The Insipid City

Food halls have spread far and wide, deflavorizing neighborhoods every step of the way.

The New York Times hailed it as “a UN of food”: a destination for Swiss fondue, Russian caviar, and raw seafood from Japan, featuring an Italian sausage shop, an Argentine grill, and “a natural food bar with such attractions as a made without chemicals red wine from Aix en Provence, even tacos and hamburgers and salads.” As construction on Citicorp Center, a foil baguette rising over Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street, continued through the 1970s, there was great excitement in New York over the culinary offerings planned for its ground floor. Preservation requirements meant the tower had to be built on stilts, with its cantilever looming imperially over the development’s sunken public plaza. But food offered a tether to reconnect this strangely suspended loaf to the life of the neighborhood beneath it. When the building opened in 1977, the stores, restaurants, food counters, and semipublic spaces at its base were thought to offer a fresh way of thinking about the relationship between new construction and its urban context. Citicorp Center, the Times wrote in a 2006 obituary for its architect, Hugh Stubbins, was “a model for the skyscraper woven into the fabric of the city.” But was the skyscraper the needle in this metaphor, or part of New York’s future fabric, a graft to be incorporated into the whole?

Finally, almost half a century after the completed pile first winked over the East Side of Manhattan, we may have an answer. The Swiss fondue and caviar stands are long gone, but something of Stubbins’s original vision is supposed to survive in the new food hall that now occupies much of the tower’s podium block. The hall has already made a form of history: inspired by the building’s creator, it’s called The Hugh, which puts the new venture in the running, with perhaps only brunch chain The Smith as competition, for New York’s most unattractively named hospitality venue. Visiting on a recent Wednesday afternoon, I was struck by the familiarity of the venue’s offerings, many of them available in other food halls I’ve visited in recent months throughout the city: sandwiches from Alidoro, Japanese hand rolls from KazuNori, the Pakistani burgers of BK Jani, and pork belly ho’cakes of Mökbar. If the original ground floor space in the Citigroup Center was a UN of food, The Hugh is more like food’s Raytheon—less an idealistic assembly of the world’s flavors than a private operation to reshape collective taste. The real attraction of The Hugh, however, is not its food, or the history of the building, or the fact that you can buy something there called an Intimate Pita, which includes slow-cooked beef, tahini, pickles, and peppers and sounds suspiciously like a flatbread fleshlight. The real attraction is the space, a lean glass-canopied atrium filled with trees and punctuated on the way out to street level by a static cascade of stadium seating. The 900-foot-tall tower that lords over the scene offers direct access to The Hugh; the food hall’s rhythms follow the dull shuffle of the workday. Sitting high on the stadium steps in the late lunch hours with an aerial view of the hall’s thick quilt of dining tables, I had the impression of being at a great performance. The dismal drama of all those office lunches—with their false intimacies, budding jealousies, and moments of tragic grain bowl clarity—unfolded magnificently below me. But who was performing, and for whom?

The Hugh’s threshold signage offers a kind of answer: emblazoned across the entry and exit points to the food hall are the letters “bxp,” the New York Stock Exchange ticker for real estate developer Boston Properties, which owns Citicorp Center (now renamed The Citigroup Center) and operates The Hugh. Vanguard, BlackRock, and State Street—the so-called Big Three of the global asset management industry, responsible for the supervision of around $20 trillion in assets—control over a third of Boston Properties; Vanguard is the company’s biggest shareholder. This concentration of ownership is not unusual: according to economic geographer Brett Christophers, the combined holdings of the Big Three make them collectively the largest equity investor in around 90 percent of all companies in the S&P 500. The reach of these firms extends well beyond US shores, into every country with advanced securities markets—and though they often present themselves as guardians of the small investor’s financial interests, the income the Big Three accumulate in performance and management fees invariably exceeds, as a proportion of every dollar invested, whatever returns they generate for America’s nurses, teachers, and firefighters. They are, in the language of political economy, universal owners, the alphas to their customers’ betas. I picture them more as planetary SUVs, vehicles so comically large they eventually change the world around them, effecting a global distortion of sense and scale. Every lunch at The Hugh is, at some level, fuel for these guzzlers. We perform for their pleasure. In every plate of Jockey Sauce–slathered onion straws at Joseph Brothers or ImpossiBowl from Avocaderia there’s the raw cultural material to keep the adjoining office tower’s occupancy rates high, attract new tenants to the surrounding area, buoy developer returns, and maintain “shareholder value”—everything, in short, that it takes to keep the players with the biggest stakes in the company that runs The Hugh happy. The consumers eat, but only the asset managers get fed.

