Goodbye Morans: When a Neighborhood Joint Closes
A family-owned restaurant closes in New York’s West Chelsea. Are our cities in danger of becoming franchise-filled shopping malls?
In a city like New York it can be hard to find a place that you never want to leave. There is too much to offer as storefronts rotate another “it” restaurant or “place to see” for the next six months. It may be the City That Never Sleeps but there’s still not enough time to experience it all. And we have to experience it all. That’s why we’re here.
But those who dine at Moran’s, an Irish restaurant in West Chelsea (including the Daily Beast’s staff), find themselves coming back time after time. It’s laden with history—the space dates back to the Civil War era and is decorated with Tiffany lamps, Irish watercolors and an impressive cherry wood bar from the Prohibition days.
Shelves are filled with Waterford crystal passed down to the owners over multiple generations. A crackling fire in a hearth added to the warm and homely atmosphere.
But in February, the restaurant’s owner sold the building (and two adjacent ones) for $35 million, according to public records. New management took over and closed its doors “temporarily” for renovations, promising to re-open Moran’s in a couple of weeks.
According to The Real Deal, a New York real estate news site, the new owners, Hidrock Realty, plan to sign a new food and beverage tenant. Though, neither party could be reached for comment.
“We see rents trending up in that submarket, connecting upwards towards Hudson Yards,” Hidrock COO Steven Hilary said, noting that the area’s rental prices now range from $150 to $200 per square foot. They are projected to double within two years as more developers move in.
This rapid change in neighborhood landscape is apparent to anyone with a set of eyes and a daily routine. Mom and pop establishments all over the city—and cities across the globe—are being replaced with franchises faster than a Starbucks barista can misspell your name.
“Corporations can afford the massive rents,” Jeremiah Moss, who runs the website Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, which tracks the closing of city staples, told The Daily Beast. “The levels are insane and that’s the reason most of these places are closing. It has absolutely nothing to do with poor sales. These businesses have weathered decades of ups and downs in the economy, changing markets and changing tastes, but they can’t survive the rent.”
Since opening its doors in 1957, Moran’s has observed the changing landscape of the island of Manhattan, witnessing the functioning railway that once sat outside their doors turn into the High Line Park and Meatpacking replace its butchers with trendy gyms and high-end shopping. (Full disclosure: The Daily Beast HQ is in one of the area’s “starchitect” buildings designed by Frank Gehry.)
In its early days, Moran’s welcomed seamen docking at nearby piers that have now been converted into event and recreational spaces.
“It was very different back then,” Moran’s former owner, Colleen Lydon, told The Epoch Times. Her family migrated from Ireland and opened Moran’s. Her grandmother whipped up home-cooked meals while her grandfather tended the bar and patrons.
“People who worked the dock, people who handled the shrimp, or people who worked at Nabisco down the street—they were all part of different timeless,” Lydon said. “[Sailors] would get off the boat, and they would have 10 days off. They would literally just spend their 10 days here.”
Decades later, when the art world moved to Chelsea in the mid-1990s, Moran’s became a staple. M.H. Miller, a writer for ArtNews described the restaurant as a place “where auction house specialists, Upper East Side gallery directors, and Lower East Side art dealers have all joined together at some point to eat french fries at the bar and snort cocaine in the not-at-all-inconspicuous-enough bathroom.”
And while Moran’s wasn’t forced out of the area, other local businesses with similar sentiment are being forced out.
La Luncheonette, a restaurant just one block south, is facing eviction after 26 years. Their landlord, according to co-owner Melva Max, plans to demolish the current building to make room for a new and more modern construction. He told Max, as well as the three tenants who live above the restaurant, they were to be out by June, though they have yet to receive anything in writing and are required to receive a six-month notice.
“Every single day and night they are talking about it and it’s really hard for me,” Max said of her neighborhood patrons.
With the final closing date still up in the air, both the owners and customers are left wondering whether the end will, if ever, come. “At least with that set date I could say, ‘Okay, this is what is happening. I know it’s upsetting, its upsetting for all of us. But this is what it is.’”
One way citizens are fighting to help protect small businesses that have been a viable and lasting part of their communities is through un-passed legislation that has been circulating since the mid-1980s, according to Moss.
His #SaveNYC campaign is bringing the Small Business Jobs Survival Act back into awareness.
“Its not in any way commercial rent control,” he said. “The business can’t just be kicked out, they have to be given an option to renew their lease and then it can go to arbitration for a fair rent negotiation. So the landlord can certainly raise the rent certainly, but not by 5 or 10 times.”
With it expected to go back up for vote, Moss is confident that there’s “a pretty good chance of passing it.”
All over the globe, cities are beginning to come together to preserve small businesses that have stood the test of time. According to Bloomberg’s Patrick Clark, London’s city government “requires building owners to accept bids from community groups before they sell a pub building. In Paris, a city planning agency has been buying up property so it can rent to bookstores and cafes at rates they can afford.”
Last year, lawmakers in San Francisco introduced a bill to allow long-term establishments to become historical landmarks in an attempt to protect them from landlords attempting to cash in on the city’s real estate boom.
“Traditional landmarking laws are ill-suited for things like businesses and nonprofits,” Mike Buhler, the executive director of San Francisco Heritage, told Bloomberg. “We want to recognize that intangible resources have great significance to the history of San Francisco, and are really emblematic of the city’s heritage.”
“It’s really a global problem,” Moss said. “If things continue they way they are, he said, major cities all across the world that were once characteristically unique will simply become “one big suburban shopping mall.”