What Makes a Neighborhood? Who Creates a City?

Way back in 2001, I interviewed Tass Michos — Director of Photography for the “Death to Smoochy” movie starring Edward Norton and Robin Williams — for eyepiece magazine, the official publication of the Guild of British Camera Technicians; and while the interview didn’t start off well, we did meet at the fancied Union Square Cafe for our power lunch, and the best part of the meeting was that the Guild was picking up the tab for what turned out to be a discomforting meal in more ways than one.

Tass chose the Union Square Cafe for the meeting and I remember the space being incredibly small and uncomfortable and not well-suited for a formal magazine interview.  The upstairs seating area was hot and the service was slow and the food was expensive.

I remember not sensing that I really fit into the restaurant — or the interview — so I found it oddly refreshing to read about the imminent closing of the Union Square Cafe at the end of 2015 due to rent increases and a dissatisfied landlord:

Like many of the restaurants that opened during the first decades of the city’s rebirth, we have built close relationships with those who came to define our surroundings: greenmarket farmers, publishers, agents, authors, architects, artists, advertising executives, actors, neighborhood activists, civic leaders and a legion of families who moved into the nearby lofts that once held men’s garment manufacturers. Long before Starbucks popularized the phrase “the third place” — somewhere to interact outside of work and home — it was neighborhood restaurants that helped to define places like Union Square.

The Union Square Cafe was an elitist establishment even in 2001.  Few people who lived in the area below 14th Street were able to frequent the “cafe” on a regular basis if they were blue-collar working stiffs.

If you had money, and power — the coded DNA of separatist living in New York City — then you fit right in with the decor and milieu of the Union Square Cafe that was always more First Class airline lounge than corner buffet. It was not a place of the people, by the people, or for the people — despite what the cafe is trying to claim now on their way out.

It’s hard to lament the passing of the Union Square Cafe just because of what it represents — a 30-year founding, fragmenting, gentrification of a neighborhood and the systematic removal of its people — the place was always high-dollar and was not in business to feed the masses at affordable prices.

I have no problem withe the Cafe making money, I just find it hard to shed a tear over its closing in favor of a chain restaurant or another corner bank branch.  Chains or a bank will actually serve more people in a purely distinct ecumenical and egalitarian way than the Union Square Cafe ever did over a three-decade span.

What makes the foundation of a neighborhood?  I argue a neighborhood is not a business or a restaurant, but the people.  If the people are not rightly served, then they tend to leave in droves, and when the mainstream evacuates, businesses alone cannot fill the human void.  Businesses need people to thrive — and if the regulars are no longer around for the befriending — then the city tends to lean to anchor in a slow and decaying death of imperception.

That’s the problem with the current evolution of Manhattan — it’s quickly becoming no place for the living.  The ordinary people are being pushed out and bought away — and in their place are empty penthouses and vacant businesses.  I’m sure Manhattan island will one day not be a penal colony, but it will be a monumental gravestone to commerce chiseled without heart and made soulless by the lack of joyous people.

Manhattan will be all bright lights — but no city — and I’m sure the Union Square Cafe will have no trouble finding another neighborhood niche to take over and command the highest possible dollar for a plate of pasta and a smooch.