Friday, October 19, 2018

Coffee Shop to Chase Bank

A tipster friend tells us that the famous and just-shuttered Coffee Shop on Union Square is rumored to become yet another Chase Bank.

He attended the post-closing auction this week and chatted with insiders there. They told him: 1. The space is going to Chase, 2. The rent was hiked to $3 million annually, and 3. Chase might be keeping the antique neon sign and re-doing the letters so it spells out CHASE instead of COFFEE SHOP.

None of this is confirmed for sure, but if the sign switcheroo happens, it would be yet another example of New York City soul snatching, a.k.a. authentrification. (See also: Village Den, Rocco's, Bill's Gay 90s, and too many more to list.)

Ironically, the original coffee shop here before Coffee Shop was called Chase--possibly Jack Chase in the 1950s. The name is still in the floor of the doorway.

In the 1980s, it was Jason's Restaurant.

photo by Karen Gehres, via Flaming Pablum

Tax photograph

Now it's empty, the pots and pans auctioned off, the lamps and decorations removed.

It's time to pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act and protect places like Coffee Shop from becoming more banks (and Starbucks, and Targets, and pricey boutiques). Go to the public hearing on Monday, October 22. Speak your mind. If that's not possible, here are more easy, quick ways you can make a difference today. The future of this city depends on you.

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Trouble with "Shop Local"

As we near the October 22 public hearing for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, I want to think critically about the use of the phrase "Shop Local."

First, let me be clear, I am not critiquing the act of shopping locally, which is important and necessary. I am critiquing the use of the injunction "Shop Local" by city leaders, which I believe is sometimes weaponized against the real possibility of systemic change to help save small, local businesses in the city.

It is, quite simply, a way to deflect blame from the system and onto the individual, stopping progressive change in its tracks.

I was struck this summer by the appearance of this deflection at a town hall meeting with Mayor de Blasio and City Council Member Helen Rosenthal on the Upper West Side.

When an audience member asked what can be done to stop New York's mom and pops from vanishing, the mayor said that, while he supports a vacancy tax to stop landlords from leaving storefronts empty, "We don't have...good tools to protect small business in a free-market system... But there's a citizen piece of this, too, and I don't mean to minimize the problem, but people need to go to those stores and patronize those stores."

To this, the audience member responded off mic, possibly saying, "They do," to which the mayor replied, "They do and they don't. My experience is...a lot of people who value those stores could also be part of the solution by going to them more often."

Helen Rosenthal concluded, "Mr. Mayor, I'm with you. We all need to step up and shop local. It's very frustrating."

Again, shopping local is necessary, we all can do it more, but it won't solve the main problem. And when we hear it in response to the question "what can be done?" we are often in the grip of neoliberal ideology. Sometimes, the people saying it don't even know they're part of that ideology. For decades, it has been the air we breathe. We have all become, to some extent, brainwashed by it.

Many of us say to each other, "If only we shopped there more often." On this blog, commenters inevitably accuse, "When was the last time you shopped there?" As if we are the main problem and not the landlords who quadruple the rent or refuse a new lease.

Neoliberalism, in short, is a free-market capitalist ideology and approach to governance that uses the policies of privatization, deregulation, and fiscal austerity, redistributing wealth and other resources from the lower, working, and middle classes to the wealthy.

It's not new and it's not liberal.

It began in the U.S. in the late 1970s, kicked off as a response to New York City's fiscal crisis, and went global under Ronald Reagan (trickle-down economics) and Margaret Thatcher. Whenever you hear "it's the free market," you're hearing the voice of neoliberalism. It is the reason for the 1% and why we have such massive income inequality.

It is also the way New York City has been governed since about 1979. It's why we have gentrification as public policy, with tax breaks and incentives going to big real-estate developers and corporations, private parks, etc., while our public resources suffer. In this system, celebrated by former Mayor Bloomberg, the city is run like a corporation and its citizens are consumers.

This brings us to the "neoliberal individual."

In the neoliberal worldview, there's a philosophical shift from state responsibility to individual responsibility. Now, there's nothing wrong with individuals being responsible for each other and their own actions. But when we're talking on the level of systems of power and governance, it's another thing altogether.

From the point of view of the neoliberal individual, if climate change is causing death and destruction, well, it's your fault for not recycling plastic bags, and don't blame the deregulation of polluting industries (read this). If you're a woman and you're sexually harassed in the workplace, it's your fault for not reporting it, and don't look to the system of patriarchy. And if small businesses are shuttering by the dozens, it's your fault, New Yorker, for not shopping local enough, and don't dare blame the big real estate machine that is supported by our neoliberal state and city government.

In short, the problem lies with you, the individual. If we hear this enough, we might become convinced that the problems of society are all our fault. If only we were better. If only we tried harder.

That idea is toxic enough, but it goes further.

If the problem lies with individuals then there's no point in trying to change the system. The system is blameless! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

This is a clever way to make us feel guilty and hopeless, and thus to render us passive. It makes us squander our power as citizens and give up on democracy. Don't fall for it.

