What gives a city its character? Where does its soul reside?
Nowhere, and everywhere at once. A functioning, thriving city arises from a mysterious alchemy of its constituent components—its geography, its street plan, its buildings. Its people, of course. And, crucially, its businesses. Change the balance of these things enough, and the personality of that city undergoes a palpable alteration.
Over the past 20 years, the types of businesses you find on an average block in the city of New York have most certainly changed. Gone are many of the mom-and-pop stores that gave neighborhoods their intense local flavor, the peculiar and idiosyncratic storefronts that gave each commercial street its sometimes rough texture. As landlords have hiked rents ever higher, the truly local businesses have been replaced with predictable national and international chains, whose enormous plate-glass windows slide past the eye with glazed uniformity: Chipotle, Santander, Dunkin' Donuts, Subway, Bed Bath & Beyond. And Starbucks. Starbucks Starbucks Starbucks.
According to the Center for an Urban Future’s 2014 “State of the Chains” report, the number of national chain stores in New York City increased last year by 2.5 percent, the sixth year running that the number has gone up. Many residents worry that this means New York is undergoing a transition far beyond the usual churning change of a healthy city moving forward in time. They worry that New York risks losing forever the very essence of what makes it New York.
One of the most thorough and pugnacious chroniclers of New York’s blandification is a blogger who goes by the pseudonym of Jeremiah Moss. On his site, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York (“a.k.a. the Book of Lamentations: a bitterly nostalgic look at a city in the process of going extinct”), he has for years been documenting the ongoing gut renovation of New York’s commercial landscape.
Now Moss has decided that lament isn’t enough. As first reported at DNAInfo, he's organizing an online campaign called #SaveNYC in the hopes that by bringing attention to the plight of the city’s small businesses, ordinary New Yorkers can galvanize legislators to pass measures that would protect them. He is encouraging New Yorkers to upload videos about their favorite small businesses to the site, and to use the hashtag to bring attention to endangered establishments. Moss drew inspiration from the recent Save Soho campaign in London, which attracted a long list of celebrities to advocate for local businesses in that culturally significant district.
Moss says that he was moved to launch the campaign after joining in the fight to save the Cafe Edison, a coffee shop in Manhattan’s Theater District where many of the city’s entertainment professionals ate, schmoozed, and created (August Wilson wrote three of his plays on Edison napkins, according to the New York Times). In the end, the Edison was forced out by the owners of the hotel that housed it, to make way for a multimillion-dollar renovation and conversion to an upscale restaurant with a celebrity chef.
“We organized lunch mobs,” says Moss of the effort to save the cafe. “Because it was part of the Broadway community, there were a lot of actors, directors, and everyday New Yorkers. It was the first time there was such a big response to a closing. But what it came down to in the end was that there was no legal way to stop it.”
Moss would like to see New York’s city council enact some kind of legal protections for its roughly 200,000 small businesses. One piece of legislation that has been banging around the council since 2009 is the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which would provide tenants with the right “to mediate disputes between tenants and landlords to arrive at fair and reasonable lease renewal terms,” in recognition of the reality that many small businesses are effectively destroyed when their leases expire and landlords jack up the rent. (That practice can leave not just a glut of national chains, but also a sad array of empty storefronts when landlords ask for more than the market can actually bear.) The SBJSA has been languishing, but the de Blasio administration, with its focus on income inequality, might give it a new lease on life.
Moss also points to San Francisco’s ordinance, designed to limit the proliferation of chain stores, as one model New York might follow. Another possibility coming out of the debate in San Francisco, says Moss, is some kind of “cultural landmarking” process. Such a program, he suggests, could be used to create selective caps on the prices of commercial spaces. “Rent control can be gifted to businesses that qualify for Cultural Landmarking,” he writes on the #SaveNYC site. “Local communities can nominate the businesses they want to protect.”
Moss’s brand of preservationism has drawn ridicule. In a New York Observer piece titled “The Tyranny of Nostalgia,” Anthony Fisher wrote that Moss and his ilk are unrealistically hoping to freeze New York in time—thereby killing it. “Excessive ‘landmarking’ not only makes it harder for small businesses to compete,” Fisher writes, “it hinders the potential for innovation brought by new businesses.”
Opposition to measures such as the ones Moss proposes have shown they can't be easily dismissed. After voters in Malibu, California, recently passed a measure limiting chain stores in the hopes of retaining the community’s “small-town feel,” the legislation was quickly challenged as unconstitutional by interests looking to develop big retail properties in the swank seaside community. In Madrid, Franco-era commercial rent controls expired at the beginning of this year, and already, many small businesses that have been fixtures for generations have been forced to close their doors to make way for deep-pocketed chains.
Moss says he isn’t against change. He argues that what has happened in New York in the past 15 years isn’t normal urban evolution, but rather the end result of aggressive pro-developer policies that have been in place since the beginning of the Bloomberg era. “The change we’re seeing in the 21st century is apocalyptic,” he says. “This is not an organic process. This is the city government moving in to change neighborhoods by force.”
He knows that enacting policies to protect New York’s small businesses won’t be easy. But if the city doesn’t move to do something soon, Moss says, it may wake up one day not recognizing itself in the mirror. At that point, he argues even tourists in thronging Times Square could notice that something is wrong. “What happens,” wonders Moss, “when they say, ‘Why am I here? I already have an Olive Garden where I come from.’”