"Neighbors for A Viable Village" Fight for University Diner "Tradition" As Coffee Shop Closes after 70 Years

by cathryn on September 21, 2012

For Rent

By most accounts, University Diner wasn’t perhaps the best diner in the world food-wise but it was a neighborhood force, a meeting spot, a place where the ‘old school’ (if you will) interactions took place that just don’t seem to happen so much anymore. With its open windows and its location at 12th Street and University Place, the outside world was invited to look in and inside you could choose to look out on passers-by, or not. As of Wednesday at 4 p.m., it is now closed after 70 years in business. Jeremiah at Vanishing New York (where I first learned of this) had a great story about an exchange he witnessed there between a man and his wife.

Petition Now on Door

Margaret Laino is part of newly-formed Neighbors for A Viable Village and sent me this description of what the University Diner meant to her and others and what they would like to see happen next:

The University Diner Coffee Shop at the corner of Twelfth Street and University place just drew its last breath [Wednesday] at 4:00 p.m.. After almost 70 years of continuous operation,the last area eating place where NYU, and high school students could eat and study alongside actors, authors, seniors and neighborhood residents without being rushed out after eating or having to pay over $10.00 for a meal. Gazing out the wide windows along East 12 St. and University Place a diner could watch the the action and the actors passing by — whether students on rollerblades, “occupiers” on skateboards, or models on EmpireState 6-inch heels. One never felt alone at this diner.

Shirley, the waitress with the proverbial heart of gold was always there to listen to all, or to light a candle on a birthday cupcake for her “steadies.” One male passerby said today, “How does Shirley feel?” At 3:30 today, Shirley was just about to flag a cab to take her to work when she learned the diner was closing at 4 p.m, and told she needn’t come in. “I’m really tired and heartbroken,” she told a caller. “we were a family. What am I going to do without my regulars? Who’s going to be there for them…and for me!” Told there was a movement led by a neighborhood activists to make sure the the 31 East 12 Street co-op’s real estate agent, Sutton-Garrett Realty, rents to a similar restaurant and not to a chain, a bank, phone store or food franchise, Shirley was too disheartened to talk. The diner’s night staff besides Shirley, Sunita, and cook Manny, had come in to work today at four p.m., expecting a last night with their regulars, only to be told to take their things and go home.

Regular customer and 12th Street neighbor, Bianca Jebbia, recalled “My husband and I courted here and now we bring our three young kids here a couple of times a week. Where else can you go with small children and not have to worry?” Last night, Anne Joseph, a social activist who protests “mountain clearing” in Kentucky was visiting the city from her home in Lexington. She made a point to drop in. “The French toast on challah here is the best!” She shyly added that her father, Mr. Rosenbaum, had owned the University diner during the late 1940s. “We had moved here from Brooklyn and my friends and I would come in for the egg creams. There were looped counters then, along with a few table; I can picture it today! My girlfriends used to love to talk to my parents; they’d even advice from my mother! It’s always easier to talk to someone else’s parents,” she said smiling. “There was also a lot of political talk then. Union Square leftists and Village radicals would have endless conversations at a table.” Ms. Joseph became a member of the Village Independent Democrats while in high school. “The VID had to have a student voice on their council and I was chosen!”

Now the question is: What will be chosen to fill the empty space, filled with memories and friendships that go back to the “New Deal,” the forties, and also the 50s when Eleanor Roosevelt lived at 16 East 11th Street?

inside…

Sam Gustaffson, a tall, blond, 19-year-old music production student at the nearby Institute for Audio Research on University Place and East Tenth Street, meets his friends at the diner a few times a week. He readily signed the petition posted by the newly formed “Neighbors for a Viable Village.” Ella Levi, retiree from Beth Israel Hospital, exchanged cell phone numbers with Shirley. “What are we going to do now?” she asked.

Margaret Laino, a local writer and social worker, said “We’re going to talk, and act, and fight to make sure we get a restaurant that continues the same tradition: affordable, family friendly, and run on a human scale, with the samelow-key lighting that makes this place to relax and reflect, eat and socialize. One with the same wide windows that look to the wider village without!”

The “Neighbors” are presently setting up an on-line petition urging Villagers and anyone interested in retaining the character a liveable and vital city, and respecting its historical treasures and traditions to write or e-mail agent chandrapersaud@suttongarrett realty.org or call 646-300-4891.

Photos: Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York

 
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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Ann Feldman September 21, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Unfortunately the Village has not been “viable” for years. Move to Brooklyn fast before its neighborhoods also get gobbled up by the rich and boring (see Park Slope). Yes, children, rich people are VERY boring. Try having dinner at one of these “galas” without becoming comatose

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cathryn September 21, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Ann,

These are good points! I suppose that’s why people liked the University Diner because it reminded them of another, more community-oriented, somewhat less expensive time where all mixes of people came together (except probably the very very rich who attend those galas!).

So maybe it should be “Neighbors for a Once Again Viable Village” or “Neighbors who Know The Village is no Longer Viable but Could You Leave Us This One Place?”

Totally agree re: Park Slope which actually is in worse ‘shape’ in some ways (I suppose because it in more recent history had more interesting ‘flair’ and that’s all being gobbled – cobbled? – away … if there’s any left)!

Thanks for your comment.

Cathryn.

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margaret laino September 21, 2012 at 10:50 pm

I wonder if Alec Baldwin would get behind the movement to replace the University Diner with a similar restaurant. He’s eaten at the Diner and expressed concern the night last week when he saw the FOR RENT sign in the diner’s windows. Anyone listening….

