Last week, the Observer published an Op-Ed entitled "The Tyranny of Nostalgia." In the article, Anthony L. Fisher essentially named me as Nostalgia Tyrant #1. (If only!) There's so much to argue against in the piece, but I've said it all before, in depth, a million times. So I'm taking the Bartleby route on this one.
That said, one line has stuck with me: "Not too many people eat hot dogs anymore." This is the real reason, says Fisher, that Gray's Papaya was booted from 8th Street and replaced with a Liquiteria. We've been hearing this argument lately. It goes: Tastes have changed, "people" aren't going to "those places" anymore, and that's why they vanish. But there is one reason why Gray's Papaya closed--the landlord nearly doubled the rent. Rent hike or denial of lease renewal is almost always the reason our favorite old places close.
New Yorkers eat hot dogs. Unfortunately, low-priced everyday franks--without the artisanal bells and whistles--can't pay the new exorbitant rents. So we're left with fewer and fewer hot dog stands.
From my count (am I missing any?), Manhattan now has just eight spots to grab a couple of hot dogs and a papaya drink, way down from a once plentiful number. I went to all of them* and ordered the same meal: Two dogs (with mustard and relish) and a 16-ounce papaya drink. The ever-present "recession special," which goes for about 5 bucks.
Papaya King, 179 East 86th Street
The grandaddy of them all, Papaya King opened on this corner in 1932. It was founded by Greek immigrant Gus Poulos. They have the best neon sign. Check out this video (mark 6:16) in which Jerry Rio interviews Peter Poulos on the history and importance of Papaya King.
Back in 1991, the New York Times wrote: "What would be a non sequitur in cities like Omaha and Wichita -- or even Washington and Boston -- is now as unshakable a pairing in New York as as corned beef and cabbage or pastrami and rye. These days it is hard to find a hot dog shop in some parts of the city that does not promote papaya and other tropical fruit drinks with its hot dogs. Almost anywhere one looks there is Papaya King, Papaya Heaven, Papaya Paradise, Papaya Place, Papaya Circle, Papaya World, Original Papaya, Gray's Papaya, Mike's Papaya or Papaya Jack. No doubt there are more."
And the King started it.
This spot's location on the Upper East Side means that men drive up in luxury cars, jump out, get their dogs, and go. In between, its everyday Joes--construction workers, taxi drivers, panhandlers. Women eat hot dogs, too, but I saw far more men in these places.
Papaya King, 3 St. Mark's Place
This outpost of the King opened quite recently, in the spring of 2013. There were others, including one in Times Square that closed sometime in the early 2000s, but now there are just two. Plus a roving food truck. This one always seems kind of quiet. Maybe people don't eat hot dogs on St. Mark's Place.
Gray's Papaya, 2090 Broadway at 72nd St.
Gray's opened on the Upper West Side in 1973. It was founded by Paul Gray, a former partner in Papaya King, who broke away to do his own thing.
There once were more Gray's Papayas, including the still-missed location at 6th Avenue and 8th Street. As previously mentioned, it closed in 2014 thanks to a rent hike, and has been replaced by a Liquiteria.
This dearly beloved spot is busy, even in bad weather. Standing room only, there's no room left at the counters. Here, a homeless man loiters, panhandling for change. As long as he's not getting aggressive, he's tolerated and given a few coins, which he spends on hot dogs.
Papaya Dog, 14th St. and 1st Ave.
With four New York locations (there's a fifth in Hoboken--am I missing any?), there are more Papaya Dogs today than there are Papaya Kings and Gray's Papayas. Still, Papaya Dog goes uncelebrated, treated like the poor stepchild of the elder two (both of which have Wikipedia pages, while Papaya Dog does not).
The Papaya Dogs are a bit rougher around the edges. But this one on 14th and 1st breaks with the standing-only tradition and offers a couple of booths for sit-down dining.
Customer traffic is constant at the Papaya Dogs. School kids flock to them. Workers stop in during their lunch breaks. Laborers pull up their rumbling dump trucks and garbage trucks and plumbing repair vans, and hop out in smudgy coveralls for "two to go with ketchup and onions" or "gimme two with mustard and sauerkraut," a cup of papaya or coconut champagne to wash them down.
At all the hot dog stands, the crowd is racially and socioeconomically diverse. Many people of color are eating hot dogs. Immigrants are eating hot dogs. Tourists and students are eating hot dogs. This is not a food of so-called nostalgia. It is a democratic food of affordability and accessibility.
Papaya Dog, 6th Ave. and Cornelia St.
This particular Papaya Dog won't last much longer. It's in a building bought in 2013 by a luxury developer. They've got plans to kick out all the funky, long-time little tenants and replace them with national chain stores.
Dog-and-papaya places are especially vulnerable because they tend to be located on corners. That's prime real estate for banks and other national chains. Landlords know this and hike the rent, or simply kick them out.
Papaya Dog, 5th Ave. and 33rd St.
This one's the smallest of all the dog-and-papaya joints, with barely a sliver of counter space for dining behind a trash can. They've got a deal with the pizzeria next door, though, and you can bring your meal over there. At lunchtime, the tables are bustling.
Papaya Dog, 9th Ave. and 42nd St.
This corner spot was also rumored to be vanishing. It's in the old Elk Hotel (go inside the hotel here), which was emptied and put on the market awhile back. But, somehow, the Papaya Dog is still standing. This one also has tables and chairs.
Among the young tourists and families, an elderly woman sits at a table and applies her fire-engine red lipstick. Cops and taxi drivers hustle in and out.
Chelsea Papaya, 23rd St. and 7th Ave.
After the three big guys, a few scrappy papaya-and-dog joints have spawned and survived. Well, not really survived. And not really a few. The 21st century has been cruel. Hot dog stands started vanishing fast when everything else did. Rents went up and up. Yorkville's Green Papaya vanished around 2009. East Harlem's Frank's Papaya went sometime after 2008. Three Mike's Papayas died in the past few years. Many others folded around town.
But Chelsea Papaya remains, an oddball in the dog-and-papaya world, right down the block from the Chelsea Hotel. The window ledge gives you the perfect place to perch and watch the drama of the street unfold. Again the place is intermittently packed, with lines of customers jamming into the small space, coming and going quickly.
Mike's Papaya, 132 E. 23rd St. at Lexington
In my quest to dine at every dog-and-papaya place, I regrettably arrived at the last Mike's Papaya about two days too late. It's gone, closed "due to an unforeseen circumstance," according to the sign in the window.
There used to be a few Mike's Papayas (the Reade Street location vanished in 2012, and another at Broadway and 110th went in 2002). Then there was just this one by Gramercy Park.
We don't know what Mike's "unforeseen circumstance" was, but we can be sure that when the rent on all the dog-and-papaya places is doubled and tripled, it won't matter that they were busy and beloved. We'll hear journalists say that "Tastes have changed" and "People don't eat hot dogs anymore." Eventually, that statement will be true, but only because there will be nowhere left to find such a rare and affordable delicacy.
*I was already nearly finished with this post when the Observer op-ed came out. It took weeks to complete. I did not eat 16 hot dogs in one weekend.