Good times: A crowd gathers outside the CBGB music space during the late 1980s. photo: Flickr user AMG2000
Vanishing New York: An Interview with Jeremiah Moss
Issue #
199

You’ve noticed it by now: New York City’s small businesses are disappearing, and fast. The storefronts of the mom-and-pop shops, dive bars and beloved neighborhood eateries that once characterized New York’s streetscape are being filled with national franchises, big retail stores and bank branches. And gradually, the very feel of New York is transforming into something different, something other. Something sanitized.

No one has chronicled this street-level transformation more assiduously over the past seven years than Jeremiah Moss, an East Village resident and author of the popular blog, “Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York A.K.A. The Book of Lamentations.” His blog is a running archive of rent hikes, demolitions and often-futile neighborhood fights to save longtime businesses. Perhaps most poignant are the photographs: owners’ goodbye notes plastered on doors and windows, newly-naked awnings, last meals and drinks.

This transformation, Moss insists in an email interview with The Indypendent, is not the normal organic process of change that alters communities over time but a government-subsidized process of “hyper-gentrification.” Moss is unabashed in his dismay over the changes being wrought across the city, but he, for his part, is still holding out — in his home, and tentatively, for a reversal of the public policies driving vanishing New York.

Giulia Olsson: What inspired you to start the Vanishing New York blog? And what have been some of the most significant experiences of writing it?

Jeremiah Moss: I started the blog after spending a few years complaining to anyone who would listen that New York City was undergoing a massive, forced change in the direction of a major upscaling. People kept telling me I was imagining it. They said, “New York has always changed. This is normal.” When I started the blog, and as time went by, with the changes snowballing, I discovered that many other people had noticed the same problem. I was not alone.

Maybe that’s the most poignant experience, really, the sense of a community coming together around the blog, where people can feel not alone in their grief and outrage over what’s happening to the city. That’s meant a lot to me.

As you’ve written about, many decades-old independent bookshops, magazine shops, record shops and bars have been closing in Manhattan in recent years. What are the main causes of this pattern of closures

The main cause is what I like to call hyper-gentrification. This is not the old-fashioned gentrification of the 20th century, in which middle-class people bought vacant properties in a working-class or poor neighborhood, fixed them up and thus changed the neighborhood gradually and organically, however problematically. Hyper-gentrification is a major strategy planned and sponsored by the city government in collusion with corporations. It happens very quickly and spreads wide, out from the center of the city and into the deepest reaches of the outer boroughs.

Along the way, small businesses shutter due to catastrophic rent increases. I’ve seen countless businesses destroyed by rents that triple, quadruple, even increase tenfold. And these were businesses that were doing well, selling products and serving customers steadily. Landlords see the flood of chains and banks, so they hike rents and evict longstanding tenants in the hopes of attracting a big fish.

What impact does the buildup of market-rate/luxury housing have on changing the small business ecology in a neighborhood?

The kinds of people who can afford to live in luxury housing generally want their neighborhoods to be filled with luxury businesses. So they support the high-end chain stores and boutiques that are flooding in.

What we witnessed on the western end of Bleecker Street, for example, was unprecedented. In just a few years, about 40 small, long-time businesses were pushed out and replaced by high-end luxury shopping mall stores — and it all started with Marc Jacobs. In less than a decade, commercial rents rose from $75 to $500 per square foot, and are still climbing. Now Bleecker Street is referred to as “Rodeo Drive” or the “Gold Coast.” There is not one single small business left on that stretch.

We’re observing widespread gentrification and displacement of longtime businesses and residents from neighborhoods all over the city. What was former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s role in instigating this process? And what has his successor, Bill de Blasio, done about it?

Mayor Bloomberg never disguised his intentions. He stated outright that he saw New York as a “luxury product.” He said, again and again, that he wanted to fill the city with the super-rich.

To make New York more attractive to tycoons, Bloomberg rezoned nearly half the city. He handed out tax breaks like free samples at Whole Foods (the upscale grocery chain got over $4 million to hyper-gentrify Brooklyn’s toxic Gowanus). Business tax breaks tripled, from $1 billion to $3 billion annually. Subsidies in the many millions went to multinational corporations and real-estate developers. Eminent domain was used to seize or threaten the seizure of private property in mega-development projects like Atlantic and Hudson Yards. A staunch supporter of eminent domain, Bloomberg made it a top priority to oppose legislation that would “cripple” redevelopment, i.e., limit the city’s power to steal from the poor and middle-class and give to the rich.

So far, Bill de Blasio has done little to nothing to course correct.

Why do you think commercial rent controls haven’t been established in the city?

De Blasio has said, while answering a question I asked him in an online forum, that commercial rent control is not workable. I’m not sure why, other than the fact that landlords and big business would go ballistic. Residential rent control was established in 1943 — it would never fly in today’s anti-regulation, free-market climate.

The new businesses that are opening up in New York and replacing smaller shops tend to be of a similar character: we see tons of national or international retail franchises and upscale bars and restaurants popping up. How is this trend remaking the culture of the city?

It’s killing the soul of New York and turning it into another Anywhere, USA. Soul-sucking, culture-killing and suburbanizing, this trend has taken a vibrant, living city and made it dull, a place where creative people can no longer thrive, where the non-rich can’t survive and where affluent mainstream Americans dictate the look and feel of every street.

From its beginnings, the city existed as a space apart. Exceptionally able to tolerate — and celebrate — a multiplicity of cultures and ways of living, it had been both the gateway to America for foreign immigrants and the escape from America for those who never fell in line with the “American way” of normal.

Hyper-gentrification, which could also be thought of as suburbanization or corporatization, is changing all that. While the poor, immigrants and artists can still live in pockets of the outer boroughs, that won’t last long. Manhattan, many parts of Brooklyn and increasingly, Queens, have been closed to anyone without serious money. What this means is that young and hungry people aren’t moving to New York and the existing artists are leaving, and that means no more creative edge.

What steps do you feel need to be taken to reverse the pattern of “vanishing New York”

Mayor de Blasio needs to step up. Here’s one possible prescription:

  • Pass the Small Business Survival Act to create fair rent negotiations. 

  • Protect the city’s oldest and most beloved small businesses by awarding them with selective commercial rent control. We never should have lost historic businesses like CBGB’s, Lenox Lounge, Bill’s Gay 90s and many others to rent hikes.

  • Take away tax breaks and incentives from big business and give them to mom-and-pops, especially the long-term survivors.

  • Telling people to “shop local” doesn’t cut it. We all shop at chains from time to time and, the more they multiply, the more they push out local alternatives, the harder it is to avoid them. Chains need to be controlled and reduced. Follow San Francisco’s example, where City Hall mandates tight controls over “formula retail.” Pass a citywide ordinance to limit the number of chains and to keep chains from clustering together.

To find out more and read “Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York,” visit vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com.

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