New York Nostalgia — Is the Past Better Than the Present?

New York Nostalgia

Last month, I read an interesting article in the New York Times by George Blecher about the declining number of diners in New York, particularly in Manhattan. Not diners as in those who go out to eat at the many exciting, delicious restaurants in New York, but diners as in the category of casual restaurants with menu lengths that are only exceeded by the hours they are open. 

While it was an enjoyable piece that made me think of my own diner days growing up in suburban northern New Jersey, (It even prompted me to try lunch soon after at Landmark Diner in Soho.) I couldn’t help but think that some things about it were a little off. 

Urban renewal, astronomical rents, changing eating habits and the preponderance of no-refill coffee places like Starbucks have all contributed to the demise of the New York diner,” writes Blecher.

One, that’s not entirely true, as Starbucks gives you free refills if you have a registered Starbucks card. I get the downsides of big business, but there are positives too, so let’s not label them all with a broad, inaccurate brush. And two, so what if the New York diner is in demise? Isn’t mourning them a little unnecessary, considering that most serve mediocre food and drinks? Some even aren’t that cheap, and with a little searching you can find similar deals at better New York restaurants and cafes.

Sure, the casual atmosphere of diners is nice to find in a city that can be overly extravagant, and there’s no doubt that rents are getting out of hand for many, causing a lot of serious issues like shuttered small businesses and homelessness. And I get the deeper meaning, as Blecher also powerfully quotes Jeremiah Moss, who runs the blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, saying that diner regulars develop important connections to other people. “In the anonymous city, these ties can be lifesavers, especially for the elderly, the poor, the marginal, but also for all of us,” he says.

But to me, this nostalgia for diners is just trying to put rose-colored glasses on New York’s past, as its present constantly changes, rather than actually standing up for something worth saving. Whether it’s about diners, Times Square, music, etc., nostalgia too often rears its head, while in many ways, the city is better than it ever was, particularly with the dramatic drop in violent crime over the past few decades.

Just because diners are fading away, nothing is stopping anyone from getting to know their Starbucks barista or chatting with bagel store patrons on a Sunday morning. It’s not as if diners magically bring people together. You can find regulars at all sorts of businesses if that’s what this is really about, but in actuality, I think this is more about attaching to the past as a way to cope with the reality that getting by in the city can be hard. Even though New York has a huge population, it can certainly feel lonely, and it’s financially straining, even financially impossible for some.

But as a new year approaches, I think it’s important to not get stuck reflecting on the past too much, or even focusing too far on the future. Instead, let’s try to appreciate the positives of present-day New York and look for ways to make it even better right now. You can sign the city’s petition to expand access to affordable housing, volunteer to help fellow New Yorkers, or if you don’t want to get involved with the forces at play causing these changes, then just enjoy frequenting diners and other places while they do still exist.

At 27, my receding hairline bothers me pretty much the same as it did when it first started to thin in college, when I wished so badly that it would stop changing. But when I look at pictures from back then, I can’t believe that I was worrying when I had so much more hair than I do now. The point is, it’s easy to think of the past as better than the present, while in actuality your present will be looked back upon by your future self as a better time. 

So to myself, my New York neighbors and anyone else reading this, I say let’s make a resolution to try to limit nostalgia and appreciate the present. Corny as it may sound, and as difficult it may be to follow, I think it can make the present better.

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