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margiella September 30, 2012 at 11:57 pm

“THE BUCK STOPS HERE” SEEMS APT TO DESCRIBE OUR FIGHT AGAINST GREEDY LANDLORDS, RESIDENTIAL AND COMMERCIAL!!! WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO COMMERCIAL RENT REGULATIONS? THE REPLY FROM A DINER OWNER: “MICHAEL BLOOMBERG.” EVERYBODY BOWS TO HIS TAKE (LITERALLY) ON REAL ESTATE. THE MORE YOU CAN CHARGE, THE MORE TOURISTS WILL COME, AND NEW YORK CITY WILL BE HIS LEGACY — AS A JUNKYARD FILLED WITH CHAIN RESTAURANTS, $12 FROZEN MARGARITAS AND PRE-FROZEN APPLEBY DINNERS, CHAIN FAST FOODS, MICROWAVED EGG SANDWICHES, OVERPRICED 7-11s, WHELANS (WHICH JUST SWALLOWED CVS & DUANE READE WHOLE AND RAISED PRICES!! LET’S PUT THE PRESSURE ON WHERE IT BELONGS, NOT TO THE RENTER, BUT THE OWNER (STRANGE ISN’T IT HOW TENANTS HAVE TO PROVE HOW MUCH THEY EARN TO RENT AN APT. AND THE LANDLORD IS NEVER ASKED TO OPEN HIS/HER BOOKS? IDEA!!!!
LET’S ASK THE CO-OP BOARD AT 31 EAST 12 ST. TO LOWER THE RENT ON THE DINER SPACE THERE AND WAIT TO MAKE MONEY DOWN THE ROAD WHEN THEIR BUILDING GAINS VALUE BY KEEPING THE NEIGHBORHOOD VIABLE AND HUMAN. BY GOING FOR THE HIGHEST RENT NOW THEY’LL HAVE TO GET A WENDY’S, 7-11, BANK, OR WORSE. TALK ABOUT NEIGHBORHOOD BUSTING!! I’M SURE EVERY TENANT IN THAT BUILDING CONSIDERS HIMSELF ENLIGHTENED AND LIBERAL (RENTER AND CO-OP OWNER ALIKE), AND WOULD NEVER CONSIDER THEMSELVES A NEIGHBORHOOD BUSTER. BUT TAKE A WALK ALONG UNIVERSITY PLACE BETWEEN 10TH ST. AND 14TH. BUT BRING YOUR CHARGE CARD. THERE ARE A COUPLE OF DECENT ETHNIC RESTAURANTS — SAIGON, AGATA AND VALENTINA CAFE,TORTORIA,
THE GRAY DOG, A SMALL NOODLE PLACE, AND AN OLD TIME PIZZERIA BELOW BOWLMOR. BUT THERE ARE ALSO OVERPRICED AND GARISH PLACES, THE MOST NOTABLE BEING THE PIZZA PLACE BETWEEN 13 & 14 ST. ON THE WEST SIDE OF UNIV. PLACE. SOMEONE IS GETTING MONEY FOR LETTING THOSE HIDEOUS FLUORESCENT “CLOCKWORK ORANGE” LIGHT BULBS LIGHT UP THE STREET NIGHT AND DAY! IT MIGHT PROVIDE A LIT-UP SAFETY ZONE FOR THE HOMELESS THOUGH. SPEAKING OF HOMELESS, TAKE A WALK ALONG 12TH AND 13TH STREETS BETWEEN UNIVERSITY PLACE AND 4TH AVENUE. ITS NOW A SQUATTERS’ VILLAGE. THAT’S THE HIGH-PRICED UNIVERSITY PLACE NEIGHBORHOOD FOR YOU. THE LANDLORDS SUCK IN MONEY ON THE BACKS OF THE POOR. OH, LET ME NOT DIGRESS, OR BE THOUGHT ANGRY. NO, I’VE JUST WATCHED RENTS MULTIPLY EXPONENTIALLY SINCE 1978 WHEN IT WAS “THROW IN A SINK AND TRIPLE THE $200 RENT.” THEN CAME THE CO-OP CRAZE WHEN LANDLORDS REALIZED THEY COULD SELL NOT JUST THE CANDY BAR, BUT THE WRAPPER AS WELL! IT REALLY TIME TO DEMAND CHANGES IN OUR RENT REGULATIONS. CHANGE THE CITY COUNCIL, CHANGE THE MAYOR, AND CREATE A VIABLE CITY OR FOLLOW JANE JACOBS TO CANADA. WHAT MORE CAN I SAY.

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cathryn October 1, 2012 at 6:24 pm

Hi Margaret, Thanks for writing and the great info. As far as Alec Baldwin, I think someone would need to make some overtures TO him. Maybe try via Twitter…?

Margiella, you said it all and you’re pretty on target! Follow Jane Jacobs to Canada … exactly! The Mayor and Christine Quinn laud Jane Jacobs while doing exactly the opposite of what she proposed to make a “great” city. Sad re: landlords… it’s amazing (to me) money and greed typically win and the fact that the Bloomberg Admin does everything to foster that atmosphere doesn’t help.

But New Yorkers also have to stand up more! Also, if University Diner had told their clientele they were going out of business perhaps the neighborhood could have put pressure on the landlord or, at least, he would have felt the pressure and other landlords would have witnessed it.

Thanks for your comments!

Cathryn.

Reply

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