Once synonymous with New York, family-run pizza shops are an endangered species these days as more and more owners are force to shutter their stores to make room for the city’s ubiquitous (and stomach-turning) dollar-a-slice chains. In an effort to preserve and celebrate the culture of these establishments, five friends decided to take the situation into their own hands. The group, armed only with an insatiable appetite and Canon 5Ds outfitted with Zeiss lenses, set about on a three-year long journey that would encompass 100 of the city’s most authentic spots—and even more slices. Simply titled, The New York Pizza Project, the initiative took co-founder Ian Manheimer and his crew of Knicks-loving, natives all over the five boroughs, where they captured the charming quirks of each neighborhood spot along with the stories of the makers and customers that inhabit them.
Hailing from diverse backgrounds including graphic and UX design, the founders decided to compile their findings in glossy coffee table book, which they launched this week on Kickstarter. CH spoke with Manheimer to learn more about the pie-centric preservation project that serves as a true tribute to the city.
What was the impetus for the project?
The project has been a journey. We grew up in these places. Our initial plan was to just go out to our favorite shops and pay tribute to them with beautiful photos. But then we started talking to the people, and things changed. We started to learn the city through the eyes of pizza-makers and pizza-eaters. We heard amazing stories about immigrants starting over, about running a traditional business in a rapidly changing city and about never selling out. We decided that the best way to honor these fading institutions was to make a beautiful coffee table book of our journey.
Pizza joints are an inescapable part of most blocks in New York. How did you narrow your focus?
We wanted to capture the essence of New York through its most iconic shops. For us, that meant shops that were vibrant, meaning lots of people coming and going. To that end, we only looked at shops that sell slices. We also wanted to capture the history, so we look for shops that have been around for a while and might be family-run.
When you were shooting these images what was the reaction of the owners?
On the whole, pizza-makers are funny guys. At first blush, they come off as humble servants to a storied and simple craft. But once you get these guys talking, it's a whole other story. Pizza in New York is about pride, ultimately. So we might walk into a shop and an owner might react with something like, "Why would anyone want to see my picture?" And within five minutes they've become a fountain of braggadocio spouting the reasons why their pizza is better than the rest. This pride is what is so great about these places. They care so very much about the quality of the slices their customers eat. We're doing our job if we can help the customers gain a deeper appreciation for this.
What were the biggest surprises on this project?
I have literally changed as a person throughout the process of making this project. We started doing this because we loved snapping photos and thought it could be a cool way to pay tribute to the shops we grew up in. But as we started to talk to the patrons and purveyors, and they started to open up, we earned an insight into the soul of this city. I learned about an amazing tension between the rising costs of doing business (rent and flour) and the pride pizza makers have in delivery quality product. Overall, these guys would rather go out of business than skimp on quality.
I learned that communities will fight for the shops they love. There's a shop we visited in Sunset Park called Johnny's that had a Papa John's move in directly next door. Seeing this as an affront to their values, the community and local politicians have shown up for rallies to support their favorite spot.
Also, I just find it incredibly noteworthy that in a city that changes so rapidly, there are small businesses that have been around 40-50 years by doing the same exact thing every day. Same ingredients, same vendors, same menu. It's quite remarkable.
What do you hope the outcome of the project will be?
Our hope is that we inspire people take the time to honor and promote New York City's small businesses. We want to help foster more respect for quality and community. I don't know anyone who wants to live in a New York that is only chain stores, yet none of us act as if that's a possibility. I think it will help people remember that while New York is a modern city, it is also an old city. There is a lot of tradition around here, you just need to look for it.
Contribute to the New York Pizza Project at their Kickstarter, which has 27 days to go, despite already reaching their goal.
Images courtesy of The New York Pizza Project