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As a fifth-generation resident of New York City, I can tell you that New Yorkers reminisce about the price of a slice of pizza during their childhoods like Charles Foster Kane reminisced about Rosebud. My father says a slice cost 35 cents when he was growing up in the Bronx in the 1970s. My grandmother, almost 90, looks back fondly to the days when a slice cost a dime in Brooklyn. Neither of them can remember what they ate at their weddings, but the cost of a slice of pizza is firmly embedded in their minds. And I'm pretty sure the Dollar Slice Wars of my college years are imprinted permanently in my medial temporal lobe.
What is it about New Yorkers and the cost of a slice of pizza?
Despite its current ubiquity, pizza hasn't really been a thing in New York for all that long. My great-great grandparents had probably never even heard of it. The first license to sell pizza in New York State was granted to Lombardi's in Little Italy in 1905; whole pies sold for five cents and those who couldn't afford that high price could buy a slice by the inch. Totonno's in Coney Island—opened in 1924 by a former Lombardi's employee—brought pizza out of Little Italy and to the masses who visited the popular summer resort and amusement park. Both Lombardi's and Totonno's are still in business today.
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But my grandfather—who spent several years in Italy during World War II—always said that he had never even heard of pizza until after the war. That pizza didn't become a food of the masses in New York City until then is borne out by historians, who say that the post-war proliferation of pizza by the slice can be attributed to newfangled gas ovens, increasing foot traffic, and the return of veterans who had become familiar with pizza while in Europe. New Yorkers have not been without their slices since.
And a large part of pizza's popularity may come down to its price. In the mid-1950s, a slice of pizza cost around 15 cents in New York City; it was truly a food for the masses. Over the next few decades, the price of the slice seemed to keep pace with inflation, and it maintained its status as the food of middle-class New Yorkers.
So essential to New Yorkers' lives was the slice that in 1980, a man named Eric Bram came up with a hypothesis about the price of the slice: "Since the early 60's," he said, "the price of a slice of pizza has matched, with uncanny precision, the cost of a New York subway ride." The theory was dubbed the Pizza Principle. Bram was able to predict that the 50-cent subway fare was doomed when it became impossible for "any discerning New Yorker to find a decent slice of pizza for less than 60 cents." I had the chance to speak with Bram, who explained me, "The costs of other products seemed to rise at different rates, but the price of the token and the price of a slice of pizza always seemed to be about the same."
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The price of the slice did keep pace with the price of the token for many decades—at least until sliding-scale MetroCards were introduced in the mid-1990s.
But something changed during my college years in the late aughts. The Great Recession of 2008 saw pizza prices drop so low that, as the New York Times pointed out, the ATM fee to get money to pay for your slice actually cost more than the slice itself. Two pizzerias, 99 Cent Fresh Pizza and 2 Bros. Pizza, were at the center of the Slice Wars. Both promoted a cut-rate slice to try to get New Yorkers, shell-shocked from a crashing economy, back into their stores. Sure, the cheese was of questionable quality and a shake of extra parmesan—a staple of the real Italian pizzeria—might be banned, but the dollar slice became ubiquitous.
Just when pizza had become virtually the cheapest meal you could eat, trouble broke out. The dollar slice joints began to undercut each other even further. In 2012, prices dipped to an unimaginable 75 cents when, suddenly, a truce was called. According to an insider, the Israeli owners of 2 Bros. and the Bangladeshi owners of 99 Cent Pizza achieved a détente that should make the negotiators involved in the Middle East peace talks jealous. How they did so—and whether it violated antitrust laws, which forbid price agreement between competitors—is a matter of mystery to this day. But the 75 cent slice became a thing of the past.
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Today, dollar slice joints can still be found throughout the city—in fact, one Instagrammer has made it his life's mission to photograph every version in the city. But they may not be around for long. Rising rents and the possibility of a $15 minimum wage are looming. 2 Bros. has been sued in a class-action lawsuit by its employees for allegedly paying less than the current minimum wage and no overtime. I reached out to their lawyer, but never heard back.
So where are slice prices today? Not long ago, a data scientist and adjunct professor at Columbia University did a study, involving charts and spreadsheets that are pretty much incomprehensible to most mortal men, and found that the cost of a slice of pizza hovers around $2.50—evidence that the Pizza Principle may still be in play (after all, a standard subway ride now costs $2.75.)
But the story today is more complicated. Pizza prices now reflect a city of growing income disparity and the highs and the lows of the price of a slice seem greater than ever before. On the one hand, we've got the dollar slice joints still hanging on. On the other, we've got places like DiFara in Brooklyn, where a slice costs a neat five bucks. Add on all the high-end pizza available, usually not sold by the slice—Lucali, Roberta's, Franny's, and more—and you've got a very different New York City than the one my parents and grandparents grew up in. New York today is a city of income disparity—as illustrated by the dichotomous price of its pizza: dollar slices versus lobster-covered, spelt-crusted artisan pies.
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Pizza prices have always reflected the tenor of the city itself. And New Yorkers, as ever, are watching the price of a slice.