Lee Dunham, who on March 23, 1973, opened the first McDonald’s on the island of Manhattan, at 215 West 125th Street, says he’s incredulous I’ve managed to live more than five decades on the planet without ever eating a Big Mac. Fries, shakes, fish fillets, even cheeseburgers, yes, but Big Macs, no.
“That’s un-American, isn’t it?” remarks the now 72-year-old Dunham, with wry suspicion. Dunham, who still works “those twelve-hour days” as the owner-operator of a dozen Mickey D’s in the tri-state area, retains “a soft spot” for his first venture, which he sold in 1991 and refers to as “a piece of New York history.” A former beat cop in Harlem’s 28th Precinct, Dunham had always wanted to open his own restaurant, preferably “a classy tablecloth place.” But after finding “not too many banks willing to lend a lot of money to a black guy in 1971,” Dunham began thinking of a franchise business. He tried several, including the then-popular Chicken Delight, without success before striking a deal with McDonald’s.
“I’m not sure why they were willing to open the first one in Harlem. I guess the rents downtown were too high,” says Dunham, reminiscing about when burgers cost 23 cents, fries went for 15 cents, and “there wasn’t even such a thing as a Quarter Pounder.” Despite two personal exhortatory visitations from Ray Kroc himself, a McD franchise wasn’t a sure thing back then, Dunham says. Harlem was on the edge. Junkies were hanging out all day “putting twenty sugars in their hot chocolate,” and Dunham had to hire moonlighting-cop buddies to keep rampaging gangs like the Savage Skulls and Brooklyn’s Bedford Avenue Stompers out of the joint.
But there was no stopping the McD’s Zeitgeist, which was to blow away New York burger chains like Wetson’s and consign White Castle’s funky square patties to the fast-food margins. “When I saw those limousines pulling up in front of the place with white kids from downtown, I knew I was in,” Dunham recalls. Being down the street from the Apollo Theater didn’t hurt. “I used to serve 2,200 customers a day . . . When James Brown was in town, it went to 3,200. James sold me a lot of hamburgers. They were round the block, rhinestones for days.”
The ultimate freeway experience has become a bona ﬁde New York public space.
Now it is difficult to imagine a New York devoid of Golden Arches. In the wake of Dunham’s triumph, there are more McDonald’s franchises here than in any other city in the country, more than 250 of the suckers in the five boroughs, with 74 locations in Manhattan alone. Like some grease-surfing Cheever character, you can’t go three midtown blocks without half-drowning in a pool of McFlurries, and that’s just the top of it. Thanks in part to a Giuliani rezoning scheme that rescinded limits on chain stores, streets previously home to iconic New York small businesses now resemble exurban strip malls. At the intersection of Linden Boulevard and Pennsylvania Avenue in Brooklyn, for instance, the inner-city traveler encounters McD’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Popeye’s, a veritable cornucopia of corporate Frankenfood.
You might as well be Anywhere, USA. Except we are not anywhere, we are in New York, which is not supposed to be anywhere. What was wrong with just having a pizza parlor on every single block, a snarly, T-shirted dough-flinger hulking behind fingerprint-mottled counters—wasn’t that fast food enough? The notion of New York’s being home to more Ronald McDonald per square inch than anywhere else ranks as a grievous assault on cosmopolitan civic esteem.
This artery-hardening, reflux-inducing complaint is boldfaced in the current McD–bashing, Sundance award-winning film Super Size Me, in which New York–based writer–director–star–guinea pig Morgan Spurlock spends 30 straight days eating nothing but McDonald’s, from Big Macs to Egg McMuffins to yogurt parfaits and back again. Aimed at linking McD’s mad-scientist cuisine with expanding obesity rates (plenty of low-angle shots of huge, Wal-Mart-clad bottoms), the results of Spurlock’s experiment, from the filmmaker’s first parking-lot chunder to the microphotography of jellied protoplasm during a stomach-stapling operation, do not paint a pretty picture.
McDonald’s, a monolith as unblinking as the Bush White House, has not been amused. A statement from Hamburger U. extended “two thumbs down” to Super Size Me, saying Spurlock’s “is not about McDonald’s” but rather a personal decision to “act irresponsibly” as he “elected to eat 5,000 calories a day and deliberately limit his exercise as a gimmick.” The fast-food giant defends its concern for the national health by listing a number of new products in its “Real Life Choices” menu, including “an Adult Happy Meal with pedometer.”