It may seem odd to consider a McDonald’s a beloved neighborhood haunt, but for nearly four decades, the franchise with the trademark golden arches on the corner of Broadway and 125th Street was a fast-food nexus and gathering spot in West Harlem. Located right off the 1 subway station and near the West Side Highway, it catered to local residents, cabbies, and Columbia University students. Open 24 hours, the branch featured both a parking lot and a drive-thru, seemingly extravagant amenities in an urban environment.
But its location and size also made it a rarefied real estate commodity amid New York’s development boom. In 2013, to pave the way for its uptown expansion, Columbia bought the building and the land on which the McDonald’s stands, thereby sealing its fate.
So it was not a complete surprise when last Friday, Columbia announced its closure along with its intentions to demolish the McDonald’s building and a neighboring row of warehouses on 125th Street. The university has said that it plans to incorporate space for a new branch, but did not specify a timeline nor location.
New Yorkers are used to the shuttering of mainstay restaurants, but longtime customers mourned the demise of a global juggernaut, known for its mostly unhealthy menu and super-size it culture, as if it were a mom-and-pop. Although not the oldest McDonald's in Manhattan (that distinction goes to the location at Broadway and 96th Street, which was the first branch to open in New York City) the one at West 125th had been operating since 1982, according to city Department of Building records. Contrary to some comments, it was not the only McDonald's in Manhattan with a drive-thru.
“You know it’s memories for the neighborhood, and I’m very sad right now. When I tell my son he’s going to be very devastated,” a teary Miriam Blanco told the Columbia Spectator. The 61-year-old local resident said she regularly visits the restaurant after church with her sister.
Another patron and local churchgoer, José Hernández, described going to McDonald’s as a weekly tradition.
Grace Bertelli, a junior at Columbia, told freepicker that students learned about the closure last week in an email about facilities and operational updates. The news, which came at the bottom, felt "nonchalant," she said.
"It was almost like they didn’t care they are gentrifying the area," she said.
On social media, people shared similar sentiments, along with photos.
View this post on Instagram
Oh no, today was the last day for the 125th St. McDonald’s! Columbia owns the lot and they are going put up a new building as part of the university’s Manhattanville expansion. I’ve never been to this McDonald’s, but it’s a neighborhood institution and I think the only one in Manhattan with a drive-thru. #mcdonalds #manhattanville #columbiauniversity
#Columbia disregard.This act coupled w/not including a handicapped accessible subway entrance in the redevelopment goes to the heart of Columbia’s disregard for the community.
Columbia to redevelop McDonald’s property as part of Manhattanville expansion https://t.co/Px5DXouYCG
— Rylona Watson (@rylwats) September 10, 2019
[email protected] at 125 & Bway, perhaps only Drive Thru in Manhattan, will close tomorrow + be demolished for @Columbia Manhattanville expansion. Big loss for longtime Harlem customers + taxi drivers who park + take bathroom breaks. pic.twitter.com/O14ostECkr
— Chantie Khan 🥌 (@chantalmclaugh) September 10, 2019
The comments by Bertelli and others get at the root of the angst surrounding the shuttering of the 125th Street McDonald's. Facing north, the university’s $6.3 billion Manhattanville campus is well underway, having already sprouted two glassy buildings designed by starchitect Renzo Piano. The school’s biggest expansion in more than a century has not been without controversy. Curbed writer Nathan Kesinger described its demolitions of industrial buildings as having “diminished the soul of the community.” With inexpensive food options increasingly harder to come by, it was no surprise that the home of the Big Mac could trigger nostalgia.
Shortly after learning about the closure, Bertelli created the Facebook event “We all go to the 125th St McDonalds before it closes." More than 400 people RSVP'd in total. At around midnight on Friday, Bertelli said she arrived with about a couple dozen people to find the restaurant packed. She waited about a half hour before being able to order.
"They were just about out of everything," she said.
The staff, she said, seemed to take the closure in stride. According to Columbia, they have been offered jobs at other locations.
In exploring the neighborhood, the 125th Street McDonald's stood out to her because it has "such a retro look," she said. "It's clearly been there forever," she added. She could tell it was an institution. Every time she visited, the place was humming.
As a Columbia student, Bertelli said she felt partly to blame for the redevelopment that has resulted in uprooting of businesses and residents.
"I know Columbia needs to expand," she said. But she added, "I don’t think the neighborhood is going to be the same."