It has been almost six months since I last walked the streets of New York City. I am glad to be back to my old routine: early morning New York Times pick-up, visit Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, haircut and shave at York Barber, and then breakfast at Neil’s Coffee Shop. Except Neil’s is gone, evicted for nonpayment of rent. I read about its demise in The New York Post before I left Florida. Apparently, the longtime owner filed for bankruptcy in 2022 and died in early 2023. Now it is in the hands of the landlord. As Yogi Berra said, “In New York nothing changes but everything.”
I found an old interview with the late proprietor, who said ownership of Neil’s was handed over only once, in 1980, from the original owner to him, and he was determined to keep everything as it was, including the same 1951 cash register and 1954 milkshake blender which “still work just fine.” The upholstery was updated and that was it. Neil’s first opened its doors in 1940, one of the many Greek diners that proliferated in mid-century Manhattan, serving coffee to go in the iconic Grecian-themed blue paper cups–a New York artifact once seen everywhere, but now a rarity since the invasion of Starbucks. The original neon sign hung out front on day one was there for the next 83 years. I went myself to confirm and for once The Post got it right. Neil’s was closed, dark and locked. I peered in the window. Chairs upended on tables. A lone can of spray cleaner on the counter.
I had been going to Neil’s since 1964, when I moved into the city from New Jersey after law school. It was my go-to diner after I got married and we bought an apartment on 71st Street. Our girls were small when we moved again to 68th Street—also an easy walking distance to Neil’s. We had countless family breakfasts and father-daughter lunches in those old booths, until we moved out of the city in 1972. I returned to Neil’s periodically over the years since then, while visiting my grandchildren who live on the upper east side. We meet at the Carlyle hotel, where I stay when I’m in town, only a few blocks from our favorite coffee shop. They enjoyed it I like to think because they could see how much it meant to me to take them there. That and the ice cream sundaes.
Rough around the edges, I don’t think Neil’s had an indoor paint job in the 50-plus years I went there. The tables and booths were squeezed into space that should accommodate half the number. The fire code inspector must have been a regular and looked the other way. Visiting the men’s room in the basement was like going down into the subway. But the food was consistent –the oversized omelets and home fries were reliable breakfast comfort food. Nothing like a toasted bagel and cream cheese from Neil’s. Oh, how I miss those early morning wake up meals.
There are other changes in the neighborhood. The CVS on the corner of Third Avenue and 68th Street has shut its doors. As I write this I see the windows at The Food Emporium across the street are filled with closing signs instead of the usual grocery store displays. Things feel diminished. Except for the New York Hospital workforce crowds coming up from the subway at 68th and Lexington, the pedestrian traffic seems to have abated. It seems like there are even fewer dogs on the sidewalks. Perhaps it is the weather. It has been colder and people are staying indoors. Could it be spring break time for schools, so everyone is away? Restaurants seem quieter too. Something is happening here in New York City. People are leaving it. Now that office attendance is not mandated, there has been a migration to more affordable places to work remotely. I work in my own office in East Hampton no more than six months out of the year. With Zoom and before that Skype, I connect remotely with my office and have been doing so for 15 years. I met a young woman recently while playing tennis who works for Goldman Sachs. She relocated from New York to work in West Palm Beach. “A better environment,” she said. “More outdoor time and less expensive.” Yes, New York may be shrinking a bit.
I found one busy place on my walk around the neighborhood: the local library on 68th street. Drawn in by the comfortable seating and a change of scene from an apartment–as well as the fact that it is “free” –people are flocking to libraries, sanctuaries of calm and quiet, no matter what might be going on outside. I belong to one on 79th Street where I hang out and work when I am in town. The Starbucks across the street is also lively. New York may be slightly less populous, but it will never be totally abandoned. As time passes however, with the loss of places like Neil’s, there may not be enough to keep some of us here in place or coming back.