We have reached a time in the food history of New York City where a toothless nostalgia for restaurants that are iconic emblems of the city’s past has replaced our collective desire and effort to do anything to retain them.
Places we remember from our youth, places we learned were iconic when we moved to New York as transplants and rushed to try, places that have been part of our daily/weekly food shopping and eating routines are shuttering daily. The outcry in the media, from individuals, and online is loud, touching and authentic. But with few notable exceptions – like Jeremiah Moss’ blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, which chronicles, questions, and presents plausible counterarguments to the seeming inevitability of hyper-gentrification – our sadness and anger over these losses are too rarely linked to a corresponding action.
In the vacuum created by this this well-meaning whirlwind of public elegy and practical inaction, nostalgia has become a powerful messaging tool of a new class of self-defined “Mom and Pop” establishments that trade on that iconic image to which they bear little actual resemblance. Evidence of this is everywhere we look. From advertising and marketing imagery rife with ironic Ye Olde Timey images, to restaurant owners of trendy establishments strategically positioning themselves as the new “Mom and Pop” in relationship to an industry booming with celebrity chefs and restaurant groups with multiple holdings.
But If owning one relatively new and successful neighborhood restaurant is what defines a “Mom and Pop,” then what exactly is that place down the street that has been in the neighborhood 10, 20, 40, or 70 years whose rent will quadruple the next time they renegotiate their lease? And is it incumbent upon those of us who hope to preserve some of New York’s iconic establishments not to let this widening definition of “Mom and Pop” restaurants slide by unnoticed?
This is not to say that our iconic older establishments are run by anachronistic luddites or that newer places are all gentrifying appropriators, but just that it is worth considering some of the distinctions and differences between the two types of places. Consultants, a PR team, large advertising and marketing budgets, mastery of social networking tools, and access to new media are just a few of the things that often separate the old Mom and Pops from the new.
While nostalgia has become a less and less useful tool to those of us hoping to stem the tide of hemorrhaging the restaurants and food shops we love, it has become very useful tool to others trying to carve out a niche for themselves in the ever-changing landscape of New York City’s food scene.
By way of a reminder to visit those places that have been in my neighborhood, Astoria, for many years, and that I’ve walked past a thousand times but never went in, I’m doing a monthly New Nosh Night where I’m hitting up one of those places. It’s a small thing, really, but I invite all New Yorkers to visit and revisit those restaurants, food carts, delis and bakeries that have helped define our city, and now could use our help.