When Abe Lebewohl opened the doors of his small 2nd Ave Deli for the first time in 1954, it was to start a second life. After a youth spent narrowly escaping death at the hands of the Nazis and Soviets, running his deli became Lebewohl's personal fulfillment of the American dream. In time, the 2nd Ave Deli came to be known as one of the greatest Jewish delicatessens in Manhattan, a true East Village institution where devoted corned beef hounds worshiped amidst a temple of schmaltz. Now, nearly two years after it suddenly closed, and eleven years since Abe's tragic murder, the 2nd Ave Deli will shortly rise again, this time in Murray Hill. In doing so it will provide a rare second chance for a New York that is rapidly disappearing to turn back the clock.
When the 2nd Ave Deli unexpectedly shut its doors in January 2006, the loss reverberated far beyond the deli's customers. Most New Yorkers realized that the 2nd Ave Deli stood for more than just kishke and chopped liver. For half a century, Lebewohl's deli represented an icon of stability amidst tumultuous surroundings. As the East Village changed character, from Jewish to Latino to hipster, from safe to dangerous to trendy, everyone from Yiddish-speaking octogenarians to NYU freshman could rely upon the 2nd Ave Deli as a place to sit amongst friends.
When it closed, the sight of the deli's neon letters lying on the sidewalk, like bodies at a crime scene, proved to be a watershed moment. History, success, and popularity proved no protection from progress' march. In New York, even the most cherished institutions could become a Starbuck's —or in the case of the 2nd Ave deli, a Chase bank branch.
Certainly this wasn't unprecedented. Across the city, Jewish delicatessens, which once numbered in the thousands, had been sharply declining for decades. Where once they were found on almost every block of the Bronx, in Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan, or Midtown, today there are but a few dozen scattered amidst the boroughs and suburbs. The causes of their decline are well documented: a rise in Jewish affluence and education; a change in diet based less on tradition and more on health and variety; a demographic shift away from New York's tightly knit neighborhoods to suburbs or sunny havens like Los Angeles or Florida. Places such as Wolff's, the Rialto, and Ratner's were 20th century businesses operating in a 21st century world, and they paid the unfortunate cost of change.
For the 2nd Ave Deli, the end came from the rapid increase in real estate values, brought about by gentrification. In the span of five years a neighborhood can go from desolate to desirable, with rents increasing tenfold. Family-owned restaurants of all ethnic persuasions, whether Jewish, Italian, or Dominican, have little financial recourse to weather such shifts. Landlords opt increasingly for the big pockets of chains and high-end dining establishments to occupy their properties. Lattes sell condominiums; latkes don't.
This is a shame. Visiting somewhere like McSorley's Old Ale House, Gray's Papaya, or Peter Luger's is more than an indulgence in nostalgic kitch. These are the places where the Big Apple connects to its spiritual and physical soul. For many, a breath of sweat-soaked air at the departed CBGB's was their walk in Central Park. To those eating it, a bowl of matzo ball soup goes beyond boiled chicken, vegetables, and dough. It is a fragrant, liquid reality check in a time and place where the pace of life has eroded any sense of perspective. Trendy chains and fine dining cannot fill that void. We need these places to survive, so that we can, too.
All this makes the rebirth of the 2nd Ave Deli so uniquely important. Of the timeless institutions that have disappeared from New York's streets, few, if any, receive a fresh chance at redemption. The deli will once again be family run (by Abe Lebewohl's nephews Jeremy and Joshua), its menu largely unaltered, with many of the old staff returning. Expectations are lofty, and the chance of failure remains high. Yet, a success for the new 2nd Ave Deli could very well mark the turning point in New York's history when everyone stopped, just for a moment, to really smell the pastrami.