This interior shot of Denny’s new Manhattan location captures what it is about New York City: that special feeling of standing where something awesome used to be. Probably, it doesn’t mean anything that the national diner chain/punchline has opened its first Manhattan location. Likely there is no particular significance to the news that, to preserve its tradition of low prices, Manhattan Denny’s charges no more than $11 for a specialty cocktail. And certainly there is no reason that Manhattan shouldn’t have a Denny’s. So why did this news make me sad?
The Times graciously covers Manhattan Denny’s top-flight mixologists and makes little mention of its food, besides acknowledging the Grand Slam. But even that nod to the diner’s national signature comes in the context of alcohol, via this charming anecdote:
Talk of value notwithstanding, the item that has drawn the most attention is the Grand Cru Slam; $300 gets you a Grand Slam breakfast for two (eggs, pancakes, sausage and such), a bottle of Dom Pérignon and a “bartender high-five.”
The pairing was a bit of an accident. In February, the franchise owners invited neighbors to a meeting, hoping to allay their fears about the coming restaurant. Mr. Capoferri created a mock-up of the bar menu, listing the Grand Cru Slam. “I put that on there as a kind of a joke,” he said, “and people loved it.”
Only $300 for breakfast and I get to touch a bartender? As Capoferri implies, opening a Denny’s at 150 Nassau Street juxtaposes working-class and ultra-wealthy culture in a way that people can’t ignore. By working-class, I of course do not mean people who labor with their hands. I mean college students.
The ground-floor retail space that Manhattan Denny’s now occupies had stood vacant since 2003, when 150 Nassau was converted to luxury condos. Before you get all Luc Sante on me, you should know that it previously housed a Taco Bell. Still, residents of 150 Nassau sued to prevent Denny’s from opening, fearing that it would become a hangout for students at nearby Pace University.
You fools: that entire neighborhood is a hangout for college students, especially the luxury condos. Pretty much all of Manhattan has become a hangout for international students whose parents bought them apartments, plus people whose jobs contain the word “associate” but do not involve folding sweaters. That’s the whole thing.
Much has been written in this space and others about the changing character of New York City. The phrase is itself an oxymoron, since the fundamental character of Manhattan is change. The city you remember fondly is the abomination that displaced someone else’s New York. The bistro where you fell in love drove out the dim sum place where somebody else’s family went every Christmas. The whole point of New York is that we’re constantly knocking it down to build something different.
Except for the last decade, it seems like we’ve been knocking down New York to build something the same—not the same as what was there before, but the same as can be found anywhere else in America. The unsettling thing about Manhattan Denny’s is not that they put a diner across from City Hall. New York is the diner capital of the world; there should probably be one in the Tombs. The unsettling thing is that it’s not a Greek joint or a satellite of one of the many great diners around the city. It’s a national chain.
I remember how strangely frightened we were in 2002, when a Best Buy opened off North Avenue in Queens. By the time I left the city in 2009, there were Best Buys and Banana Republics all over—so many that when I went looking for one I didn’t bother to map it on my phone. I just kept walking. These shops are New York. But they are also Not New York, in that you can find exactly the same thing anywhere else.
The things that make New York City special should not be the especially high rent, the especially dense traffic, and the especially concentrated smell. Kids growing up in Iowa don’t need that. When I was growing up in Iowa, I imagined a New York City relentless in its particularity. I needed a place that was different from everywhere else, not because everywhere else was bad because it was eerily uniform.
I was lucky to move to the city just before it started to become a mall. I left as the pace of that change accelerated, and now I am struck by how much the Manhattan of my youth resembles every other big city I have seen. We talk about it as if it were something that happened to us, as if we were not the generation that shut down the good New York City.
Remember Norman’s Sound and Vision, which I was startled to see demolished in May? That’s a Dunkin’ Donuts now. When they replace that Dunkin’ Donuts with something else, who will remember it fondly?