News that the Russell Street Deli is closing at summer’s end hit me harder than the burning of Notre Dame. Not that the two are equivalent, but like the Parisians who stood across the Seine and watched in horror, this one hit very close to home.
I’ve been going to Eastern Market on Saturdays since I moved to the area 15 years ago. I’ve watched the infusion of grant and foundation money transform the market sheds from drafty, leaky structures into pleasant, comfortable places to browse the beautiful abundance of food. After I shop, I treat myself to breakfast, a slice of me-time at the end of the week. Vivio’s if I’m thinking about a bloody mary. Zeff’s for a little peace, quiet, eggs and coffee at the counter. And Russell Street Deli if I want… well, pretty much anything on their menu, which they do better than anyone.
So to hear that the restaurant’s new landlord is essentially driving them out over a floor repair, of all things, feels like a betrayal. That same landlord, 30-year-old Sanford Nelson, on a buying spree in the market, pledged that he was committed to preserving the beloved neighborhood’s essential character. If Russell Street Deli isn’t part of it, I don’t know what is.
Then I thought, well, what did you expect? This is, after all, the Age of the Schmuck.
It’s a Yiddish word. Means “penis.” But not in the anatomical sense, more like stop-being-such-a-dick-Carl. This is their era. Schmucks, ascendant.
Silicon Valley breeds schmucks like stagnant water breeds mosquitoes. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter? Schmuck. Mark Zuckerberg? Schmuck. The entire C-suite at Google? Schmucks, the lot of ‘em.
Martin Shkreli, pharma-bro? Schmuck. Bill Maher? Schmuck. Ted Cruz? Oh god, there’s a reason he put the phrase “punchable face” into heavy rotation. Every Trump offspring, and of course Big Daddy himself, the Ur-schmuck of our time, dominating every news cycle until you’d happily dive into a dry swimming pool, just to feel some different pain for a while.
And young Sanford Nelson seems determined to join the pantheon.
Google up some photos, and see him posing with his arms crossed across his chest, his round baby face displaying the same smug smile, except when he’s seemingly rehearsing for some future heroic statue. Here he is in Cuba, in shades, a fat cigar sticking out of his mouth. Here’s another, with an expensive sports car.
And those are only the photos. Young Nelson, just turned 30, gets around his real-estate empire “in a colorful electric golf cart,” Crain’s tells us. Here’s his birthday party last fall at Supino’s pizzeria, described in this publication: “...he wore a fedora and a Detroit Hustles Harder camo windbreaker. ...Around him stood chic women in high-heeled boots carrying designer bags. Nelson posed for pictures with one on each arm, receiving congratulatory kisses on the cheek.” His father, Linden Nelson, was the brains behind the Motown Motion Picture Studios fiasco. He got the idea from young Sanford, the New York Times explained, who told him Michigan’s ill-advised film tax credits were “the talk of the Cannes Film Festival.”
Presumably he was there; when not investing in real estate, he’s tried his hand at filmmaking. A 2014 MLive story details his work as a producer on “Eloise,” a thriller set in the Westland mental hospital of the same name. Released three years later, it went over about as well as the closing of Russell Street Deli: “A horror movie of such ineptitude that it invites sympathy for even its least gifted participants,” sniffed the New York Times.
I am not a monster, and Nelson isn't, either. I think he can be saved from schmuckery -- can save himself. In that MLive story, he calls Detroit “a blank canvas” (schmuck), but also says of moviemaking in Detroit, “There’s such a great energy. "People want to do things and create whether it’s public or private, for profit or non-profit. There’s just this great force, and I want to be a part of it."
That’s not a terrible sentiment. You can feel empathy for this scion of Bloomfield privilege, knocking around his young adulthood, wanting to be part of the mix, somehow. He’s just doing it all wrong.
Are none of those chic women in high-heeled boots employed in PR and marketing? (It’s a rich field for chic women in high-heeled boots.) Can none of these friends advise him on how to take on this delicate task of shepherding such a beloved part of the city into the future? When he talks about the need for long-delayed maintenance on all those old buildings, he’s not being a schmuck. That’s reality. You can’t preserve and upgrade the neighborhood without getting a little more money out of it. But there are ways to do it that don’t involve driving out the small businesses that make people love it so, especially one like the deli, which pays its workers well and even offers health insurance. A dedicated, focused investor could do it without being such a schmuck.
Tell Crain’s you are too modest to participate in another hagiographic feature about your big plans for the market. Oh my god, take off the Detroit Hustles Harder camo windbreaker until you’ve actually hustled harder. And get out of the damn golf cart.