IN THE HISTORY of the New York food hall, two venues vie for primogeniture. Chelsea Market, which opened in 1997, has the claim of precedent, and among its packed and salted public you’ll still find fans of Amy’s Bread and The Lobster Place, which have been there since the very beginning and now enjoy something close to heritage status. But it was not until the 2010 inauguration of Eataly, the Mario Batali–affiliated advertisement for cured hams, smug Italiana, and trattorie surrogate, that the cross-city food hall craze really got going. Already, in places throughout New York, the investment cycle has played out: Brooklyn counts two dead food halls (Fort Greene’s Gotham Market at The Ashland and Crown Heights’s Berg’n, both of them still shuttered years after their pandemic-authored demise), and on the day I visited, Gotham West Market on Manhattan’s Far West Side seemed not long for this world, the extinguishment of most letters on its grand, neon entrance awning (“GOA MAET”) mirroring the vital signs of its barely-there clientele and staff. But these venues have already done their work—the investors have followed, the residential towers are up—the financial threat of the pandemic has faded, and elsewhere, the food halls keep coming. Over the past decade these culinary theme parks have spread, fungus-like, across Manhattan and into the inner outer boroughs, helping to secure the neighborhoods in which they are planted for further investment and development—a kind of advance party for gentrification. “Surround yourself with everything you love,” commands a sign outside Long Island City food hall JACX & CO, which sits at the base of a glinting tower housing an eleven-floor WeWork preposterously named Gotham Center. To judge from the adjacent streets, sunless trails carved through a forest of blue glass, that means: surround yourself with more buildings that look like this one. The story is the same across America and much of the developed world.

Several of New York’s newest food halls are, like The Hugh, the work of real estate companies whose ultimate ownership lies with the big asset management firms. The Tin Building, for instance, celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s resurrection (in truth, more a reinterment) of the old Fulton Fish Market on the east side of lower Manhattan, is owned by the Howard Hughes Corporation, a developer whose top two shareholders are the Bill Ackman–run hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management and Vanguard. Other halls are held privately: Google owns Chelsea Market; Mercado Little Spain is owned by celebrated culinary humanitarian José Andrés’s hospitality group; private developer Tishman Speyer owns and operates JACX & CO; and Citizens Manhattan West, a new food hall on the periphery of Hudson Yards, is the work of hotelier, ghost kitchen magnate, and self-described “visionary” Sam Nazarian’s SBE Entertainment Group (“We elevate the extraordinary”). Essex Market on the Lower East Side is the city’s sole food hall under public ownership, but in style it’s no different from its peers. Even among the private ventures the long arm of the asset managers is never far. Nazarian has partnered with Canadian asset management titan Brookfield on a new tech platform called C3 (Creating Culinary Communities) that will, his company’s website claims, “reimagine the food industry by introducing the world to a revolutionary way to approach food halls, ghost kitchens and mobile delivery via world-class culinary talent and technology.” Dekalb Market Hall in downtown Brooklyn is run by hospitality operator Local Culture Management in partnership with Acadia, a public real estate investment trust whose two biggest shareholders are BlackRock and Vanguard. Omnipresent in New York’s development, the Big Three now function as the city’s tricephalous god, an inescapable and unaccountable authority recasting the streets along self-interested lines.

There’s an air of compulsory entertainment about these places. Between its bright colors, WeWork sloganeering, and painfully voicey menu descriptions, the food hall never misses an opportunity to remind us of how fun it is.

