I've lived within the radius of a couple of blocks on the Upper East Side of Manhattan for half a century. That, I figure, provides me with a sharp view of the neighborhood, its sturdiness, its changes.
This part of New York City is traditionally known as the "Silk Stocking" district. Within its boundaries are great museums, fine restaurants, shops and hotels, beautiful blocks of stately homes and apartment buildings. With proximity to Central Park, they give the area its distinction.
Wealth is found here, in residences along Park and Fifth Avenues, and several side streets. But far from every resident is wealthy. My ability to remain in the neighborhood stems from living for many years in the same apartment. Like thousands of others, I've been blessed by New York City's vital rent protection laws. I'm here out of longevity.
The area has changed. A row of German restaurants, some with music, that used to line Eighty-Sixth Street are long gone. The nearby Hungarian restaurants have left as well. You might have saved on calories with their closures, but their food was authentic, their prices reasonable, and the atmosphere was fun.
Maybe even more regrettable than their closings are the closings of many small and medium-sized merchants. I can count at least a dozen in an area of four or five nearby blocks. They were family-owned food markets, small cafes, retail shoe stores and repair shops, stationery stores, the very kind of mom-and-pop businesses which give a neighborhood is personality and stability, where they know a customer's name. No longer here.
In some of those cases, store owners chose to retire. In far too many cases, they were chased away when their store leases expired and landlords demanded outrageous rent increases for lease renewals. To continue being profitable, those merchants would have needed a business far too great to foresee. They've simply left, and they've left a sad gap behind. And now...it's startling to see the number of store fronts that have remained vacant for months and even years. No one can afford to rent them.
Taking the place of businesses which left are electronic and big box chain stores, banks, discount clothing stores, nail salons, enterprises which add no character to the area and which could have been placed as well anywhere.
Recently I read of a small bookstore in the Latin Quarter of Paris that was about to suffer the same fate as the small merchants in New York--forced into closure by an unreasonable rent increase. The city government rescued it by stepping in and covering the increase, so that the store, in an area filled with students, could remain open by paying its original rent. Has that ever been even considered in this city?
I am lucky. A magnificent tree and garden behind my building are being destroyed by a private boys' school. I miss the green which survived winter and summer all the years I've lived here, and before. Still, I am grateful to be here.
Changes come, good and bad. Many things don't last.
. . .
Stanley Ely writes about city issues in "Life Up Close, a Memoir," in paperback and ebook.
Stanley Ely writes about city issues in "Life Up Close, a Memoir," in paperback and ebook,