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The Life and Death of Local Institutions

Amid threats of closure, mainstays like Carnegie Deli in New York and the Kingfish in Oakland feel like essential parts of a city's culture.

The line for Carnegie Deli, out the door again as usual (Bebeto Matthews/Associate Press)

On their lurching routes through New York City, hop-on, hop-off buses used to pull to a stop at 55th Street and Seventh Avenue. Their passengers would tumble out hungry and head into Carnegie Deli, where they’d consume $30 worth of corned beef and pastrami in a sandwich named after Woody Allen.

But on April 24, 2015, the Carnegie Deli closed, and the buses stopped coming. ConEd workers had discovered evidence of an illegal gas connection in the restaurant; rumors spread that it would never reopen. “It was heartbreaking,” Marian Harper, the Carnegie owner and president, tells CityLab.

Tourists who planned their midtown treks around the deli mourned. Local businesses took a hit; even the owner of a nearby deli, whose profits initially spiked from serving disappointed Carnegie customers, told The New York Times he hoped his competition would reopen soon. “The tour bus isn’t stopping by anymore,” he lamented. “When they reopen, we’ll be fine because they attract people to the neighborhood. That’s what everybody in the neighborhood wants.”

This week, the neighborhood got its wish: Carnegie Deli reopened on February 9. The pastrami-starved exhaled.

There’s a particular variety of panic that attends the threat to local institutions like Carnegie. To many residents they stand for the city itself—their removal equivalent to an erasure of culture.

“The loss of the Carnegie would be an outsized one for New York,” Ted Merwin wrote in the New York Post in December, when the fate of the deli was still uncertain. Since its founding in 1937, he added, the restaurant’s “skyscraper sandwiches and obnoxious waiters encapsulated the very ethos of excess that characterized New York as a whole.”

The famously excessive Carnegie sandwich. (Kate Maloney/Flickr)

With decades of history to its name, Carnegie attracted its share of skeptics alongside its devotees. Some objected to its prices, others to the ethics of its ownership. But running underneath it all was a consensus: New York, without Carnegie, just felt wrong.

When locals come to the rescue

When a favorite local business reopens its doors, it’s a small act of defiance against a city’s transformation into a place its residents no longer recognize. And often it requires support from the patrons looking in from the street, waiting for the “open” sign to turn back on.

That was the case with the East Village’s B&H Dairy, forced to close last March in the aftermath of the same explosion on Second Avenue that prompted the investigation of Carnegie. Inspectors informed the restaurant owners they would need to upgrade their gas lines and install a new fire suppression system to reopen. The $30,000 cost was daunting.

A photo posted by Nicola Corl (@nicolascissors) on

But without the restaurant, “the street and the city lost a stitch in its fabric that had been around for nearly a century; the owners and workers were thrown out of the rhythms that defined their lives,” wrote The New York Times.

So the regulars stepped in. A local crowdfunding campaign raised $28,395 of the required total; Bernadette Nation from the Small Business Services mayoral agency communicated daily with the business to help it navigate the structural and financial requirements.

B&H reopened in August. Locals filed in for challah French toast and chilled Borscht, grumbling affectionately about the wait times. It might be hyper-local, but “the East Village has lost more than its fair share of iconic institutions of late,” Gothamist wrote. “The fact that B&H hung in there, with support from loyal customers via a couple of crowd funding efforts to get through, is reason for this to feel like a win for all New Yorkers.”

Because when a local mainstay shutters for good, it’s a loss—for its patrons, but also for the neighborhood’s sense of history.

Not just a New York problem

The struggles of local institutions in New York are familiar to mainstays in growing cities everywhere. Oakland saw a piece of its own past disappear with the 2015 opening of KronnerBurger in the former site of the classic Piedmont Avenue joint, J Hamburger & Such.

The Key System mural on the wall of the old J’s Hamburger and Such. (Salim Virji/Flickr)

When Key System trains ran through the Bay Area from 1903 to 1958, the triangular corner building that housed J’s was one of the original stations. In 2005, local artist Rocky Baird painted a mural commemorating the discontinued Key Route and its local legends on the back wall of J’s. It became a point of neighborhood communication, the East Bay Express wrote:

[S]teady streams of passers-by stop to see Baird paint. They search the portraits for locals they recognize. Retirees tell a group of kids from a nearby elementary school about the Key System days. La Vida Electrica has neighbor talking to neighbor, a community coming together.

J’s went out of business in 2011, and Chris Kronner signed the lease for the building in 2014. That December the mural was destroyed. People took to Yelp to protest; longtime Oakland resident and dentist Michael Scollard was distraught. The destruction of the mural, he tells CityLab “is a microcosm for a much bigger discussion. There’s a tension between all this new development—the new money, the new hip people moving in—and what the people in the neighborhood want.”

Adapting to the times

Some institutions find ways to adapt and thrive. Just north of Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, a local pub sidestepped impending destruction by a 33-unit condominium development by moving, quite literally, around the corner.

First opened as a bait shop on Claremont Avenue in 1922, the Kingfish evolved into a neighborhood bar. A previous owner had sold the property to developers in the early 2000s; when plans for the condos were announced in 2008, he closed the place down—preemptively, as it turns out. When the economy nosedived that year, the development was pushed back, and six regulars stepped into buy the Kingfish. When the bar reopened in 2009, “the sentiment toward it showed how much everyone cared about it,” current co-owner Emil Peinert tells CityLab.

On March 15, 2014, the developers told Peinert that the plans for the condo units were back up and running; they had 10 months to vacate the property. (The bar declined an option to stay in the new building because they wanted to keep the original structure intact.) They considered closing. They considered stripping the bar’s iconic, sports-photo lined interiors and reinstalling them in a new space. Nothing felt right.

So nine months and 29 days after the notice, the shack-like bar was attached to the back of a truck and rolled into a vacant lot across the street, where it’s currently open for business. “Everyone thought I was crazy,” Peinert says. “I’m surprised there wasn’t a pool betting on whether it would make it.”

Locals are relieved. “People walk in and say, ‘It’s the same!’ ” Peinert says. “They’ll point to something across the street and forget we’re not in the old location.”

Which is the point. “I’ve always felt more like a caretaker than an owner,” he says. With an institution like the Kingfish, “there’s enough history and legacy attached to the place that you can’t really own it, or change it.” You just have to keep it open.

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