Lately, I've been thinking more and more about chain stores, their history in the city, and my own conflicted relationship to them.
7-11 on St. Mark's
It seems there's been a big push from chains in the past few months--and a big push back from people.
Looking just at recent developments in the East Village and Lower East Side: After a controversial 7-11 appeared on St. Mark's Place, the windows were smashed by anarchists, and New York magazine reported on 7-11's plans to put our local bodegas out of business. When Starbucks crept too far east, taking the former spot of Little Rickie, disgruntled locals pasted up anti-Starbucks posters and later egged the windows. As for Subway sandwich outposts, they're proliferating like bedbugs in summertime.
On Grand Street, neighbors are petitioning to keep 7-11 and Dunkin Donuts out, and there's a petition to stop more chains from moving into the East Village, which ranked third on the list of most-chained neighborhoods in New York City on the Center for an Urban Future's massive report on the state of chains in New York City. The Upper West Side is also fighting back, advocating for new zoning to put a stop to chains.
A lonely East Village McDonald's in the 1980s
Same McDonald's today--with Subway and Dunkin
The flood of chain stores to New York City happened in the past 10 years--just like all the other waves of hyper-gentrification and suburbanization, including the luxury tsunami on the Bowery, the high-end mallification of Bleecker Street, and the quick-change transformation of the Meatpacking District into glitzy MePa. (Interestingly, we don't see the high-end chains getting attacked, except for the recent paint-bombing of a Marc Jacobs store in SoHo.)
Just before the chain explosion of the 2000s, we heard the early rumblings of trouble throughout the 1990s. In 1996, Kmart opened on Astor Place, joining newcomers Barnes & Noble (1994) and Starbucks (1995). Politicians licked their chops while residents blanched. Said one local to the Times, "I hate the thought of stepping over Kmart shoppers on my the way to buy bagels on Sunday morning."
In the 1980s, a chain store in the East Village was still an anomaly, as when The Gap moved to St. Mark's Place in 1988, causing "there goes the neighborhood" panic.
Fifth Avenue Korvette, 1960s, source
The chains of the 1970s and earlier are perhaps far enough away to inspire nostalgia in some, and I doubt people got upset about them bringing gentrification or suburbanization to the city back then--except for those worried about property values going down.
According to the blog Pleasant Family Shopping, when the Korvette department store chain opened on Fifth Avenue and 47th in 1962, "the store became the subject of many jokes (and much genuine concern) within Fifth Avenue’s elite retail enclave... The basis of this was a fear that Korvette would open a stereotypically tacky discount store with barren walls, poor lighting, pipe garment racks and substandard goods, thus tarnishing the area’s image."
Still, there have long been chains in the city. Howard Johnson's was a popular chain whose loss we've grieved, and Chock Full O'Nuts is one whose reappearance we've celebrated. I still weep for Woolworth's.
Beloved Horn & Hardart automats once dominated the streets of New York City, with 40 locations in 1939. In the mid-1950s, if you walked west along 42nd Street, you'd pass an automat at Madison, another at Fifth, and another at Sixth, before you came to the mother of all automats just a few blocks north on Broadway in Times Square.
Somehow, I doubt people were egging the automats in protest. Maybe that's because 40 locations is nothing compared to the chain dominance of today, when multiple national and multi-national businesses plague every block of the city in numbers that continue to soar.
Of course, many people today want both low- and high-end chains in New York City.
The Apple stores are worshipped. When IKEA opened in Red Hook, it attracted overnight campers. When a Starbucks closes, it gets tearful notes from customers. On Grand Street, the petition against 7-11 and Dunkin Donuts has been met with a petition in favor. In the New York Post, op-eds defend the honor of chain stores.
I don't understand any impassioned defense of today's massive chains--it seems insane, even sociopathic. Still, like most of us, I do not avoid shopping at chains 100% of the time. I have my own somewhat arbitrary list of the chains I'll patronize and the ones I'll avoid like the plague. I buy some of my clothing and home furnishings at chains, while my prescriptions, food/drink, and books come from independents. When in need, I will buy from a chain drugstore--and hate myself for it--though I'll never give my money to a 7-11 in the city.
Until, of course, they run all the bodegas out of town and I'm left with no other choice--which is part of what makes the massive proliferation of chains so enraging: More and more, they are taking away our freedom to choose.
Personally, I don't want them all to vanish--I just want most of them to vanish. I want balance. I want to go back to the days before the Great Chain Explosion, to the antediluvian era when we didn't worry so much about the power of chains to destroy the cultural fabric of the city. And when buying underpants didn't feel like a criminal act.