New York City Continues to Turn Into Cleveland; News from the Center for an Urban Future

Despite the "sour economic climate" in New York City, what's happened is that "dozens of chain stores actually have expanded their footprint in the five boroughs over the past year."
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Living in New York City is the ultimate urban trade-off; an ongoing pas de deux between a dream and no closet space. Other than those who are Goldman-lined, we surrender space and privacy, we pay nutty rents for some tiny turf in exchange for an ineffable combination of manic intensity, creative ferocity and conviction about an uncertain but ultimately luminous future.

And we derive a large measure of self-satisfaction from our willingness to enter into that bargain, and to continue the romantic argument that's brought and kept people here for generations.

Part of what makes us willing to pay the price for living in New York is the texture of the urban fabric, the kinds of restaurants and stores that you stumble upon when you turn an unexpected corner, the emblematic quirkiness and glorious grump of merchants and storekeepers who could only be sustained here.

The Center for an Urban Future, a worthwhile policy group and think tank, published some scary statistical data this week that raises some questions - none of which are totally new - about the continuing loss of the warp and woof of our essential urban character.

Their research revealed a "surprising finding." Despite the "sour economic climate" in New York City, what's happened is that "dozens of chain stores actually have expanded their footprint in the five boroughs over the past year."

Some specifics - and the data reflects July 2008 to July 2009:

• Dunkin' Donuts increased from 341 locations to 429 - the largest national retailer in the city

• Subway, the second largest, went from 335 to 361.

• Starbucks, despite the store closings we've been reading about, went from 235 locations to 258.

Others who had their share of grand-openings in the teeth of the recession were McDonald's, Duane Reade, Baskin-Robbins, Sleepy's and Radio Shack. (Like me, do you wonder about the crazy proliferation of mattress stores? Who is buying them?)

Many of us have been ringing the homogenization bell for a long time, and bemoaning the accelerating disappearance of the kinds of small, personality-rich shops that Jane Jacobs heroized in her landmark "Death and Life of Great American Cities."

But while Jane focused her animus on soulless urban planners (namely Robert Moses) for crushing them, what's happening now is a self-inflicted subtraction. We are the ones who are spending enough money at these chain stores to encourage their business planners and economic modelers to open more of them.

Meanwhile, the city is hurting. Earlier this summer, Mayor Bloomberg announced an effort to bring more "new media jobs" to New York. Yesterday, it was announced to the City's unemployed rate increased to 9.6%, which is actually higher than the national rate. Doing business in New York City isn't easy, but companies put up with all the crap and complexities because the people they want to hire want to live here.

But if walking the streets of this city becomes indistinguishable from walking the streets of Cleveland, we'll lose the ferocious and fiery entrepreneurs who can bring us out of the recession, and into a diversified future where the city isn't so dependent on the success of Wall Street.

The critical role of independent, imaginative retail is vital to New York's resurgence. But no one - not the federal government with its bail-out money, not the city with its own tax incentives - is spending a nickel to encourage and develop this sector.

The Center for an Urban Future closes its report by saying:

"In theory, the disappearance of former powerhouses like Circuit City...could create new opportunities for independent, mom-and-pop retailers by freeing up space and easing upward pressure on prices.

But the well-known difficulties of small businesses looking to access credit in this downtown might represent a stronger countervailing factor - and any independent retailers would face the same depressed market conditions as their larger competitors."

Unless there's a concerted and systemic effort to create a flowering of inspiring, Jane-Jacobsian small business start-ups - an effort which must include the banks and other sources of capital; local government; the real estate industry and others who have a stake in the future of the city - we will end up with a retail landscape that is depressingly mall-like. Denatured, decaffeinated, distilled.

The trends are clear and undeniable. So in the future, when we look back and wonder why New York has lost its competitive edge, the answer will be as clear as the Dunkin' Donuts on the corner. And the Popeye's (with 62 franchises throughout the city, including 31 in Manhattan) across the street.

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