Jen Rubin and her father, Alan, in front of Radio Clinic on Broadway and 98th Street. Photo courtesy Jen Rubin
BY MICHAEL GAROFALO
For 80 years, Radio Clinic was a fixture at the corner of 98th Street and Broadway. Generations of Upper West Siders knew the store, and its sister location on 83rd Street, as a trusted local merchant for air conditioners, televisions, stereos and all manner of electronic appliances.
Jen Rubin’s new book explores decades of neighborhood and family history through the lens of the humble storefront. Rubin’s immigrant grandfather founded Radio Clinic (also known as RCI Appliances) in 1934 in the midst of the Depression; her father, Alan Rubin, guided the store through the looting of the July 1977 blackout and its aftermath. The book draws its title from the defiant message Alan Rubin posted in the window the day after the blackout: “We Are Staying”.How did the blackout and its aftermath affect your dad?
Part of why my dad stayed in 1977 had to do with his own personality and his loyalty to his dad. At that moment when he’s watching all the glass breaking and decides he’s going to stay, I don’t think he was thinking he would stay because he was going to help this neighborhood. It was more visceral and more personal than that.
But I think what did happen that had an enormous impact on him going forward was when people in the neighborhood were coming in crying and hugging him and saying, “If you’re staying, we’re staying.” There was this moment where he realized the impact Radio Clinic had on the neighborhood. He realized, this is my community and I want to do what I can to help it, and then he got involved in Symphony Space and in the fight for commercial rent control. I think everybody coming in and giving him that kind of feedback really had a huge impact on him.What are your memories of the Upper West Side as a kid in the late 1970s?
I grew up right outside the city, but I spent most of my Saturdays and a lot of my summer days in the neighborhood. There was a store on 98th Street and a store on 83rd Street, so I spent a lot of time walking up and down Broadway, because there were always things that needed to be delivered between stores and it was always cheaper to send the kid who wasn’t really doing anything important around the store anyway.
At that point in time, there were a lot of people who had been deinstitutionalized who were living in the SROs. There were a lot of people who would be pushing their shopping carts, and to me, it was all so much more interesting than the suburbs where I grew up. But I didn’t have a whole lot of context word at the time for what was happening or why it was happening.How did you approach the research for the book?
I think of it as sort of like an archaeological dig. When my grandfather first started it, you could tell from whatever sort of stuff he found there that before it was Radio Clinic it had been an ice cream shop. So I feel like you can peel away the layers of any of those gorgeous buildings that line Broadway and learn the whole story of the city.The story of Radio Clinic has a number of interesting resonances with the present day, from battles over commercial rent control that your dad was involved in and that continue to this day to the fact that the former Radio Clinic storefront is still vacant today, like so many others along Broadway. Did you find that there was a quality of “the more things change, the more they stay the same” to the story as you wrote it?
It seems as if all this hyper-gentrification is new — and it is on steroids now — but the thing that was interesting to me was reading article after article from the 1980s. On the Upper West Side, that was really when the turn away from small businesses began to happen and all of the mom and pops started going under. And that’s when [former City Council Member and Borough President] Ruth Messinger started her fight for commercial rent control.As small businesses continue to disappear, what do we lose?
My dad had this quote in an old article that sort of perfectly encapsulates what I think. When small businesses were starting to get pushed out in the mid-80s, he said, “[I]f an RCI that’s been around 50 years disappears from your neighborhood, some chain comes in. If it’s at all uneconomical, they’ll pull out. Whereas a business that only has one, two stores, they’ll stay during the tough times.”
There’s a value to the people who made their roots here and built up a customer base. I don’t understand why cities don’t feel like it’s in the city’s public interest to have small businesses. I don’t know exactly what the right thing is for cities to do, but I don’t know why they don’t put their thumb on the scale to help keep small businesses. I am not by any means an economist. I’m just someone who sees the value of small businesses in our community in big and small ways.You now live in Madison, Wisconsin, so what was it like returning to the Upper West Side as you worked on the book?
Over the course of writing this book my dad and I had a great time. We’ve gone back to the Upper West Side once or twice a year during the writing of this. My dad had me interview a lot of people. I mostly interviewed everyone in the Metro Diner on Broadway.
It’s been fun to revisit the Upper West Side these last six years. Even today, people are still like, “Oh, Mr. RCI!” when they see my dad even though it’s been a long time since he’s been there.