Lebanese Furniture Makers Preside Over Mini Music Venue Empire
EAST WILLIAMSBURG — Step on the balcony of the grungy, eclectic music mecca Shea Stadium at 1 a.m., and a group of middle-aged, hookah-smoking men might catch your eye from the furniture warehouse across the street.
Look closer, and you'll see them gazing right back at you.
Those seven Lebanese brothers — the owner and staff of the 39-year-old Mona Liza Fine Furniture — are overlooking the "party block" they've helped their Meadow Street strip become.
Mona Liza's owner Hassan Salameh — who grabbed up several Meadow Street buildings in the 1970s while prices were dirt cheap — now rents spaces to Shea Stadium and to the popular performance hub Paper Box, and he hopes to continue growing his mini nightlife empire with more creative tenants and possibly with his own Arabian nightclub.
And every night, Salameh and his brothers stay perched in their shop both to enjoy the street's new "action" and to ensure the partying doesn't get out of line.
"Sometimes I go have a drink with them. It's not my style. It's like blue hair and tattoos, but I do love the music," said Salameh, 65, of the venues he owns with his brothers. "I try to make sure people don't go overboard, don't get drunk in the street. We try to keep the place as clean as possible."
Salameh — who learned furniture design as a child from his father and grandfather in northern Lebanon and moved to New York alone in 1968 seeking prosperity in America — bought his warehouse for Mona Liza in 1974 when "the dog was scared to walk on the sidewalk" in crime-ridden East Williamsburg and he began to renovate the street.
"They cleaned up the block. It was a mess," said Karen Nieves, the business services manager for East Williamsburg's industrial business alliance EWVIDCO, of Salameh and his family. "They've hosted EWVIDCO events in their store. They're wonderful people."
With the right mix of determination, skill and luck, Salameh soon was buying up cheap lots and buildings on his block, and his furniture shop was so popular in the 1970s it was "as busy as a bakery," his executive assistant recalled.
"His solid oak antique reproduction tables with lion claws and lion heads were all over Manhattan," said the assistant, Stacey Fotiades, of the pieces he hand-crafted in the wholesale shop. "If it weren't for him investing in these buildings who knows how the area would have turned out."
And just as Salameh started buying up properties when he saw "good deals in front of [his face]," he also began drawing each of his six brothers, two sisters and parents to New York when they discovered his success.
"He brought the whole family here," said Salameh's younger brother Nabil Salameh, 43, who works at Mona Liza and hangs out at the shop on weekend nights to bask in the excitement out the window. "On the weekends this is a party block."
While Hassan Salameh has helped transform the street and the lives of his family, the dedicated craftsman perhaps puts most care into his wooden creations.
"I was the king of the oak table," he reminisced of the 1970s era when he said his pieces were all the rage throughout the city.
In recent years, Salameh said he's sold his tables to Abercrombie and Fitch stores and his other pieces to high-profile families around the country, and he's also offered woodworking classes to local kids in his giant furniture warehouse.
And Salameh said his current projects and tenants are only the beginning of his plans for the street. He hopes to open an Arabian nightclub with hookahs in the bottom floor of Mona Liza, to expand the garden that he now has beside the shop, and to add an official classroom to his massive furniture warehouse — all while he revels in the success he's stumbled upon in East Williamsburg.
"When I was a kid I'd watch cowboy movies and dream about America. When I got off the plane in New York I was expecting to see field horses, and instead I only saw buildings," he laughed of his arrival in 1968.
He didn't mind the concrete — and he doesn't mind the neighborhood's changes.
"This whole area is going crazy," he said with a smile. "We like to sit on the street and barbecue and watch."