theater, as ushers with flashlights hooked to their skirts, telling moviegoers to take their feet off the seats and put out their cigarettes. She can still picture the crushed red velvet curtains and smell the buttery popcorn she never had to pay for.
When the theater closed in 1978, the seats were removed and a giant disco ball was installed to create a roller rink, but everything else remained the same, said Cavaciuti. “You still saw the movie theater.”
As a teenager, she went to the rink every Wednesday at 3 p.m. with her skates, adorned with pompoms and bells. Her visits stopped in In 1986, when she left Greenpoint for Westchester where she lived for the next 20 years. The roller disco was then replaced by a string of stores and pharmacies, most recently the Rite Aid. Last October, the demolition was announced after Double U Real Estate purchased the lot.
The Meserole, built in the heyday of the vaudeville era, lies outside Greenpoint’s 43-acre historic district. But for people who grew up in the area, losing the theater would mean losing more of the neighborhood’s Polish, working-class history.
Geoffrey Cobb, a local historian, said the theater demolition is “part of a bigger process where people feel that they’ve lost control of their neighborhood.”
Over the last 20 years, he’s watched high-rise complexes replace historic low-rise buildings and transients replace long-term residents, he said.
“We had a feeling, especially here in Greenpoint, of living in a small town just across the river from the greatest city in the world. That small-town feeling is rapidly being destroyed,” said Cobb.
Cavaciuti, who now lives in Florida, heard about the redevelopment plans from friends still in the neighborhood. On Facebook, she joined The Meserole Theater Project, a group of current and former Greenpoint residents fighting to keep a sense of history alive in the neighborhood.
John Altyn, a Greenpoint native of 33 years who now lives in Queens, launched the project in February. It now has more than 900 members.
Altyn, who has worked in film production, envisions saving the Meserole the way Disney did with the historic El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles. He said he hopes to make it a cultural center, in addition to a theater, for residents new and old.
“I thought maybe this would bring those two generations and sides of life together,” he said.
“It just has so much potential. To tear it down to put up another apartment building, it won’t enhance the neighborhood.”
The Meserole demolition reminds Altyn of when other historic buildings were torn down, like the original Penn Station in 1966 or Greenpoint Carnegie Library in 1970. “We’re going to tear down the Meserole, and 10 years from now say we should have tried to save it,” he said.
Altyn’s restoration ideas rely on unresolved factors, including securing investors. He said he’s seeking pro bono legal representation before approaching preservation groups or the developers.
Altyn has been reaching out to local politicians, and he recently posted a letter of support from City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer (District 26), who leads the Council’s Cultural Affairs committee. “I support local community advocates’ calls to preserve the building’s architectural and cultural character,” Van Bramer wrote. Van Bramer’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Altyn also reached out to Council Member Stephen Levin (District 33), who sits on the Land Use Committee that oversees the landmark review process. Ben Solotaire, community liaison for Levin, said he has spoken with Altyn on behalf of the council member. He said “the path is closed” to saving the building through the Landmarks Preservation Commision as a demolition permit has already been issued, so saving the theater depends on public pressure on the developer.
For now, members of the Facebook group express cautious optimism for the building’s future and continue to reminisce about the past. Cavaciuti posted a picture of her grandmother at the theater, while others shared posters from old movies that played at the Meserole, calling each other “kochanie,” a Polish term of endearment, in the posts. In working to save a piece of their old neighborhood, members have rediscovered their community online.
If Greenpoint could go back to how it was when Cavaciuti was a little girl, she said she’d move back tomorrow. “You don’t find so many hometowns like Greenpoint. They just don’t have them anymore.”
This story is the work of a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Other news organizations are welcome to publish this story as long as they adhere to these guidelines.