The growing popularity of Food Halls – some of the city’s best, typically individually owned food options packed into one cavernous, clamorous space – is undeniable. There is an air of excitement around these places, an obvious energy, and easy access to some really truly great eats. Most recently, I visited Gotham West Market twice in one week just to try Ivan Orkin’s Slurp Shop, Seamus Mullen’s El Colmado, and Blue Bottle’s excellent coffee, all in one place, and a short jaunt from the tourist-commuter hell corridor of Midtown where I work.
When I first heard about Anthony Bourdain’s proposed plan to build a large scale food hall focused on street food from all over the world, I remember feeling a weird pang of hope that it would be in Flushing, Queens or Sunset Park, Brooklyn. After all, a food hall of this type would do well nestled amidst places like Flushing’s Golden Shopping Mall, New World Mall, and other places that, well, already function as wildly popular food halls. Inevitably though, we learned it would be in Manhattan, likely in the Financial District, an obvious attraction for local New Yorkers and tourists alike.
The related question that kept coming up for me is, do privatized, curated food halls like the one Bourdain has proposed for Manhattan discourage tourists and locals from traveling throughout the five boroughs to experience food within a neighborhood context?
By centralizing access to food that New Yorkers typically have had to travel from block to block, neighborhood to neighborhood, borough to borough in order to obtain all under one roof in Manhattan, are we encouraging a food trend that might hurt our neighborhoods in the future? A potential reduction in business, a lessening of foot traffic, and perhaps most troublingly, an eventual disruption to the organic, historical, hyper-local contexts in which so many food cultures have thrived throughout New York City could all result.
Put another way, instead of a neighborhood being known for a particular cuisine (or cuisines), there are food emporiums, veritable theme parks of food, popping up left and right as an alternative destination. Can Arthur Avenue in the Bronx coexist with Eataly? Or does one draw people, money, resources, away from the other? I really don’t have an answer, but think that it may be well worth asking the question.
Additionally, well-curated and carefully assembled food halls may reduce the likelihood that you will have a hit-or-miss meal. But they also diminish the possibility that you will try something new (either hit or miss), that you will go someplace new, see parts of the city you haven’t seen before, and immerse yourself in the complex, not always neat or perfectly packaged, but always thrilling and rewarding food worlds of New York City.