Are you relatively new to this bustling metropolis? Don't be shy about it, everyone was new to New York once upon a time, except, of course, those battle-hardened residents who've lived here their whole lives and Know It All. One of these lifers works among us at Gothamist—publisher Jake Dobkin grew up in Park Slope and still resides there. He is now fielding questions—ask him anything by sending an email here, but be advised that Dobkin is "not sure you guys will be able to handle my realness." We can keep you anonymous if you prefer; just let us know what neighborhood you live in.
This week's question comes from a New Yorker who's outraged about the local grocery store being priced out of the neighborhood.
My local grocery store might close because the landlord has increased rent substantially. Is there anything (meaningful) I can do to prevent this catastrophe from occurring?
I Refuse To Walk To Whole Foods
A native New Yorker responds:
Good for you! It is a thoughtful New Yorker who realizes that small, locally owned businesses are a big part of what makes a neighborhood livable. Every time one of these stores get priced out and replaced by a national chain or a bank, a little part of New York's soul dies. I'm not just talking about big institutions like Pearl River (killed by a rent hike last year)—humble local bars, diners, and grocery stores are just as important for making this the kind of city people want to live in.
Jake Dobkin enjoys beer sourced exclusively from local bodegas. (Courtesy Jake Dobkin Private Collection)
Small stores are important because they are usually locally owned, and money you spend there stays in the community. The owners are much more likely to be participants in local civic affairs, which national chains can afford to ignore. Being more embedded in the community, and more in tune with the community's needs, means the store is more likely to cater to the particular requirements of the locals—particular brands or ethnic products that the national chain isn't going to bother with, because it's cheaper to sell the same stuff everywhere they have a store. You really think that the bartender at T.G.I. Fridays is going to remember what kind of beer you like?
What can you do? For this specific grocery, consider coordinated community action. Obviously you're already shopping there, but make sure your friends are too. Then alert the local email list, neighborhood blog, or community newspaper about what's going on—see if you can get a protest going. It's possible that if you make enough noise, you might be able to scare off national chains interested in that location, or at least attract the attention of your local politicians, who can sometimes mediate a settlement with the landlord. This is a longshot, though; a grocery store generally has small margins, and if they are staring down a 100% increase in the rent, it's not like they're going to be able to afford to stay if you get it knocked down to "only" 50%.
Not all landlords are evil. Some understand that local businesses are important in keeping a neighborhood attractive to residents, and since landlords often own both residential and commercial spaces, in their own self-interest they sometimes will give discounted rents to certain businesses and make it up on the higher residential rents a "cool" area generates. But a landlord who only owns one property can't do this, and they're always going to try to maximize the rent they can earn, which means pushing it as high as possible without triggering the bankruptcy of their retail tenants. Sometimes it even means pushing it higher than that! In every neighborhood there's that one location where restaurants never last more than 18 months—that landlord has decided that it's a better business to charge a usurious rent and keep replacing the tenants, even if it means leaving the store vacant for months at a time.
Unfortunately, with so many different landlords acting in their own self-interest, you often get a "tragedy of the commons" situation. Take a retail strip like Smith Street in Carroll Gardens. Twenty years ago it was barren, and then a few cool restaurants moved in. Rents were low. Then those restaurants attracted more residents, and more competition, and as leases expired, the landlords went for top dollar, raising the rent 10 times over where it was before. Now the Smith Street strip is half empty and the cool factor is quickly slipping away. Why didn't the landlords think "gee, if we all jack up the rent as high as it can go, we're going to quickly destroy the vibrant scene that allowed us to raise the rent in the first place?"
The answer is that this would require thinking beyond their narrow self-interest, and realizing that like good pasture, "cool" is a precious commodity. Like "livable" or "quaint," it depends on a fragile mix of a certain kind of interesting restaurant, store, or bar, and once it's gone, it's probably gone for good. The buzz may alight on a different neighborhood, but it's not coming back to Smith Street any time soon. That'll mean, in the long term, lower rents, but unfortunately that's far enough in the future that the current landlords aren't going to be much swayed by this argument. And besides, even if one of them did agree, what about everyone else? No landlord wants to be the sucker that supports the scene, while all the other ones are making bank.
With the New York real estate bubbles of the last 15 years, the pace of this retail gentrification process has only accelerated. Jeremiah Moss, the leading local blogger writing on this topic, calls it "hyper-gentrification," because it's so different from what came before. Think about the West Village: it took decades for it to go from a working class neighborhood, to an artists' haunt, to a yuppie destination, to its current half-dead "luxury desert." Same for SoHo. But Bushwick seems like it'll complete that process in 15 years or less.
Do not despair! We are not all destined to live in neighborhoods with retail strips populated exclusively by Rite-Aid and Citibank. A variety of solutions have been proposed. Some smart local politicians have suggested legislation that requires mandatory mediation and a one-year lease extension for small businesses. This hasn't gone anywhere yet, but that's because there hasn't been enough popular support. If you want to do something, right now, to make your neighborhood a better place, head on over to the #SaveNYC site, which will give you at least 3 ways to urge the passage of this bill.
Other measures have also been suggested. Gale Brewer's office released a whole report last year, which included a bunch of ideas for preserving local businesses: everything from changes in zoning to make more retail space available and less expensive, to funding more retail space in affordable and public housing developments, to reducing some of the taxes and red tape that eat into the margins of small businesses. None of this stuff will happen, of course, unless you speak up and tell your local politicians that they need to get on board!
So do that. You might not be able to save your local grocery store, but you'll be helping to reduce this kind of retail displacement in the future, and that will make all of our neighborhoods better and more livable.
N.B.: Given the many challenges real estate prices are causing in our city, some people might not feel like the fate of the local grocery store is that big a deal. Obviously it's more important to have a roof over your head than the grocery store you prefer. But these issues are all related—some of the same laws and policies that have turned our residential real estate market into a casino are causing the homogenization of our commercial strips, and our city will be better off if we deal with both sides of the coin now, rather than focusing exclusively on affordable residential housing.
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