It’s been said that we live in the age of asset management capitalism, in an asset management society. Owned and operated, with only minor exceptions, for the benefit of a single undifferentiated bloc of money managers and developers, food halls embody a set of aesthetic and behavioral preferences that reveal a distinct and increasingly influential asset manager culture. Not all development is bad, of course; in the midst of a socially ruinous housing crisis development is even vital. But food halls reflect a very particular cultural agenda, and this agenda has nothing to do with access or equality or any of the other progressive shibboleths developers reach for when trying to demonstrate the civic utility of what they do. Local Culture Management, as the ghoulishly named company that operates Dekalb Market Hall suggests, is indeed what food halls are all about—but there is nothing local about the culture they imprint on their neighborhoods. Localism, with its suggestion of regionality and specificity, is anathema to the regime of the food hall: the point of food halls is to eradicate difference, to secure the city as an asset class through the imposition of a bland uniformity. As the cranks and kooks get swept away, the streets are straightened out, and new condos rise high over the East River, New York has begun to look more and more like Washington, DC. Food halls are now an important part of this sanitization project, offering a form for the replication and standardization of taste across the city. No matter how adventurous its food (and to be fair, it’s not all bad) or raucous its clientele, the food hall always acts as a social deflavorizer. Whether you’re throwing back a multigrain congee from JACX & CO’s Lotus and Cleaver or sampling a dumpling flight (I wish this weren’t real, but it is) at Midtown Manhattan’s Urban Hawker, you’re always having, in a food hall, some version of the same experience, of the same meal: a fast-casual platter consumed, in more or less hurried fashion, under the disinfectant light of an increasingly generic city.

Many of the new food halls work hard to convince you they are special. But even in their differences the more tightly themed venues are all essentially identical. The Tin Building is a French version of Eataly, and Eataly is an Italian version of Mercado Little Spain, which features happy snaps of chef José Andrés with his family stylistically indistinguishable from those back at the Tin Building showing Jean-Georges Vongerichten with his. A single citywide link of megalomania unites these venues, a cross-borough subway of the male ego. One of the entryways to Mercado Little Spain takes you past a wall of Iberian food axioms (“Tortilla de patatas: A Spanish bar without a potato omelet is not a Spanish bar”); another plants you directly in the gift shop, where for $17.99 you can read how José Andrés “fed an island” (the story of his humanitarian work in hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico), and for $39.99 you can take home a copy of VEGETABLES UNLEASHED, Andrés’s manual for releasing the full civilizational power of the carrot. Outside the toilets in the Tin Building there’s a photo gallery of Jean-Georges at different markets across the world: “For over 40 years, he has traveled back and forth to explore Asia’s bustling cities and remote corners,” the visitor is limply informed. The last thing you take in on your way to the shitter is an image of the great man peering gloomily at various squids and nuts.

THE FOOD HALL’s shimmering horizon of choice—so many vendors, so many flavors—is always, inevitably, a mirage. From hall to hall the food is the same: virtually every food hall needs its “fun” taco place, pizza and diminutives of hipster pie incubator Roberta’s are everywhere, and have you tried our raw bar? The aesthetics are the same: recurring themes include warehouse lights, clubby, booth-filled nooks, “historical” typefaces, and educational wall text. The manner of circulation is the same: every food hall visit is an experience in conveyance, of being propelled toward the next bar or store or counter or exit. Exposed ventilation ducts—another near-universal design feature—emphasize the degree to which the halls are, literally and figuratively, controlled climates, economies of gustatory and social command. These similarities are all the more remarkable when you consider the profusion of different designers and architects who’ve tried their hand at a New York hall: there’s no single firm that dominates the space, but among the multitude, the tug of aesthetic consensus seems irresistible. Even the music is the same, uniformly dancey and up tempo: in the food hall the agonies of the sandwich choice unfold to the sounds of “In the Dark” by Purple Disco Machine, “Chilli Hot” by US3, “Rain on Me” by Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande, “Feed the Fire” by SG Lewis & Lucky Daye, Ela Minus’s “Dominique,” or Saint Motel’s “It’s All Happening.” On my journey through the city’s food halls, harassed at every corner by sexy beats, I often had the impression of being on a curiously brief and static vacation, stuck in place at a resort booked by the quarter hour. But mostly I felt pressure—the pressure to buy something, to eat, to make use of the space in the intended manner of its design, to help myself by helping the economy. Did I need a millefeuille de jambon from JACX & CO’s patisserie Ghaya? Did I want a slab of focaccia from the Tin Building, a salad kebab bowl from Kotti Berliner Döner Kebab at The Hugh, or a Really! Effin Turkey sandwich from Effin Egg at Williamsburg Market? I didn’t, but I ordered them anyway and regretted each decision in its own special way. In the time this piece has been in editorial production, Williamsburg Market has joined Berg’n and Gotham Market at The Ashland in the ranks of the food hall deceased. Clearly, no one else needed a Really! Effin Turkey sandwich either.