In so many cases, small businesses are not closing because we didn't shop enough. In over a decade of writing this blog, I have walked the streets of this city talking with countless small business people. Over and over, they have told me that the number one force shutting them down is a landlord who demands a high rent increase or who refuses to renew a lease. Thriving, beloved, successful businesses that were staples of their communities for 20, 40, 80 years are pushed out by rents that double, triple, quadruple, and more.

No amount of "shop local" is going to fix that.

We need systemic change from the top. The first step? Pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. It's getting a public hearing on October 22. So act like a citizen. Show up and speak your mind. Click here for a list of easy, quick things you can do to tell the City Council you want this bill.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

McNally Jackson Bookstore

As we heard from Bowery Boogie earlier this week, the successful and beloved McNally Jackson bookstore on Prince Street in Soho is being forced to move. Why? The landlord wants “an enormous amount of rent,” Sarah McNally told AMNY.

McNally added that she has "a contract on one space and has also identified another as a backup. She’s not announcing the final destination yet but it will be in Manhattan close to the original store."

This is good news--but for how long?

For over a decade of talking to countless small businesspeople pushed out by landlords who hiked the rent or denied lease renewals, I have found that many fail to relocate. Of those that do, many end up closing soon after. What's missing? Long leases. It was once customary for a small business to get a ten-year lease. Today, you're lucky if you get two years. And then it can happen all over again.

In addition, the bookstore-killing Amazon has opened a brick-and-mortar location in Soho--right around the corner from McNally Jackson, at 72 Spring St., just one block away. That's probably not a coincidence. McNally Jackson is successful and big retailers like Wal-Mart and Home Depot are known to open close to successful smaller competitors to suck their customers away.

So while we're breathing a sigh of relief to hear that McNally's not going far right now, we still need to take action to protect it--and other small businesses--in the future. That's why we need to convince the City Council to pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. It would guarantee a 10-year lease and a fair rent increase to McNally Jackson and countless others.

There's a public hearing on October 22. Go and speak your mind. If that's not possible, here are more easy, quick ways you can make a difference today. The future of this city depends on you.

P.S. The building that houses McNally Jackson used to have a grocery store, Little Italy’s only supermarket and a neighborhood staple for 25 years. It was forced to close in 2016 -- the Voice reported that rent was $90,000 and the landlord was likely looking for $150,000 to open “a more upscale operation.” That space is still sitting empty, another example of high-rent blight.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Pass the SBJSA

The Cafe Edison could have been saved. CBGBs could have been saved. Lincoln Plaza Cinemas could have been saved. Your favorite restaurant, bar, and bookshop is next--if you don't do something right now.

At long last, the Small Business Jobs Survival Act is getting a hearing. This is the moment we've all been waiting for. It's time to stop complaining and do something.

photo by EJ Berry

What you can do from now until the hearing on October 22:

1. Write and/or call your local Councilmembers--your messages go into the record--and tell them to pass the SBJSA:
- Fill out this easy-to-use form to email the City Council
- Or find your individual Councilmembers here and contact them directly
- Councilmember Mark Gjonaj is Chair of the Council's Small Business Committee--write or call him, too. You can also contact the members of that committee: Diana Ayala, Stephen T. Levin, Bill Perkins, and Carlina Rivera.
- Find them on Twitter and tweet your request: Pass the #SBJSA

2. Write and/or call the Council Speaker Corey Johnson and tell him to pass the SBJSA:
- Fill out this simple form, already written for you
- Or you can call or write to him directly here
- Tweet him @CoreyinNYC

3. Show up on October 22:
- At 12:00 noon, there's a rally on the steps of New York City Hall. Be there and make some noise.
- At 1:00, the public hearing begins.
- Be present! Exercise your right as a citizen of this democracy. Lots of big, powerful people will be there to argue against the SBJSA. Come raise your voice in support of this bill.

4. Spread the word:
- Share this blog post on your social media--and not just once, share it multiple times between now and 10/22
-  Bring your friends and family to the rally and hearing
- Inform your local businesspeople that this hearing is happening and encourage them to show up. Tell your bodega people, your barber, your therapist, your dentist, your bartender, the people who fix your shoes and do your laundry, the folks who serve your lunch and pour your coffee. Tell them all that there is a solution, there is a protection, and we all can make it happen. Offer to bring them to the hearing with you!
- Print out and share this flyer, available in English and Spanish

- If you are not a New Yorker, you can still write and call the City Council and the Speaker. Tell them you don't want to bring your tourist dollars to a city that's full of nothing but chain stores and luxury glass towers. Tell them to pass the SBJSA.

About the SBJSA:
Legally vetted and deemed fully constitutional, the SBJSA gives existing commercial tenants a few basic rights, including: 1. the right to renew the lease, 2. a minimum 10-year extension, and 3. equal rights to negotiate a fair rent, with third-party arbitration if an agreement between tenant and landlord cannot be reached. In that case, the arbitrator may determine a reasonable increase, a decision based on multiple factors, including current fair market rates for similar properties.

