This week, the New York Times’ Dining reporter Julia Moskin published an article, “Union Square Cafe Joins Other Victims of New York City’s Rising Rents”, where she broke the sad news that the incredibly likeable Union Square Cafe had fallen victim to the greed of Manhattan’s landlords who have been raising rents to an astronomical high. There is no evidence to suggest that this good vs. greed battle is nothing short of a bitter reality for so many Manhattan restaurants, and the human stories attached to it – people losing their jobs and livelihoods – are particularly hard to swallow.
But I also can’t shake off a bad feeling about the article’s language, how it describes these great restaurants that we collectively mourn the loss of as “pioneers.” Moskin’s Manhattan sound like the wild west before being civilized with linen napkins and eight o’clock dinner reservations. She writes: “Many of these restaurants — like Florent in the meatpacking district and Chanterelle in TriBeCa, both shuttered in recent years — opened in decaying neighborhoods, providing a wedge for gentrification. Now they say they can no longer afford to operate in the places they helped transform.”
While there is room to debate whether the Meatpacking District and TriBeCa were hellbound for decay before nice restaurants swooped in to resuscitate them, Union Square Cafe, Hearth, and WD 50’s Union Square (which Moskin refers to with Dickensian hyperbole as having been “a squalid haven for drug users”), East Village, and the Lower East Side respectively, are quite different from one another in history and character. And none of these neighborhoods were at risk of collapsing into an unsalvageable vortex of decrepitude. To situate a restaurant within the long, rich context of the history of a place seems far more sustainable – and far more rewarding – than suggesting that it somehow salvaged a worthless, dying neighborhood.
When we build a neighborhood’s dining scene on the mythology that absolutely nothing of value existed before a nice restaurant’s arrival, we feed into a boom and bust, opportunistic cycle of gentrification that will eventually lay waste to the things we love. If you doubt that this mentality exists, look no further than the great chef and restaurateur Bobby Flay who remarks in Moskin’s article “What brings ghost towns to life? Restaurants. We blaze the trail, we do the hard work, and then we’re out.”
In actuality, there is no part of the island of Manhattan, nor any square inch of any borough that is or was a “ghost town,” where no people, no culture, no history, no value, no something existed before. If we value our boroughs, if we value our neighborhoods, and if we value one another, we will change the way we talk about how our city’s restaurants interact with the places and spaces that surround them. And in changing our language, perhaps we will come to love more, hold on tighter, and fight back harder against the forces of gentrification and corporate greed that are stripping away our favorite restaurants, shops, and the very soul of this city we love.
A week or so later this beautiful elegy for Soup Burg, a beloved Upper East Side institution, was published (also in the New York Times) by Anne Barnard called “Hold the Home Fries. Forever.” Here’s a far more thoughtful way to write about the changing city than Moskin’s hyperbolic elitism, or my own nonsensical rambling.