Last week, the Municipal Art Society held their annual Summit for New York City. Entitled "The City We Want," the two-day event brought urbanists together to discuss and present on issues like improving infrastructure and affordability.
There was a flurry of information and ideas, but the talk that's been keeping me up at night came from Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen.
She spoke with MAS Director Carol Coletta in a conversation entitled "Fostering Economic Diversity." The discussion followed a recorded #SaveNYC presentation that I wrote and narrated, with photos by James & Karla Murray showing the devastation to our small business landscape over the past decade.
Coletta asked Glen if she thought the city should intervene in the vanishing of our mom and pops. (Maybe, as I had suggested, by passing the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, controlling the spread of chain stores, and penalizing landlords who create "high-rent blight" by keeping spaces empty until a corporation decides to rent.)
Glen replied that the city "should not be making decisions about what are viable businesses." She explained that the city should not be protecting businesses because “there are some small businesses that are probably going to just fail because they’re not very good businesses." She pointed to the outer boroughs, where there is still a "palpable vibrancy," and suggest we not be "so Manhattan-centric." Of course, Brooklyn is getting developed fast. This seemed to be a positive thing.
"Hey," said Glen, "it's nice to have a CVS" come in and serve a neighborhood like Crown Heights, "while we in Manhattan go 'Wah-wah, there's a chain drugstore on the block.'"
It sounds like, for Glen and others at City Hall, the corporate takeover of our city adds up to nothing more than Darwinism, survival of the fittest. But the truth is: The game is rigged. At the risk of going "wah-wah," I submit the following:
1. Countless small businesses are shuttering not because they're not good businesses, but because their landlords are doubling, tripling, and quadrupling the rent, or simply denying lease renewals.
Time and again, over the past decade, I've talked with small business owners whose shops and restaurants are thriving. But it does not matter. They can't afford a rent hike of $4,000 to $40,000 a month. No business can, except a major corporation. Again and again, when another independent, usually upscale business moves in to the mom and pop's former space, they typically close within a couple of years (landlords are offering shorter and shorter leases). And then the space sits empty. Until a bank or a Starbucks takes it.
This is not just a Manhattan problem. What local character remains of the outer boroughs is also being wiped out. And fast.
2. The city government does get involved in who wins and who loses. It does make decisions about what businesses should survive. It does protect some businesses and not others.
Let's talk about subsidies and other gifts. The city government hands out hundreds of millions of dollars to companies that it decides are valuable. Good Jobs New York keeps track of these subsidies in their eye-opening Database of Deals. They call special attention to Major Corporate Giveaways, those deals of a most "egregious nature." Corporations like Fresh Direct get millions. Banks and luxury developers get hundreds of millions. And Goldman Sachs (where Alicia Glen worked in real-estate finance prior to City Hall) got over a billion dollars in post-9/11 Liberty bonds, tax breaks, cash grants, and real-estate deals.
Corporations and developers also get the gift of eminent domain land grabs--taking private property away from small businesses and handing it over to big businesses. Today, in the Atlantic Yards footprint in Brooklyn, at least one man is still trying to hold on to the business his father built after surviving the Nazi concentration camps. He told the Times earlier this year, “I don’t want to trivialize what happened by comparing this to the Holocaust, but in the end, [my father] felt like here was the government again, coming to take everything from him.”
Many of these deals were granted by Bloomberg. But what, really, has changed? We're still living under a regime of neoliberal urbanism. Neoliberals claim to be against "big government," but they're all for government intervention when it comes to supporting big corporations, banks, and real-estate tycoons with taxpayer money and property. Ask them to protect the little guy--the middle and working class, the poor--and they'll tell you it's not the government's job. They'll tell you "the market" will work it out. They'll tell you this is just nature taking its course. But there is nothing natural about the city government's role in hyper-gentrification.
photo: J. Brash
After the discussion with Glen, MAS did a quickie, real-time poll of the audience, asking if New York City should adopt commercial rent control. An overwhelming majority -- 68% -- said yes.
The people of this city want change. We want protections for our local businesses. But our leaders in City Hall are not going to give it to us -- not without a fight.
Join #SaveNYC. Join the fight. Take action.