Author’s note: apparently there was a theme for February to not use first person pronouns. I’m gonna use them all the time. Handle it.
A few days ago, I wound up on the west side of Manhattan. I’d heard about a little diner called Hector’s Cafe in the Meatpacking District, so I decided to pop in. It’s a small freestanding building under the High Line that has been around since 1949. It’s a remnant of an earlier time, back when the High Line was simply an overgrown former elevated rail track and Gansevoort Street was stained red with the blood of slaughtered animals.
The area is a bit different now. Hector’s sits across the street from a Samsung store, which itself is a few doors down from the Diane von Furstenberg boutique. On the other side of Hector’s is the Standard Hotel, regular host to the rich, famous, and beautiful. On sidewalk corners, excited Asian and European tourists in Canada Goose jackets stand with hands full of shopping bags, chattering excitedly.
Inside Hector’s, things are quieter. Most of the customers are New Yorkers, and the handful of obvious tourists are of the quiet, low-key variety. You can get a cup of soup (decent) for three bucks; a stack of pancakes (some of the best I’ve had in the city) for five.
I sip on my coffee and talk to Nick, the manager. I mention that I work at a couple theatres in midtown. Turns out he worked at a restaurant across the street from the Shubert Theatre back when A Chorus Line was originally on Broadway. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that restaurant no longer exists.
I ask about the meatpackers that gave the neighborhood its name. He tells me that there are now eight meatpacking businesses left—down from 180 at the area’s peak. Back then, he says, “there was nothing but blood, guts, and glory.” I posit that once the next big economic crash happens, a lot of these trendy, vacuous European boutiques that have taken their place will be the first to go. He says that he hopes so because “you can’t run a business these days unless you have crazy amounts of money.”
And I think. A lot of New Yorkers have a tendency to romanticize the past. When your city is constantly changing at such a fast pace, life is a constant cycle of loss and rediscovery. But nostalgia is a dangerously potent drug, which, in the worst cases, can cultivate deep depression and overpower the need to move forward in life. Nor is development necessarily a bad thing; everyone wants to grow and thrive, and you can’t get growth without change.
That said, as we move forward, what do we lose? What does it mean for our societal memory when long-standing businesses are increasingly being forced out so the spaces can be leased to wealthy, high-turnover tenants who often have little or no interest in the history of the neighborhoods in which they set up shop? I worry that this is the future not just of New York but of America at large: a nation of placeless places, where the relentlessly destructive cycle of constant redevelopment alienates us from each other and ourselves.
For its part, though, Hector’s isn’t going anywhere, as Nick assured me with a small smile. “Business is good.” It’s something he’s doubtless said many times, but it still made me happy.
Josh graduated from Calvin College with a major in political science and a minor in theatre. He currently is working as a theatrical director and designer in New York.