Thursday, November 4, 2010

Old New York

Camille’s post raised some issues that I had also been considering in relation to historic places and business in New York. I was inspired, also, by Rich’s recent post about a current landscape in Washington Heights, one fixed in another, constructed time and built in yet another, and Stephen’s confrontation of the transient nature of the neighborhood storefront. In light of these thoughts, constructing New York seems perilously in flux around space that, like Bakhtin’s literary artistic chronotope, becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time. Fastness and flows coexist in each of these fixtures, sites of commerce and historic preservation, as neighbors. I wondered what allowed some storefronts to survive changes in customers and some house museums to fail to remain relevant. What was replaceable within the narrative of a New York neighborhood? I sought some assistance in a place that has features of each - the construction of history, specifically the history of “Old New York” and production of low margin high-turnover commerce.

Old New York and commerce meet in a place where movement can be static- Grand Central Station. Trains here, as everywhere, move, force people to wait, and bring residents home, laborers to work, and tourists to experience. Grand Central Terminal, as the current structure is officially called, is intertwined with a complex history of monumental architectures, visions of a modern and electrified infrastructure and train service that never ceased during the transition and ten year construction period. As the newly renovated Campbell Apartment reflects, modernity is Old New York and it can be experienced if you adhere to the proper dress code but it is not the only spot.

Built in 1913, the Oyster Bar has survived a city where 60% or more restaurants fail. This restaurant, located in the historic station’s center, is surprisingly invisible. It offers new and turn of the century fair while allowing guests to eat, smell and feel many different Old New Yorks.

The intrigue of film noir may lead you to enter through the saloon, using the back stairs that are hidden in plain sight. Sit side by side at the lunch counters, that produce an effect reminiscent of the public-privacy created by population density in the station. Order the oyster pan roast and share a distinctly affordable meal transcending time. The pan roast actually predates the Oyster Bar having been popular in the mid to late 18th C on the boardwalk of Coney Island. Reminiscent of Bakhtin’s consideration of Greek-romance-time, the hiatus between Coney Island and modernity and that between the construction of the terminal and today- “leaves not trace in the lives of the heroes or in their personalities.”(90) These dishes carry the ubiquitous nature of the oyster as New York predating European arrival. ( The spice rout mixes in paprika and Worcestershire simultaneous overlaps with Heinz chili sauce.

1 August 1974, New York Times, pg. 32:

Grand Central Oyster Bar Shut, but May Reopen Soon


Nick Petter, the 76-year-old head cook, who came to work there in 1919, said the bar had never changed. With a sad smile, he gave permission to publish the recipe for its famous oyster stew:


8 freshly opened oysters

1 pat of butter

1 tablespoon chili sauce

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

A few drops of lemon juice

1/4 cup oyster liquor

Celery salt, a dash


4 ounces cream

1 piece of dry toast (if desired)

Place all but the cream in a deep pan and cook briskly for a minute, stirring constantly. Add cream. When it comes to boil, pour over toast in a soup plate and serve.

Tables at the Oyster Bar cannot offer the same anonymity as can come with the crowd seated at the counters. The vaulted ceilings of the main dining area carry whispers across the arches to unknown diners connecting to conversations potentially in the past.

If you must retire to the restrooms be prepared to see and touch the city’s decadent 1970s. It's through the saloon where men in tweed jackets and boat shoes populate the bar- funny you've never see them in the station above. A shared sitting room lets you sit on lips found in design museums and have your bottom held by a giant hand that swivels. It is one of the few places where bathroom attendants are expected.( The bright lights clean.

Unlike house museums you do not just look at a table; you sit at it, taste the past, touch and operate fixtures in the restrooms. Old New York becomes the experience of Old New York for the cynical and aloof through the participation of tourists and those who simply missed their train. As oysters travel through time in the bellies of New York these caverns are at the center of New York’s veins- the tunnels. On the restaurant’s website oysters gather in front of Grand Central Terminal. One in an "I love New York" hat turns around holding the Oyster Bar’s distinctly 70s logo with a phone number. It need not state its presence as that of Old New York and it will take customers in ball caps.

Restaurant business in NY

1 comment:

Zoe said...

Jenna, your comment about GCS as a place "where movement can be static" made me think about the Improv Everywhere flashmob that took place there - people turned up at the main concourse and then froze in place for 5 minutes. If you haven't seen it, you should check out the video, it's pretty amazing: