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.
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?
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