I’ve read a number of articles talking about the demise of New York due to rising rents and gentrification. After reading them, tt’s easy to feel hopeless about New York and cities in general. Which is why I was glad to read this: New York City Reveals the Future of American Retail – The Atlantic. It’s true, there are big changes in New York, just like there are big changes in other cities. And it’s true that many beloved retail stores are disappearing in cities everywhere. But it’s untrue that vacancy rates are shooting up and it’s untrue that it’s only big chains taking over. While retail stores threatened by Amazon are closing, places like restaurants and fitness locations are filling the gap.
You can argue that a city needs more than this new world of cafes and restaurants and gyms. The article points out to ways cities can encourage that. Specifically:
According to Jeremiah Moss, specific policies caused the disappearance of old New York—like tax breaks for big businesses, which have been a hallmark of city governance since the Ed Koch days (and up through HQ2). Moss says that several new policies could fix the problem. First, he is an advocate of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which would make it easier for small retailers to extend their lease in neighborhoods with rising rents. Second, he favors zoning laws that would limit the density of chain stores. He and others have also called for “vacancy taxes” that punish landlords who sit on empty storefronts for months at a time. All of these policies could help small businesses push back against the blandification of New York and the broader country.
Cities thrive when there is a mix of establishments servicing the wants and needs of its occupants. After reading this article, I think cities, New York and elswhere, are doing well and have a viable path to get better.
Two stories worth reading about New York City, one set in 1981, one set in 2017. Read Jonathan Franzen’s recollection of being Hard Up in New York (The New Yorker) first, then read about the current state of the city in Why the Upper East Side Is Now Cooler Than Brooklyn. What struck me was not that New York has become wealthier and gentrified, but that it has gone from being a place that was unlivable in one sense to being unlivable in a very different sense. Once you avoided parts of New York because of the danger: now you avoid parts because they are too expensive.
Of course New York is a massive city, and there are people that live in parts of it that can be still considered dangerous while there are other parts that could still be considered affordable. But NYC has changed dramatically since the 80s, and these articles — especially the one by Franzen — highlight this well. It’s hard to imagine Manhattan ever declining to the state it was in the 1970s and 80s, but in the 80s it would be hard to imagine it being as gentrified as it is now.
P.S. If 70s and 80s New York is your thing, I also recommend this.
The story of Bleecker Street’s Swerve From Luxe Shops to Vacant Stores in the NYTimes is one playing out in many cities throughout the world, though perhaps not as extreme as this. It’s a big problem when money comes flooding into neighborhoods and cities, disrupting the people that live there, and making those areas unlivable in some cases. Most people need somewhat stable places to live, but unstable social systems (capitalist or otherwise) can make that difficult unless other social systems (like local governments) come in and press back against such instability. As more of the world moves from rural to urban areas, the tools to make streets and cities livable need to be developed and put to use.
Anyone living in a growing city needs to read this piece. Recommended.
(PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHRIS MOTTALINI FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES)