Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'


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There’s a blog out there that’s chronicled the demise of a great number of local New York businesses – landmarks in their own right – under Bloomberg’s tutelage. Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York also tallied the combined number of years the institutions were in operation as a somewhat cheeky means of tabulating the amount of history we’ve lost (apparently, 6,926 years.) After immediately looking through the list to see if my beloved Mars Bar was on it (it is), I sat back and reflected that this, to a fair degree, vindicates my earlier feelings about the state of New York City, that I had “simply missed the Renaissance.”

It’s not simple nostalgia, though. New York should always be a shifting, growing thing that constantly renews itself. This is not such a case, however: Local businesses are not being replaced by local businesses. Most of the places on that list are gone because of fantastically higher rents brought along by speculation, and most of them are being replaced by national chains or bank branches (if, that is, they’re replaced at all: The former Rawhide Bar on Eighth Avenue is still an empty storefront because it’s more expedient to collect tax rebates and wait for “market” rates than put the property to good use.) The New York cultural scene is, effectively, being paved over by Chase Bank and Duane Reade.

Harlem, for instance, now has tourists from all over the world looking for what made that neighborhood special, but precious few local businesses to accommodate them: The Lenox Lounge is gone, as are many others. Greenwich Village lost the Pink Teacup (which was not on Jeremiah’s list), Bleecker Bob’s and a host of other cultural touchstones that were also profitable businesses until their leases ran out. Nobody goes to Harlem to see Old Navy. Likewise, nobody moves to New York to be near a Crate and Barrel. It’s becoming a tragedy of the commons: We’re killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

For all my cultural arguments, the thing is, it’s not capitalism, either. Those storeowners were capitalists. What replaced them can best be described as mercantilists. That is to say, the landlords and community boards involved in pushing for city regulations have been doing so in order to stave off competition: As yet, more than a quarter of Manhattan is landmarked, and half of it is under unreasonably restrictive limits on building, resulting in a (literally) untenable rent reality for local businesses. With this artificial limitation on growth, these properties’ values are maximized on the backs of the tenants with a minimum of effort on the part of the landlords. They have created their walled garden, and we are all suffering for it.

I’ve argued against both wholesale architectural preservation and restrictive zoning, because it destroys the equilibrium between supply and demand. The city’s answer to this, historically, has been rent regulation, and of the four urbanized boroughs of the city, rent-regulated apartments made up between 42% and 59% of the total properties available: Just about half of New York can afford to live in New York only because the government has stepped in. I myself can only afford to live in my apartment because of rent regulation.

We instituted residential rent regulation because rent spikes destroy neighborhood and community cohesion – it’s near impossible to plan for the future if you have to move every year. We need those people, and thus it was a necessity to enact legislation to keep them. The same can be said for rents for retail and commercial services: Even preservationist Jane Jacobs realized that there are a great many categories of necessary businesses that survive only because of low rents, due to their nature as low-returns enterprises: She specifically mentioned hardware stores and supermarkets, which every neighborhood needs, but they are often the first to go.

I argue, thus, that we need to extend rent regulation to leases for retail and commercial services. We lost Colony Records’ 60 years of business because the new building management quintupled their rent: No business can survive that, yet Colony Records and stores like it provided a cultural benefit to the city. That said, I am not arguing for this city to become a museum city: New York should remain dynamic, where new businesses can find spaces of their own and flourish, and the ultimate goal is to accommodate the demand. Residential rent regulation was introduced as an emergency measure to allow middle- and low-income residents to remain in the city. Once the emergency is over – once we reach 5% vacancy – rent regulation will expire. It is a stop-gap measure; we just need to bridge the gap.

Now, while there are always political movements to eliminate city regulations when it comes to rent laws, they are thankfully unpopular in the current political forum. There is, however, very little political will in the way of eliminating city regulations when it comes to preservation or zoning (except for those rich enough to bypass the rules, resulting in a two-tiered system of luxury.) This detente of competing regulation is acceptable, insofar as we are so far from equilibrium at this time that to immediately remove all restriction would shock a great many neighborhoods and uproot most of the city – we do not want to relive Boston’s mass evictions when they eliminated rent control – but we cannot afford to wait for the political knots around needed growth to unravel: We also do not want to experience San Francisco’s demonstrations because people are being forced out for richer transplants.

Our primary goal should be to relax restrictions on development citywide so as to make the most use of our infrastructure and present a place that is both reasonably affordable and inviting to new New Yorkers, but until we can do so, if we wish to have bookstores, record stores, music stores, art stores, galleries, diners, bakeries, cafes, delis, bodegas, bars, dance halls, clubs – we are in such desperate need for live music venues it’s not even funny – and holes in the wall of all definition between the banks and pharmacies, we need to act now. This is as much an emergency as housing.

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