Wanted: Mom & Pop Stores
By Tracy L. Ziemer
December 23, 2004
Enough already. That thunderous sound was me putting my proverbial
foot down over the strip-mall-ization of the Upper West Side.
Well, either that or it was the sound of hundreds of feet
stampeding to the new Bed Bath and Beyond near Lincoln Center.
The latter, sadly, is more likely, much to my regret.
One of the reasons I moved to New York and the Upper West
Side more than six years ago was so that I wouldn't have to
go to a mall again – all those rows of stores selling
the same pairs of chinos and cable knit sweaters, offering
up bags of blandness capped off with a pitstop at McDonald's
or Cinnabon for more blasé fare.
But today, ironically, I find myself firmly planted on what
must now be one of the world's largest outdoor strip malls:
Broadway. One stroll down this Manhattan boulevard puts me
face-to-face with Victoria's Secret, Coach, the Gap, Banana
Republic, PC Richards, Staples, Jennifer Convertibles, Claire's,
Circuit City, Pottery Barn, Zales and, now, a 53,000 square
foot Bed Bath and Beyond store. And Upper East Siders have
seen the same thing happening on their most popular thoroughfares,
especially 86th Street.
On Broadway, all that's missing is an Orange Julius stand
in a median strip. What's next? Wal-Mart taking over Columbia
University to serve as an "anchor" store?
The deepening beige hue of the UWS's urban fabric was pointed
out to me when my cousin visited from Wisconsin and, while
walking down Broadway, said, "New York has all the same
stuff we have. It's just outside."
Sadly, this is true. But the difference lies in the choices
we make. To choose Manhattan means choosing La Di Da over
Claire's for jewelry. Ivy's Books instead of Barnes &
Noble. Diana & Jefferies rather than Express. West Side
Kids before Kay-B Toys. Sal & Carmine's over Papa John's.
Levain Bakery rather than Dunkin' Donuts.
Part of the thrill of living here is not wearing a pair of
Gap corduroy pants while drinking a Starbucks while reading
the Today Show's latest book recommendation like some guy
in Indianapolis is doing right now. That's the whole point.
The lure of cheaper goods and one-stop shopping is intoxicating,
to be sure, particularly in a city where grocery shopping
can require three stores and a personal scheduler. Who doesn't
love the ease of shopping for picture frames and dishes and
a new couch under one Pottery Barn roof? Adding a bit of convenience
to oft-chaotic Manhattan living is a definite perk these large
chain stores bring.
But it's the rapid growth of this slice of the retail pie
that gives me a stomach ache. For every 10 Duane Reades, there's
one Peter's Pharmacy, an independent business in a sea of
In many ways, the Upper West Side's density of families makes
it a natural for larger, chain stores offering deals on clothes
and furniture and electronics. The neighborhood also welcomes
comfort and, admittedly, will never be a bastion for the cutting
edge. After all, that's why we have 14th Street: To serve
as a kind of Mason Dixon Line separating pierced hipsters
from baseball-cap wearing guys and cashmere twinset girls.
Not wanting a piece of jewelry in my tongue, however, should
not be confused with wanting Manhattan, New York to become
This is not a problem unique to the Upper West Side, I know.
With rising rents, most Manhattan neighborhoods have had to
cater to larger companies. SoHo, that once avant-garde home
to artists, years ago made room for a Staples and Old Navy
and over time has become a tangle of tourists and predictability.
Chelsea's 23rd Street now boasts a Home Depot and an Outback
Steakhouse. Even St. Mark's in the East Village has gone vanilla
and welcomed a Quiznos and SuperCuts amid its urban brocade
of tattoo parlors, falafel outposts and bars.
I'd like to see the Upper West Side sidestep its seemingly
inevitable transformation into one big outdoor strip mall.
I root for the neighborhood to sharpen its unique character
of brownstones and city surprises amid leafy trees, where
small businesses like Mike's Lumber and Harry's Shoes and
Liberty House still thrive in the shadows of mega-stores.
Such unconformity is healthy, and even necessary, for a neighborhood
to flourish. In Jane Jacobs' famous book The Death and Life
of Great American Cities, she writes about the beauty of unchoreographed
urban street life: "The ballet of the good city sidewalk
never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place
is always replete with new improvisations."
Anyone else want to dance?
Copyright 2004 Manhattan Media
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