There’s an air of compulsory entertainment about these places. Between its bright colors, WeWork sloganeering (“The future is yours,” “Have a Baotiful Day”), and painfully voicey menu descriptions (“Slutty Pancakes,” the “Eff U Bowl”), the food hall never misses an opportunity to remind us of how fun it is. And yet, we are all there for serious business. The food hall visit is aggressively purposive, directed, transactional: every aspect of the environment seems to scream, as Ted Allen does at the competitors on Chopped, “Get it done, get it done!” At Citizens Manhattan West there’s a Peloton store wedged next to the food counters: even midmouthful the food hall’s consumers are rushed through the metabolic stages, always optimizing, always striving. This is no place for loiterers or strollers, the reflective or the hesitant—no place, even, for those interested in eating after dark, since the food hall is incorrigibly diurnal and always struggles to engineer the sultry airs and intimacies of the restaurant dinner, its votive luxury and grown-up charm. The food hall is a place where leisure feels suspiciously like work.

It is also, nominally, the venue for a kind of shared experience, a communal space that promises a sense of togetherness. Urbanspace, the operator of several food ventures throughout Manhattan, claims to “create immersive public markets where creative entrepreneurship and community flourish”—an emblematic boast. In reality the regime of the food hall is one of false openness, another boot to the corpse of Walter Benjamin’s old vision of the public arcade as a dream house of the collective. Under the bubbled skylight of Penn Station’s Moynihan Train Hall, it’s possible to feel some of the historic romance of travel, to buy into Victor Hugo’s dream of a combustion-fueled world without rank (“Plus de mot sénateur! Plus de mot roturier!”). But to get there you need to ignore reality: the arctic expanse of the train hall holds almost no people. The humans are all shoved away in the food hall, a sweaty afterthought that is among the few spaces in the new development with seating. Designed to be “reminiscent of the grand railway stations of the last century,” Moynihan Food Hall succeeds only in evoking the prisons of this one. Under anxious microwaved air the station’s travelers form a single human mass that must be managed, corralled, directed, controlled.

The forced enjoyment of the food hall becomes a kind of misery. “YOU ARE NOT ALONE,” blares a sign outside The Tin Building, and it feels more like a threat than a consolation. Despite being semipublic, most food halls are inherently exclusionary: security personnel patrol the entrances, ensuring that the only working-class people allowed in are the cooks, dishwashers, and cleaners who keep the halls ticking over, who make sure the trays run on time. Even the publicly owned Essex Market is inhospitable to its own public: the bathrooms require a passcode to enter, meaning the homeless stay well away. (Ironically, many of the privately run food halls fling the doors of their amenities open to anyone; if the food hall boom has been good for one thing it has been to increase toilet access throughout New York, a much-needed improvement in a city historically antagonistic to the human bladder in need of relief.) The customers may not be alone but that’s not the case for everyone else. The food hall’s digital cartography emphasizes that suppliers, while thrown together in a single place, are ultimately on their own: From Yelp to Google Maps and TripAdvisor, the hall’s individual vendors and the hall proper are usually listed separately, such that duplicate pages appear whenever one navigates over the point of a single hall. Online the food hall and its vendors occupy the same space but exist, somehow, in competition with one another: There is contiguity but no consolidation, of either identity or purpose.

Venue operators shed old vendors and engage new ones with breezy regularity. “Vendors” is perhaps the wrong word, too humanizing: The food hall hosts not individual chefs or stalls or tastes but an agglutination of “food concepts.” Concepts are what the food hall builds: abstractions, ideas, numbers on a spreadsheet. The food is ephemeral, expendable, a mere widget to plug a gap: There’s no loyalty in this world, no bond of mutual obligation. Indeed, the very flimsiness of its institutional allegiances is seen as one of the food hall’s great strengths: A preference for short-term leases and the variety of options in a single space mean that “one struggling concept doesn’t doom the entire operation,” according to an investor fact sheet on food halls. The clientele, like the food and the music, is the same from hall to hall: mostly white, well dressed, well groomed (the tattoos, wherever they appear, will be small and elegant), seemingly professional, outwardly presentable. Model consumers, all of them. These food halls are not “creating culinary communities,” as Sam Nazarian’s new Brookfield-backed tech venture promises, but molding a single eating public—a public that wants exploration without movement, adventure without risk, experience without effort. Give us variety—but please, whatever you do, package it neatly in one place.

