After 27 years in operation, La Lunchonette at the corner of Tenth Avenue and 18th Street in the recently minted West Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, has officially closed. Its last act of operation was a New Year's Eve prix fixe dinner, and it seems fitting that this should have been its final day, the bowing out of the old, and the ringing in of the new.
The landlord is planning to develop the land. Into what, one can only guess another tall, luxury condominium in the quick-growing neighborhood. It is yet another name in what has become a well worn, never ending story, especially in a city that is under constant development and revitalization such as New York. Melva Max, owner of the classic French restaurant, bemoans that "the area has become all about money," but mindfully adds that the area's recently transplanted neighbors are inconvenienced by the hoards of "tourist buses idling at the curb in front of the new luxury condos".
The main culprit appears to be the High Line, though one of the original aspects its creators had expected for was to breathe life into the neighborhood it bisects, bringing foot traffic further west to the local eateries, galleries and shops already established. Instead, it has changed the make up of the West Side. The High Line has become a major tourist attraction, bringing scores of buses every year, and with them, new luxury hotels, a relocated museum and higher property values. It seems that if the property is not slated for development, the rent is raised to tens of thousands of dollars a month - more than your average favorite neighborhood place can manage. The little shops and restaurants that had been there for years are being strangled as a result. "He's not a bad guy," she says of her landlord in a telephone conversation a few months ago, "but how can you say no to offers in the millions?" According to reports, anywhere from twenty to thirty million dollars.
West Chelsea is changing, in part, due to visitors. The City of New York received 56.4 million tourists in 2014 alone. Tourism may be good for a city in dollars and cents, but it wrecks havoc on the city itself, as well as its people. "Tourism as a number-one industry is a terrible, terrible idea for any city, especially New York," said Fran Lebowitz, the nearly mythic, local author, during an interview in Paper Magazine last year. "If you were going to turn a city, which is a place where people live, into a tourist attraction, you're going to have to make it a place that people who don't live here, like." Something is lost in the exchange, and it may wind up being a key ingredient.
Walking past a shuttered storefront brings to mind that bittersweet quote from Nora Ephron's You've Got Mail about The Shop Around the Corner: "It's a lovely store, and in a week it will be something really depressing, like a Baby Gap. Soon, it'll just be a memory. ...[S]ome foolish person, will probably think it's a tribute to this city, the way it keeps changing on you, the way you can never count on it..."
My friends and I have been going to La Lunchonette since our college years, well over a decade ago, having discovered it by way of Andy Spade's award winning, 2002 ad campaign called "Visiting Tennessee". Not that we were weekly visitors, but it remained our favorite go-to until its closing. It may not have been haute cuisine, but it was consistently good and traditional cookery. Dining in their cranberry colored location was like being invited to a family friend's apartment for a home-cooked meal, lovingly prepared. Incidentally, the tarte tatin was the best to be found on this side of the Atlantic. "I don't regret any of those years," Melva has said, though she has no plans to relocate.
Closing with La Lunchonette, is the Empire Diner - for a second time - Barbuto, operating as usual for now, and Empire Szechuan Village on Seventh Avenue, after 30 years, 'sNice on Eighth Avenue and Pastis in 2014, preceded by Florent in 2008. It becomes a vicious cycle: the mainstays close and the new establishments follow suit when they themselves cannot meet the high rents, creating undistinguished replacements, high turnover and eventually vacancies. The old Florent space remains empty.
Growing up, I always heard older people talk about the place that used to be on this corner or that one, the bar they loved, the restaurant where they always had a table, where the maitre 'd knew them at first sight, whether they could recall the name was another matter. My grandmother's, for instance, are the Chateau Madrid, Luchow's and the automat. I would listen, lending a sigh, but somehow thought I would be spared the same regret of looking back. Or at least so soon.
"Even the enterprises that can support new construction in cities need old construction in their immediate vicinity," explains Jane Jacobs in 1961's The Death and Life of Great American Cities. "Otherwise they are part of a total attraction and total environment that is economically too limited - and therefore functionally too limited to be lively, interesting and convenient." It is important to safeguard neighborhood identity, regardless of the amounts of money that can be invested or yielded, to keep intact the essential components making up its DNA.
Change is an intrinsic part of a city, it is unavoidable; it is also something necessary to the success of a city. This is happening all over the five boroughs, not just in West Chelsea, and it has been happening since we called it New Amsterdam, not just recently. To what point will the change continue? Already established neighborhoods, such as the East Village and Williamsburg, have changed significantly over the last few years alone and continue to do so. What will the great, city of New York look like in twenty years? Or fifty years when I hopefully will not have grandchildren of my own.
Mayor Bill De Blassio declared in his State of the City address of 2015: "If we do not act - and act boldly - New York risks taking on the qualities of a gated community... A place defined by exclusivity, rather than opportunity. And we cannot let that happen." He was speaking of housing specifically, but his sentiment is easily applied to the city's commercial component as well. The upward and outward development of a city is inherent to its continued growth, but what of its people, and its small neighborhoods quilted together to make up the larger part. If we lose that, we lose the flavor of the city, and we will wind up with a pastiche of a city, something like a movie set with buildings and sidewalks but no life.
"We will not lose sight of why our city is a beacon for so many," said Mayor De Blassio, in conclusion to his Address. "...We have something special, something unique: an idea at our core - a promise - that ours is a city for everyone." As the 21st century progresses and the City of New York progresses with it, we should keep in mind just why it is a city which people dream of and mythologize, and why the tee shirts and pins and totes and mugs profess: "I heart NY".
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