I love Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Truly, I do. There is nothing quite like Five Guys' greasy, flavorful, jaw-stretching burgers and its brown paper bags overflowing with hand-cut, peanut oil-soaked fries. When the new Five Guys on Broadway between 110th and 111th streets opens its doors in the next few weeks, you can be sure that I will be joining the throngs of people pouring in to get my daily share of artery-clogging goodness. But, notwithstanding the boyish thrill that the arrival of Five Guys will inevitably incite in my soul, I cannot help but see the opening of Five Guys in Morningside Heights as representative of a mildly disconcerting trend for the business community around Columbia's campus. Namely, despite its placement in the middle of one of the most vibrant, culturally rich, and wealthy cities in the entire world, Columbia's neighborhood is starting to look like every other college town in the United States. Now, your first reaction to this statement might be "Nick, shut up about the 'broader implications' of a red-and-white-checkered burger joint and let me enjoy my delicious cheeseburger in peace." To you I say, please, enjoy your cheeseburger, and throw me a few of your fries. And while we are eating, take a look out the window and notice the long line for Chipotle next door, or the guy carrying a Famiglia's pizza box back to his dorm room, or the people scraping the last vestiges of their Pinkberry, Häagen-Dazs, or Ben & Jerry's frozen treats from their paper dishes. In my time as a prospective student visiting colleges and now traveling to see people at other universities, I have found, particularly at major universities, some version of these exact businesses. At College Park Maryland, the home of the University of Maryland, a Chipotle and a Five Guys sit in adjacent strip malls, packed with students almost every night. State College, Pa., the home of Penn State University, also has a Chipotle and a Five Guys. Famiglia's Pizza has locations in Amherst, Mass., and the University City area of Philadelphia, which plays host to Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania. Even Maoz Vegetarian has restaurants in Berkeley, Calif., and New Brunswick, N.J., homes to the University of California and Rutgers University, respectively. While these are the universities with which I am familiar, some of these chains have upward of a hundred locations across the country, many of them on college campuses. These restaurants have become national college town phenomena. Certainly, Morningside Heights offers more independent food choices than most college campuses across the country. In fact, despite the growing number of chains coming into Columbia's neighborhood, independent restaurants probably still outnumber chains. Although I lack definitive statistics, when most people I know want a quick meal, M2M, Milano, or the Halal carts are still higher on the list than Chipotle or Maoz. For late-night pizza runs, the massive slices of Koronet pizza still seem to bring in more customers than Famiglia's across the street. Nussbaum and Wu and Absolute Bagels have a relative monopoly on bagels in the area, and as for any kind of Asian cuisine, the restaurants are all either independent or New York City chains. So why mention the "chain takeover" of Morningside Heights at all? A personal anecdote may help to answer this question. When a group of my friends from high school came to visit Columbia last semester, I was listing the restaurants that we could go to for dinner on their first night here. "Did you say Chipotle?" one of them asked. I responded in the affirmative, and the room lit up with a chorus of praise for the Chipotles on my friends' respective college campuses. We went to Chipotle. So, although my friends had come from four different college towns in different parts of the United States, they all traveled to New York City and ended up eating exactly the same food that they might on a Friday night on their own campuses. One of the greatest attributes of Columbia is its unique location. Indeed, one of the biggest selling points for me in coming to Columbia was that I would be living in bustling, diverse, and independent New York City, not a generic college town. If we want to keep the Columbia experience distinctive and unique, our neighborhood must also remain distinctive and unique. Certainly, it is no crime to eat at the chain restaurants springing up in Morningside Heights, and I will surely patronize these chains from time to time. However, if we want to keep our college neighborhood special, with businesses that have a character unique to the Harlem-Upper West Side convergence zone that is Morningside Heights, we should continue to support the locally owned places as well. Nick Bloom is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in English with a history concentration. He is a programmer at WKCR. Bursting Bubbles from the Inside runs alternate Tuesdays.
Columbia Spectator Staff