Did Gentrification Ruin New York’s Legendary Pizza?

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New York City pizza is legendary. At least it was. Partly due to the water and the abundance of quality Italian ingredients, pizza has become a staple of New York culture. Philadelphia has the cheesesteak, and California has the burrito, but New Yorkers can munch on their own personal ambrosia, the slice. But as the city’s class climate changes, it seems significantly harder to find good pizza, and it’s symptomatic of greater changes to the city.

Finding good pizza is like finding a four-leaf clover. You used to be able to grab a halfway decent slice at one of the thousands of pizzerias in New York City. But as the city becomes increasingly more gentrified, pizzerias have given way to smoothie bars, gluten-free eateries and fast-food chains. The few pizzerias left are rarely run by Italian Americans or replaced by 99-cent pizza places. Pizza used to be a solid meal for the economical New Yorker, but now it seems to be representative of the growing class separation in this city.

Now broke New Yorkers get to enjoy the cultural experience of pizza for a dollar. Not only is it bland and cheaply made, but diners can be whisked away to Duluth or St. Paul to taste their version of pizza. There was a time when die-hard New Yorkers were connoisseurs of pizza. But dollar pizza is like a chocolatier enjoying cheap Easter candy or a sommelier espousing the virtues of wine coolers. But with the challenge of surviving in New York, it seems like a better option. Milk prices are constantly on the rise, as are quality ingredients like a good sauce, fresh meats and veggies, so pizza prices do go up. If you’re broke, you can’t really afford to nitpick over quality. But how is that not a problem? Poor folks should still be able to get their two slices and a soda for $5 since this city is built on the backs of the working class. They’re the ones working at all the restaurants and shops. They’re the artists trying to make a name for themselves and prove that anything is possible in New York City.

It is a sad day when a rich part of Italian history like pizza is now mostly made by anyone but Italians. There’s nothing wrong with people of all the colors of the rainbow opening up pizza shops. But would you want a burrito made by an Italian family? Would you want to eat soul food at a Chinese restaurant? It seems like a rich part of New York City is being displaced by a growing intolerance toward carbohydrates and being undercut by the Walmart of 99-cent pizza. There will always be a market for pizza, but sadly the standards are on the decline.

The endangered species of delicious New York City pizza is a metaphor for the dying identity of the metropolis. When independent businesses are replaced by chains, and the food of the common man is swapped out for luxury restaurants targeting the gentrifying element, it doesn’t seem like the same city. New York is less about bohemian artists or a melting pot of immigrants and more about an aspiration of wealth and decadence to afford to eat at your favorite Greek/Asian vegan fusion restaurant. We are getting precariously close to losing all the things that make this city what it is. It’s a defining moment in the city’s history as the identity is slowly changing. Is New York about pursuing your dreams or chasing that magical check that will keep you flush with kale smoothies, gym memberships and designer clothing?

Here’s hoping that in the year 2525 people will ride flying Vespas to go pick up a slice and a soda for a $100 — that is if we aren’t fighting robots or haggling for Spam in the underwater remains of the Lower East Side. Until then, we should make it our priority to support good pizza and set higher standards so that there will be a place for our children to enjoy the food that helped define the city we live in. If not, like so many New York City staples, it will be torn down and replaced with a shiny distraction of what we’ve lost.

Christian Cintron is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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