Many residents, myself included, have cherished that special sweet spot neighborhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan from Central Park West to Broadway, from West 62nd to West 72nd. Many of the very personal, appealing features of our mini-community, within a large, thriving, culture-laden urban environment, have vanished.
The cafés, bodegas, mom and pop Korean grocery stores, butchers, independent small restaurants, and retail establishments providing such necessities of life as shoe repair, dry cleaning, hardware supplies and a selection of domestic as well as foreign magazines and newspapers, have been shuttered because of “high rent blight”.
Often these retail spaces remain vacant for months or more than a year, adding a desolate look to our neighborhood. Eventually they are replaced by large banks, furniture stores, high end boutiques, the mega Apple store and very impersonal multi-tiered chain drug stores.
The changes I’m seeing in Manhattan
Each time I return to my New York City home from our West Coast abode, more services and stores have disappeared. The Barnes and Noble book store that used to be a great neighborhood meeting place on Columbus and West 65th Street gave way to the discount retailer, Century 21.
A very convenient supermarket a stone’s throw away has now been replaced by a Lowe’s store for housewares and appliances. The Lowe’s store is the perfect example of the new trend of large corporations to lease smaller brick and mortar stores, with limited display of their merchandise and marginal sales help. Their goal seems to be to attract walk-in customers by the presence of their retail store and then have them use on-site e-commerce ordering for the bulk of the merchandise that is not displayed on site.
In the Spring of 2017, our neighborhood suffered the loss of two more local eatery/meeting places. First, the Starbucks on the corner of West 67th St and Columbus that was always extremely well frequented disappeared. Then, Nick and Toni’s, a favorite mid-priced local restaurant which featured organic chicken dishes, gourmet wood oven pizzas and healthy mediterranean fare, fell victim after 23 years at this location, to landlord overreaching. The parting remark of one of the restaurant owners is very telling: “The cost of doing business in the city no longer allows us to operate our business.”
Personal service and human contact with shopkeepers has clearly gone by the wayside. The losers in this evolutionary process are not just the neighborhood residents whose lifestyle is diminished, but the number of employees who have lost their jobs when these stores close. The big box, self-service stores like Bed Bath and Beyond, Crate and Barrel, Walgreens and Best Buy have reduced their sales staff to a minimum and offer little if no personal service or customer advice. The only regular employees of these large stores seem to be shelf stockers who are paid a minimum wage and cashiers, who are not sufficient in number for the long lines of customers waiting to pay for their purchases.
How to reduce this trend and save our neighborhoods?
The free market advocates who are in control of our government and the real estate lobby are violently opposed to any form of retail rent control or stabilization efforts, with the result is that the number of chain stores in NYC has increased by 1/3 over the past 7 years, at the expense of small businesses.
The ballot box should be utilized by the citizenry as an opportunity to vote for more civic minded, community engaged candidates. In addition, there are moves afoot which support innovation to preserve the character of neighborhoods, by encouraging public and private matchmaking efforts. The Center for an Urban Future, (CUF), is a creative think tank which acts as a “catalyst for smart, sustainable policies that reduce inequality, increase economic mobility and grow the economy in NYC”. Together with the Wagner School at New York University and the International Citi Foundation, innovative solutions are being researched and tested.
A pragmatic solutions to retain and support small businesses in urban environments is trading extra floor height zoning in new developments for ongoing limited rents of street level, independently owned retail shops and eateries. Another solution is to provide real estate tax reductions for owners of existing buildings in return for marginal, affordable increases for existing businesses on lease renewals; and cash subsidies to small, independent shop owners whose businesses benefit the local community.
The most comprehensive thing that residents of a particular neighborhood can do, however, is to support their local small businesses with their patronage.