TO ENJOY A MEAL in the food hall’s cooled and ventilated boot is to experience a curiously isolated sociability. Nomenclature clarifies this divorce between private and public. Journalists struggled to name the collection of food stores and restaurants at the base of Citicorp Center on the building’s 1977 inauguration. They called it a “mall,” a “market,” a “complex,” a “concourse,” an “unusual food oriented real estate project.” In subsequent decades the space went by a different name: a food court. But its contemporary descendant The Hugh, like the other new venues around the city, is very deliberately a hall rather than a court. The distinction seems minor but is important. The food court, in the popular imagination, is déclassé—an unlovely fixture of the mall basement, in which the stalls are all run by fast food chains, the air smells like fryer oil, the tables never get bussed, and the children are always screaming. To call these new venues food halls rather than food courts immediately conjures the glamour of nineteenth-century consumerism, a sense of bourgeois comfort and plenty: The name evokes less Chuck E. Cheese at Atlantic Terminal than the macaron display at Au Bon Marché or the sturgeon case at Harrods.

But the court, as a historical structure, gestures toward the idea of a public whose opinions matter in the consolidation of authority. A “court” implies a notion of public order, of power—the court of royalty or the judiciary. A “hall,” on the other hand, seems far more open, a blank slate for the performance of culture (the concert or dance hall), the expression of religious devotion (the prayer hall), the exercise of authority (the city or town hall), or the preparatory rituals of military combat (the mess hall). The food halls of New York—though, really, we could be talking about any city throughout the developed world—express all these purposes, somehow, at once. Superficially, they’re venues for the performance of foodyism, which is the closest thing the secular West has to a shared religion today. But, really, they’re structures that secure the citizenry’s consent—to a public domain built on corporate wealth, fully subordinate to the interests of capital. Historically, the court of royalty only endured if it was seen as legitimate—and legitimacy was something litigated out there, in the collective consciousness, among the people.

The food hall, in its own way, is a physical form that structures the quest of modern power—corporate power—for legitimacy. And it seeks that legitimacy through pleasure, by appealing to the collective stomach. Rents are rocketing, public amenities are in decay, and the city, thanks to the efforts of the same asset managers and developers behind your friendly neighborhood food hall, is becoming hostile to anyone but the ultrarich. So what? The bet of the food hall owners—who need, above all, a docile, easily sated, spending public—is that we’ll all be too busy feasting on fast-casual bao buns and loaded toasts to notice. For those troubled by seditious thoughts, the food hall functions as a tranquilizer: Calm your frenzied mind, take a seat under the air ducts, and enjoy your chicken jerkito burrito. It defangs and domesticates the political assembly hall, redesigning it for the new uses of a new century. Freedom of association now endures in parodic form as the freedom to eat, which really means the freedom to spend: In the food hall–deformed city a crowd is no longer a sign of trouble but a suggestion of lunch. Hedonism makes the pain of the contemporary condition endurable, and there’s no more accessible hedonism than food. We console ourselves in labneh wraps, find comfort in the crags of a Chongqing chicken. We self-lobotomize one laksa at a time.

Rents are rocketing, public amenities are in decay, and the city, thanks to the efforts of the same asset managers and developers behind your friendly neighborhood food hall, is becoming hostile to anyone but the ultrarich. So what? The bet of the food hall owners is that we’ll all be too busy feasting on loaded toasts to notice.