-Read more about the SBJSA here and here and here.
-View the 10/22 meeting details and agenda here.

If you've been complaining about the vanishing of New York, now is your chance to change things for the better. At this point, you really have no excuse. If you do nothing, then quit complaining.

Speaker Corey Johson Pledging Support for Small Businesses (WNYC Brian Lehrer) from Wheelhouse Communications on Vimeo.

New York From Behind

If you enjoy New York street photography and the unique character of this city, there's an Instagram page you should check out. New York from Behind is the creation of Bryn and Justin. I asked them a few questions about their project.

What is New York From Behind?

New York from Behind is a concept we created just by being citizens of this city. New Yorkers have a lot to offer visually and so often the most interesting thing is the person right in front of you. Usually the front of someone’s outfit is what’s most interesting. We notice every day that the reverse is not true. Since so much of fashion is forward focused, it sometimes proves hard for us to find interesting content. So the fun for us is to catch people who do something different and make their canvas their backs as well as their fronts.

all photos via New York from Behind

How'd you get started?

We’re two good friends who first got started by taking pictures around the city and sharing them with our friends and each other. Eventually, we started the page as a place to more easily share photos of people who were doing fashionable, interesting, and funny things on their backs. People started following the page. As a born East Villager and a young curmudgeon, we have a sense of NYC history and it’s fun to find the colorful people of the past, who are increasingly hard to find in generic New York.

Do you go out hunting for behinds, or just snap them as they come?

Usually our daily commute offers enough content, especially if you hit 14th street, Soho, Union Square, Washington Square, the West/East Village, and Chelsea. There are always events around the city and holidays that we can count on for good “behinds.”

What trends have you noticed?

When we started in 2016, few people had messages on their backs and most of the ones who did seemed handmade. Now so many retailers are selling clothes with words written across the back and it’s spread from high fashion, where it started, to mass retail.

The other trend we’ve noticed is that patterns on clothing were always forward focused. You’d see the person approaching and while their front is highly embellished, the back is solid. Lately we’ve seen more of designs continuing on to the back as well.

A lot of the behinds seem to be messages. Thinking over all the behinds you've captured, what are people trying to say?

From “never settle for less than your best” to “live fast eat ass” a lot of them are messages to onlookers — words of advice, lessons learned the hard way, or generalized warnings of toughness. And those are just the ones with words that makes sense.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Taking of Bleecker: 1, 2, 3

The western end of Bleecker Street has gone through three major upheavals since the 2000s began.

1. Skyrocketing rents and non-renewal of leases on mom-and-pop shops created the luxury chain takeover, starting in 2001 with Marc Jacobs. Those blocks went from quaint and local to high-end suburban mall in just five years.

2. It took another five to die, as those big chains departed, emptying the storefronts and leaving the street in a state of high-rent blight.

3. Recently we heard that mega-developer Brookfield Properties would take over, spending approximately $31.5 million for several retail condos to convert them into a concept, a curated consumer experience, “with Brookfield orchestrating…rather than allowing each individual shop to pursue its own agenda,” reported New York magazine. “Let’s look at this as if it’s a mall,” said Brookfield’s head of retail leasing, “even though it’s not.”

Now we know what that looks like.

WWD reports on the program to curate the street. It's called "Love, Bleecker" and it has a creative director, fashion designer Prabal Gurung. There will be a leather "concept store" called Slightly Alabama, a florist/plant-based food shop, and a gallery space with prisms, among other "disruptive" and "innovative" and "creative" businesses.

Writes WWD, "Brookfield considers Bleecker to be a new kind of retail activation and platform for growing online digital native brands that may eventually populate its other properties." (And here I thought it was a neighborhood.) "We'll incubate them here and see them thrive and grow," says Sara Fay, VP of Marketing at Brookfield.

Brookfield, according to WWD, "plumbed Bleecker Street's history as a magnet for jazz and folk music and stomping ground for Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac."

Incubation, artwashing, and the co-opting of the neighborhood's counter-cultural history? Sounds like more invasion of the body snatchers.

The project kicked off yesterday. Do not miss the website.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

#SaveNYC Happy Hour

Sick of watching the small businesses in your neighborhood vanish? Here's your chance to do something about it. Come to the #SaveNYC Happy Hour:

- Wednesday, October 3, from 7:00 - 9:00PM
- Dream Baby Cocktail Bar, 162 - 164 Avenue B, NYC: Extended happy hour for #SaveNYC = $4 for beer and well drinks, $2 off everything else.
- View Facebook invite here

At long last, the Small Business Jobs Survival Act is getting a hearing. Come celebrate, meet and mingle, and strategize next steps for this important event and beyond.

Jeremiah Moss and others will be speaking on the importance of this historic bill. David Eisenbach, the anti-REBNY candidate for Public Advocate, will talk about his work and what we can do to get ready for the public hearing later in October.

Speaker Corey Johson Pledging Support for Small Businesses (WNYC Brian Lehrer) from Wheelhouse Communications on Vimeo.