Another of New York City's iconic establishments, the University Restaurant diner on University and 12th Street, has closed. Neighborhood blogs like Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, It Was Her New York, and Alex in NYC are mourning the loss, while the New York Times Magazine's Hugo Lindgren tweets that the rent had gone up to $40,000 a month and that "most landlords don't like diners." Jeremiah posted a fantastic piece of dialogue between a couple he overheard during his last visit—it's a must-read, offering a glimpse into the relationship lessons, not to mention lessons in eavesdropping, availed by the fading diner-as-establishment. If we lose the diner, where do we get such pitch-perfect slices of life?
Yet there aren't too many diners left to recognize or even try to save. In 2004, Greg Donaldson tackled the death of the diner in New York magazine, writing that "The classic New York coffee shop is fading fast." The problems he cited then remain familiar: the recession; ever-increasing rents; "Starbucks hegemony"; that the range and scope of the typical diner menu just isn't economically sound; that street carts can do coffee cheaper, without a bricks-and-mortar bottom line. This isn't simply a Manhattan-based rent problem, however. "Though traditional coffee shops do well in the outer boroughs, where the pressure to turn over leases isn’t as high, it is likely that over the next decade, those in Manhattan will go the way of Jewish delis and Irish bars—morphed beyond recognition or driven so close to extinction that the remaining few become nostalgia items or theme-park curiosities," he explains, using the example of Tom’s, or, as you may know it, the restaurant depicted on Seinfeld, now visited by tourists because they saw it on that TV show. That diner may live for ever, but it's not because of what it was; it's because of what it became.
At the heart of any of these New York-is-changing-irreversibly debates, though, is the question of what we want and how to adjust our behavior to achieve that. It's hard to grieve more than nostalgically for a diner you've never been to, even as you see its demise as significant of an overall change in a city—a change considered by many to be not for the better but in fact for the worse. As for the particular diners, we have a fondness for them, of course; they're a piece of the past we can walk by daily imbuing us with that powerful sense of New York as palimpsest, a place with layers upon layers of history atop one another and sometimes still thriving.
More broadly, the diner has a special place in the heart of Americans, exemplifying a certain stage in the American experience, a time that's passing or past. You think of the man with the tipped fedora hunched over a cup of steaming coffee and maybe, if he's flush, a slice of pie purchased for a nickel. A tough-talking broad with a heart of gold refilling drinks and offering sage but frank wisdom in the form of casual banter. Pink uniforms and hairnets and name tags, a bowl of those chalky mints that melt in your mouth available on the way out. But that's a Mad Man-era kind of memory that's less real to current-day restaurant-goers than would be, say, sitting around in the local Applebee's or Chili's or TGIFriday's, those chain restaurants of the suburban experience now steadily encroaching on New York City, where we chomp on fried onions, fried chicken fingers, chips and salsa. Or, on the much higher end, visiting the fancified establishments written about in our dining guides and city papers. Many of us haven't eaten at a diner in years, much less though about saving them. Those diners, too, were at one point full of real people, not the cinematic versions of them.
It's easy to rail on ever-increasing rents, soulless capitalists, and all the New York transplants who come to the city and ruin it with terrible tastes and misguided or even willfully rotten values and behaviors. But also, our tastes have changed. That our tastes should never really want an Awesome Blossom is no matter, it's what a huge number of people are used to now (obesity as evidence), and it's that or your gentrified Brooklynized establishment featuring subway tiles, truffle oil, and artisanal mayo supplanting the now-nostalgic concept of the Automat, where, like magic, you put some change in a slot and out came a plate of macaroni. Or it's the high-end restaurant flocked to by the elite and Wall Street. The diner run by the family you know, the place where you eat the special or order the Greek salad every Sunday afternoon, seems a far-off piece of the past, too, or the habitat of the elderly. If we look at the diner as relic rather than the diner as a place where we eat, it's hard to imagine that more than a few of them could continue to exist. They're museum pieces, and while they might be fun for us to visit once a year, they can hardly make rent that way.
Gentrification is a dirty word that gets thrown around a lot with regard to cities, and New York is no exception. We're predisposed to hate the g-word even as we may enjoy what it brings—safer communities, conveniently accessed coffeeshops, restaurants with recognizable names that we and our visiting-from-elsewhere relatives know, wealth. But there's an ensuing blandness to everything, a sameness that brings a desperate sense of loss along with creature comforts. New York's neighborhoods, once unique in their flavor and strange specificities, become homogenized, a Chipotle and a Starbucks and a Chase bank and a Duane Reade in each; strollers of one of two brands populating the streets; flocks of drunk college students; happy couples who look exactly the same walking hand in hand amid an aura of entitlement with, maybe, an underlayer of defeat that only some acknowledge. The diners, the mom and pop hardware stores and community booksellers, the quirky local establishments that you never quite understand the survival of, well, they cease to survive. And we're left with a kind of suburban shell or emulation of what we think a modern city should be, with those who can't afford to be there pushed to the fringes, or pushed out entirely, despite the claim of ownership they once knew.
We all have strong feelings about the cities we used to know as compared to the cities we live in now and what they seem to be becoming. The cycles of change may be happening faster, with less heart and more money, but they are cycles we've seen before. The diner itself was a prefabricated establishment intended to make food service more automated and less expensive and formalized. Perhaps the chain is in some ways the new diner.
Even so, that romanticized image of the diner still tugs, colored nostalgically, full of characters from our past. A girl at a table with a plate of fries weeping; a man chain-smoking at the bar; truckers and lonely hearts on the road pulling up for a rest stop before journeying on. It's fitting, perhaps, that the place we're headed, everything chains and commoditized and big-big-big or, alternatively, artisanal and hand-crafted and "Brooklynized" and gourmet, each carry the weight of their own lonelinesses. Those lonelinesses are just different, now.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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