Danny Meyer’s New York Times Op-Ed Proves Indigestible


Many journalists dream of someday working for the greatest newspaper of them all, the New York Times.

Other journalists — a smaller group, to be sure — harbor a more modest but no less rarefied aspiration: to be sniffed at most haughtily by the Old Gray Lady.

This week, we’re proud to say, we can cross that second goal — our goal — off the ol’ Village Voice bucket list.

Deliverer of the e-spanking: the estimable Danielle Rhoades Ha, director of communications for the New York Times Company.

The provocation: We requested information about an op-ed the Times published in early July that contained confusing and possibly factually incorrect language.

It all began while we were researching this week’s cover story, “Brother, Can You Spare a Diner?”

Our story was prompted in part by a July 2 Times opinion piece in which Danny Meyer lamented having to shutter the Union Square Cafe, a decades-old fixture on Manhattan’s restaurant scene and a prime factor in the revitalization of the neighborhood it inhabits.

“It’s hard to come to grips with the notion that our success has, in part, contributed to our inability to remain in our neighborhood,” wrote Meyer, who opened the restaurant way back in 1985.

Even worse, Meyer suggested, what has befallen his restaurant isn’t unique to Union Square: It’s a systemic issue that’s manifesting itself all over Manhattan.

“[A]s a city,” he asserted, “we’ve got a problem.”

Though Meyer’s tone was gloomy, he appeared to hint at a solution. Across the pond in London, he wrote, landlords are more respectful of the role restaurants play in creating stable neighborhoods:

“It is sad that the more ‘successful’ a neighborhood becomes, the more it gradually takes on a recognizable, common look, as the same banks, drugstore chains and national brands move in. Be honest: Would you rather have one more bank branch in your neighborhood, or another independent restaurant?

“Compare this with a place like London, where neighborhoods have, for generations, succeeded in retaining their distinctive identities and institutions. There are scores of restaurants and pubs that are far, far older than Union Square Cafe. Landlords permit classic establishments to endure even when their original operators sell them, for there is something in that culture that prizes continuity, even over maximized profit.

“We may never be like London, but I wonder if we would find ourselves in this situation if New York had something like London’s Rent Assessment Panel, a government committee that resolves rent disputes and is credited with helping prevent rapid erosion of the city’s neighborhood fabric.”

We asked to interview Meyer, a request his publicist, Jee Won Park, mulled over and politely declined.

Meantime, we sought out some experts in England, in order to learn how London’s landlords and restaurateurs get along so famously.

Paul Singer, a London attorney and former board member of the British Hospitality Association who has represented both restaurant tenants and landlords, said he’d be happy to walk us through the ins and outs. So we emailed him a link to Meyer’s Times piece, highlighting the passage above.

Singer replied that the Rent Assessment Panel, which was established after World War I when England’s housing supply had been decimated, has always dealt strictly with disputes relating to residential tenancies.

“This London rent-assessment panel has nothing to do with commercial properties,” Singer wrote, adding, “It hardly does anything these days.”

Now, that was a smidge disheartening…

Mark Kram, head of media for Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, confirmed Singer’s explanation, noting that the Rent Assessment Panel changed its name last year and is now known as the Residential Property First-Tier Tribunal.

Said Kram: “There is no government body tasked with handling commercial property disputes.”

To recap: The Rent Assessment Panel is a largely vestigial agency that never had anything to do with restaurants. In fact, there isn’t even a Rent Assessment Panel, per se, any more.

Perplexed, we read Meyer’s op-ed again. The more closely we read the two paragraphs about London, the less sense we could make of them. Besides the bit about the dispute panel, there was the business about landlords who “permit classic establishments to endure even when their original operators sell them.”

What the heck is that all about?

We figured we might as well ask the Times to break it down for us. The paper, after all, published Meyer’s opinion piece.

Presumably that involved actually reading it. Maybe even editing it.

So we pulled their virtual bell cord, which we very badly wanted to believe would go something like this…

But which in reality involved exchanging emails.

Annnnnnd…cue Danielle Rhoades Ha.

“There is no error in the op-ed,” she responded. “Meyer does not claim that the rent assessment panels in London oversee commercial tenant disputes. He is extrapolating from a model used in London in a slightly different field to show what might work here.

“Yes, we fact-check op-eds. Every op-ed, no matter the writer, goes through our normal editing and fact-checking process.”

Perhaps inexplicably, we persevered. We spelled it out for Ha in a second email, pointing out that given the context of the statement and the subject of the entire op-ed, any reasonable reader would conclude that the “panels” to which Meyer refers deal with restaurants.

Ever so helpfully, she replied, “You should direct these questions to Meyer.”

Of course, she’s right. So we’re considering one more call to Union Square Cafe.

Table for one, please.