The food hall appeals to the tongue first and the heart second. Sensuality mixes with sentimentality: Operators strain to convince us that their work is true to some notion of tradition, that the food hall’s offering is authentic, the real deal, legit. Paradoxically the venues promising culinary authenticity are among the most contrived. At Urban Hawker, many of the vendors have been flown in directly from Singapore, and the murtabak, Hainanese chicken, char kuey teow, and lontong—among the many Singaporean dishes the venue’s owner describes as “iconic”—are correspondingly decent. But the food is diminished, somehow, by the insipidity of its surrounds. Would I rather have my Assam fish head curry in a food hall two blocks from the throne room of the Murdoch media empire or out at Taste Good in Elmhurst? I’ll take Elmhurst—with its hagglers, thronged supermarkets, decaying interiors, and second gen basketball bros—every time. Urban Hawker’s homage to Singaporean street food, plainly, is missing something. Its real defect is not aesthetic but structural: Lost in this dark and humid corridor is any sense of the government policies, labor practices, and social norms that give the original hawker centers their cultural vitality, that make them unique. Singapore’s hawker venues are run by the government, with rents capped to make them affordable for both vendors and the eating public. Urban Hawker, by contrast, is a kitsch private facsimile of the state-owned original dumped into the belly of Midtown Manhattan. It gives us food without context, icons without religion, and depoliticizes an inherently political tradition, cynically pressing it into service as a unit of commercial production.

This is, to be fair, a characteristic move under the new regime of the food hall, in which the artisan, the hawker, and the small batch producer are all given the hero treatment, even as the venues celebrating them help feed an economy catalyzed by interests—concentration, privatization, development, and profit—hostile to their very existence. The food hall is a big tent, able to accommodate multiple hypocrisies. José Andrés posts droopy selfies from the rubble of earthquake-hit Turkey while his US-based food ventures, including Mercado Little Spain, advance the same causes—construction, infrastructure growth, the compulsive macho need to build—that left Turkey’s cities so vulnerable to disaster. Andrés’s own business interests are of a type with those behind the pancaked apartments of Gaziantep and Antakya. If he has any awareness of this paradox, he does not display it publicly.

The food hall’s victims are not only difference and eccentricity, but the city itself. The arrival, blimp-like, of these ventures in once-blighted neighborhoods is often heralded as a sign of “urban revitalization,” though it sometimes seems like their real purpose is to ensure the corpse of the city past stays dead. Among many vendors today the fashion is for transformation—for the kebab that’s actually a health bowl, the breakfast turned into dinner, the flauta that’s really a “flauta,” more a creative wink in the original’s direction than the thing itself. The food hall as an institution performs a similar operation on the city’s history, transforming it into a teleology: The point of urban development is always to bring you here, to the counter at Tastemade Me Tacos, where, confident and adventurous, you are about to place an order for something called “The Carnitayaki.” A dutiful scroll at Eataly serves as a reminder that before it became a clearing house for pici, cavatappi, corzetti, and croxetti, the site on which the food hall now stands served, at various points, as a ten-thousand seat hippodrome, a $2.50-a-night hotel, and a toy manufacturer “that produced 95% of the nation’s toys in the early 1980s.” (We may need a fact check on that.) Over at the Tin Building a whole room has been devoted to an art installation called The Nobility of Work, which chronicles the final decades of the old fish market that occupied the building until 2005 and was once, we are told, “the largest seafood hub in America.” (Under asset management culture, even the viscid, graspable mess of a fish market must be rebranded and technocratized, this time into a “seafood hub.”) Images of the market’s long-vanished workers fill two walls, while an oddly moving textual installation memorializes the workers’ words. Every thirty or so seconds, a fresh remembrance flashes across a giant screen: “In the fish market, there’s always some place for you to come back to” (Mikey The Watchman); “This is my love—to sell fish” (Sal from Herbie Slavin Fish Co.); “It gets in your blood, it becomes your life” (Tommy G).

Their work may have been noble, but it exists no longer, and the place that gave these men so much meaning, that became their life, is now a middle-class pleasure dome selling Persian lime–infused olive oil under “the JG cuvée.” Experienced in the aggregate, these montages seem not solemn but triumphant, not respectful but jeering. The city does not belong to you anymore, they seem to say to their subjects. You lost. Under the veneer of the food hall’s false plenty lies the wreckage of everything left behind. Loss, not abundance or choice, is the food hall’s guiding light. These structures offer a window—into a past that was once possible, and the future we’re going to get.

Aaron Timms does not plan to set foot in a food hall again any time soon. He is working on a book about food culture, to be published by Astra House in 2024.