The Sterilization of New York City
To a New Yorker of a certain age, a coffee shop is what the rest of America would call a diner. Fairly generic, from the 60s through the 70s they were often run by Greek immigrants and their families. Today, their employees are usually from South America. But still they are fixtures of their neighborhoods, places for old folks to meet for coffee and kibitzing, young adults to sober up after a night of binge drinking, and singles to get a meal and read a paper without feeling uncomfortable eating alone.
Those traditional coffee shops, like so much of New York, are rapidly disappearing, forced out not by a lack of business or the changing tastes of newcomers but by the greed of commercial landlords — and the willingness of corporate chains to pay ever-increasing rents.
Ironies abound. Twenty years ago, New York City banks were racing to close their branches. The market had spoken, banks said, and customers clearly prefer the convenience of ATM machines to personal interaction. And then the banks changed their minds, and proceeded to buy storefronts across the city — usually large and impersonal spaces, sparsely furnished, bereft of character, with only a handful of employees, and creating blank, fluorescent holes in the city’s streetscape at night
Of course, the banks have to compete with other chains — Duane Reade, CVS, and the kind of fast food joints that can be found in any shopping center anywhere in America. But what’s really scary is that the law of supply-and-demand seems to have been rescinded in New York City. The markets speak, landlords say, but they seem to have no problem keeping storefronts empty for years on end, apparently in hopes of landing long-term tenants willing to pay exorbitant rents, with no concern for the city’s legacy and unique quality of life.
Will New York kill the goose that laid the golden egg? Long-time New Yorkers would say yes. But native New Yorkers are themselves a rapidly disappearing breed. How many people here today have ever drank an egg cream, had their shirts starched at a Chinese laundry, known they were riding on the BMT, waited at the corner newsstand for the the late edition of the Daily News? How many will know or care that we’ve lost the local army & navy stores, or Avignon Pharmacy or CBGB’s, or music row, or the old Lion’s Head saloon?
Maybe the newcomers will never know what they’ve missed. Maybe they like the familiarity of the suburban culture from whence they came. Maybe the congenital grit of the city, the crowds and the trash and homeless, provides enough of an urban experience to satisfy the wealthy Nouveau Yorkers living in their splendid condos in the sky.
Small towns across America have been sucked dry by shopping malls. Their main streets have died, sapping their communities of geographical or cultural uniqueness, of anything that says this is home, and that there is no place like it. And their residents just seem to move to other generic towns and establish generic relationships with generic people just like themselves.
New York neighborhoods were small towns once, and some still are. But the moment those neighborhoods are discovered, the moment some young artists move in and ambitious young writer describes them in some local publication, their character is changed forever. And it’s only a matter of time until money follows, and the local dive bar becomes trendy, and then come the inevitable wine bar and ersatz hipster coffee shop, chain stores, and then high-rise development, and the wealthy, with their pretensions of hipness and cool, and a sameness settles like a fungal dust over our city, destroying all that was organic and human and inspiring.
Or is that just romantic sentimentality run amok, the inevitable lamentation that comes with gentrification?