By Scott Etkin
When Big Nick’s Burger & Pizza Joint on W. 77th Street and Broadway closed in 2013, it meant far more than just one less place to get a slice on the Upper West Side, says writer and longtime neighborhood resident Thomas Dyja. For Dyja, the death of Big Nick’s was a culinary symbol of the huge changes he’s witnessed in his three decades in the city — a period in which New York became cleaner and safer, he says, but also less exciting and more unequal.
“The city had changed for the better in so many ways, but it also had gotten homogenized and more boring,” Dyja said on a Zoom call from his home office on W. 79th Street, in the apartment where he has lived with his family for the past 25 years. Big Nick’s was a neighborhood institution: “You wanted it to be there. But I didn’t go that often,” Dyja said, explaining (with a laugh), “because it wasn’t that good.”
Two years ago, with the pandemic in full swing, Dyja published New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation (Simon & Schuster), his ambitious chronicle of the city’s cultural, political, and economic shifts from the start of the administration of Mayor Ed Koch in 1978 through the end of Michael Bloomberg’s final mayoral term in 2013.
Bloomberg left office the same year Big Nick’s closed – also the year Dyja began work on New York, New York, New York. Eight years later, it was published to critical acclaim (“a work of astonishing breadth and depth that encompasses seminal changes in New York’s government and economy, along with deep dives into hip-hop, the AIDS crisis, the visual arts, housing, architecture and finance,” wrote a Times reviewer.)
The book was released not long after the city became known as the epicenter of the pandemic. Many New Yorkers were fleeing to Florida or the Hamptons, or asking existential questions about the future of New York.
Dyja put it in perspective. “When you do a lot of reading about New York, and you’ve been around long enough, you find there’s always another crisis,” he told the Rag. “You have the fiscal crisis, and then you have the crisis with [Mayor] Dinkins where things look like they’re going to implode, and then you have 9/11. And every time, everybody’s like, ‘New York’s not going to come back. It’s dead.’ And somehow it comes back.”
Still, the pandemic took its toll, and the city has the retail vacancies, homelessness, and crime to show for it. On the Upper West Side, Dyja has seen a rise in sensitivity to these issues that sometimes goes against the neighborhood’s reputation for inclusivity.
“The whole reason you were [on the UWS] in 1980, and I’d like to think after that, was that this was supposed to be a more diverse place and a little more sympathetic and community driven,” Dyja said. “There was not a sense that somebody didn’t belong in this neighborhood.”
Judging by local politics (and some comments on Rag articles), we’re in a period of hypersensitivity about crime. But again, Dyja suggests this period may not be unique. “You put a few million people together [and] stuff happens,” he said. In reading past newspapers for his book,“every time I hit an election cycle, there’d be this huge run up about crime,” Dyja said. “And then suddenly no one would be talking about it after election day.”
The UWS has come a long way from the danger of the 80s, when “you would never go into Riverside Park in anything other than broad daylight,” Dyja said. He sees the need for more housing, especially for underserved people who were “elbowed out of the neighborhood” when single-room-occupancy apartments were converted into multi-room units. “Between 1970 and 1983…87 percent of the city’s S.R.O. rooms disappeared,” according to The New York Times. “In 1993 there were 44,000 rooms [of 200,000] left in New York. Many people who would have been S.R.O. tenants ended up homeless.”
The forces that knock New York down and build it back up are messy. To make sense of it in his book, Dyja highlighted some of the key people – such as Parks Department Commissioner Gordon Davis and AIDS activist Larry Kramer – who dug in and took responsibility for problems that seemed intractable at the time, who found solutions — or at least paths to great improvement.
Although Dyja lived here through the years he covered in the book, he went back to contemporary written materials to fact check his memory. His research led him to read “literally every issue of New York magazine, to know not just what happened, but how people were looking at it,” he said. “If more of the [Village] Voice were available online, I’d probably still be reading it.”
To make sense of the research, Dyja taped together a handwritten, eight-foot timeline, which helped him keep track of the plot, themes, and characters over the decades.
Dyja sees parallels between his 12-story apartment building and the city’s bruised history and enduring potential. The building isn’t perfect – it has been broken into (it “ain’t the Apthorp,” he said), but it works for everyone who calls it home.
“Over time, you had different kinds of people coming in, different types of money, different types of jobs. [The building] brings that all together into a place that functions and that’s respectful and keeps everybody’s needs and desires in mind as it goes forward,” he said. “It became, for me, a miniature possibility of how we can do things here in the city and how we need to work with each other to keep it going.”