03/02/13 12:00pm
03/02/2013 12:00 PM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO  |  A view of downtown Riverhead.

It was like watching protesters shouting and arguing with one another over a police barricade.

Michael White

Michael White

You’re probably familiar with the images from nightly newscasts: “Equal Rights for Gays!” one side would yell. “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” the other would retort.

Except in this case, those who gather in Jerry Steiner’s Allied Optical store for the semi-regular “Gathering of the Misfits” lunch have all been hoping for the same result: a re-energized and revitalized downtown Riverhead.

They just disagree about whether it will ever happen.

Here’s what the skeptics — all beleaguered business owners Steiner calls The Misfits — were saying:

Downtown’s a mess. There are shootings, druggies and prostitutes in plain sight, not to mention legal users seeking treatment at the nearby methadone clinic at the County Center. People with bucks are scared of the place. The only businesses that seem to be doing well are delis and travel places catering to migrant workers. The “Arts Means Business” and “Live, Work, Play” slogans that have emerged during the latest attempt at a downtown resurgence are just a window dressing; everyone’s losing money hand over fist.

Government help, be it from the town, state or county, seems to be available for nonprofits, bigger projects and connected folks, but not for the little guy, the guy who’s been dumping his kids’ college funds into his shop for the past decade, waiting for the big turnaround. The little guys are tired of waiting and losing money and being nickel-and-dimed by the state and town at every turn.

In the meantime, they feel largely ignored by the police department — and even when there is a boost in police presence and foot patrols downtown, they say, it never lasts much longer than the initial newspaper photo-op. Things are going nowhere fast.

On the other side, for the optimists in the room who crashed the party — those Steiner calls “Men of Vision” — downtown Riverhead could be the pride and joy of the East End. Resurgences have happened in once-blighted and beleaguered areas like Patchogue Village and Bay Shore, they say. Why not here? Downtown Riverhead has even more to offer than those areas. It’s the county seat. It’s got history. It’s got a river running through it with access to the Peconic bays and beyond. Families can drive boats to downtown Riverhead, dock and then hop ashore and walk around, taking in the sights.

It’s got culture and diversity, grit yet arts, historical components yet modern structures like the Hyatt Place hotel. It’s got potential.

But guess what? Potential doesn’t pay the bills.

How can you argue with that?

If I’d sat in Jerry’s any longer my neck would have gotten sore from all the back-and-forth. Things got a little heated at times. And just like those rallies outside the Supreme Court, no one was changing anyone’s mind.

I chimed in here and there if I thought I had a nugget of information that could help someone make or finish a point, but didn’t offer much by way of opinion. I’ve always managed to remain an optimistic guy, but who was I to these business owners they should be optimistic, that everything’s going to be OK? I haven’t dumped any money into downtown.

In the couple of weeks since Steiner’s gathering I’ve figured out that good news is indeed on the way.

Experts say stress comes from uncertainty. It seems to me this argument, which has raged pretty intensely over the past decade, is coming to a head. We’re truly, finally going to get an answer.

There are now more reasons for people to visit the expanded aquarium site, three apartment projects are in the works for Main Street and the newly renovated Suffolk Theater is about to hold its first big bash tonight, Saturday. Without a doubt, we’ll be finding out in the next few years which way things are going to break. We’ll know whether downtown will re-emerge as the bustling business district it was in the ’50s and ’60s, or whether everyone’s going to lose their shirts and get out of Dodge, leaving it once again to the druggies and prostitutes.

In the meantime, what choice do we have but to be hopeful?

Most of the downtown business owners who drop in for a joke and a drink at Steiner’s have been on Main Street for a while now. Even in the last couple of years, they’ve been dumping even more money into their establishments — so I suspect hope is still alive in them, too. If things do turn around downtown and people start making money there, it will be up to the rest of us to give these guys their due.

They’ve been the true believers.

mwhite@timesreview.com

10/13/10 6:34pm
10/13/2010 6:34 PM


BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO Jerry Steiner reading his newspaper, the Riverhead Rebel, a spoof on The Riverhead News-Review, while sitting in his favorite reading spot at his Allied Optical store downtown.


While some journalists are jumping ship and leaving print publications to write for the web, one Riverhead businessman is hoping to make a go of it in newspapers the old-fashioned way.

Jerry Steiner, owner and proprietor of the West Main Street business Allied Optical, is offering readers his own take on life in downtown Riverhead in a new publication called Riverhead Rebel.

“It’s a spoof on you guys,” Mr. Steiner, of Shoreham, told a News-Review reporter. He explained that if Times/Review Newspapers are “goat cheese and fine wine” his new venture will be “bum wine and brats.”

The cover of the first issue features two stories, one by Mr. Steiner on the art of cooking bratwurst and another written by Anthony Coates, adviser to Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter.

Mr. Coates’ article details a recent tasting flight at Tweed’s restaurant on East Main Street. But instead of Martha Clara or Diliberto merlots, the tasting featured low-end fortified wines such as Cisco Peach and Thunderbird.

“It’s total off-the-wall stuff,” Mr. Steiner said.

The paper’s inaugural issue hit newsstands last month, and Mr. Steiner and co-publisher Darren Johnson say they are planning to run additional installments. About 5,000 copies were distributed at locations between Jamesport and Wading River, Mr. Steiner said.

How often the Riverhead Rebel is published will be determined by demand, said Mr. Johnson, a former spokesperson for Stony Brook/Southampton and owner of the website 631politics.com.

Mr. Johnson has been publishing the free newspaper Campus News on downstate college campuses for several months. He said it was difficult to find writers to fill the first issue of the Riverhead Rebel ­— only himself, Mr. Steiner and Mr. Coates submitted articles — so he had to pad the paper with Campus News stories. He thinks the first issue will inspire other writers to turn in more submissions and that the Rebel will grow.

“I think there is a market for a fun publication,” he said.

In the paper, Mr. Johnson gives a first-person account of leaving his rental home in downtown Riverhead and purchasing a three-bedroom house in upstate New York. However, he said he hopes to write more “tongue-in-cheek” entries in the same vein as the satirical newspaper The Onion.

Mr. Steiner claims he is one of the few downtown business owners who have stayed loyal to Riverhead over the years. A self-professed “northside thug baller” ­— he aligns himself with other northern Main Street business owners — Mr. Steiner hopes to offer his readers “a little flavor of the old Riverhead.”

He started working in Allied Optical, then owned by his father, when he was about 8 years old in the 1960s. He said that although many of the other people his age left for college and decided to settle elsewhere, he returned to his hometown. “Idiots like me came back,” he said.

Still, a visit to Allied Optical, which has sat in the same location since the 1970s, is never boring. Along with eyeglasses, Mr. Steiner will often serve up a few laughs and a refreshment or two to patrons, even a complimentary do-rag to a lucky few.

With the Riverhead Rebel, the longtime downtown business owner hopes to offer a little commentary on Riverhead politics and a place to showcase his controversial ads, one of which features him with a large pair of scissors while holding a severed mannequin head.

But most of all, Mr. Steiner hopes to have a little fun.

“I’m about comedy and insanity,” he said.

vchinese@timesreview.com