Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Chain Stores in the City

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.


Elwood D Pennypacker said...

Certainly it is not a clean, simple one-way opinion on chains. When I was a kid, that White Castle on 86th St in Brooklyn was a destination (the giant 5-story King Kong painting on the nearby building helped make it an attraction). Beefsteak Charlie was another chain that had old time charm that made it special.

Of all the problems that come with gentrification and Americanization of New York City, I have a different angle on the Chain problem. I don't find the popularity of Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks with the Yuppies as bad as something else:

Native New Yorkers of working-class and poorer ilks ABSOLUTELY CHERISH chain restaurants as HIGH CLASS DINING. The Applebees and Fridays of the world are considered the epitome of fine dining to the people we consider to be the last classes in New York who keep New York the way it used to be.

The Applebees in Sheepshead Bay has valet parking...the Fridays in the same neighborhood has hour long waits.

Ever been to an IHOP in the eastern half of Brooklyn? 2 hour wait minimum. This ain't Le Bernadin...but it may was well be.

That to me is the biggest pity and shame in the culture of what New York has become.

Bowery Boogie said...

"I don't want them all to vanish--I just want most of them to vanish. I want balance."


Anonymous said...

Just a point of clarification, Barnes and Noble didn't come into the city in 1994 - it is founded in New York - my father used to take my sister and I to the flagship store on 18th and Fifth when we were children in the 70s and 80s. Ironically, I always thought of that specific store as the local book store. That and The Strand.

And I loathe having to go into Duane Reade, with the slowest cashiers in the history of cashiers, but at least they also started as a small local business on Duane and Reade streets.

For whatever reason, nostalgia or otherwise, I'm not as annoyed by these chains with roots in New York that organically grew bigger. I don't want to begrudge any small local business the chance to do well. And perhaps, I still see a bit of New York in them, less generic, less of a threat to the cultural fabric.

Brendan said...

Jeremiah, one thing I notice when you write about chains is that actual people are largely absent from your account. Isn't "Who shops at the chains?" kind of an important question for understanding what they're about? Marc Jacobs and Dunkin' Donuts have pretty different customer bases.

I'm looking forward to seeing "My Brooklyn," and from the trailer it looks like it touches on this. Fulton Mall is a mall full of chain stores (not all chain stores, to be fair, but a whole lot). So on the surface it is kind of "suburban." But it is clearly an authentically urban place, because of what it means to the people who go there.

Then you have the incredibly annoying man in the trailer who says it is a "weird space" that he doesn't "know how to interact with" and it should "go away." From the vocabulary he uses, this guy is obviously familiar with some theory about urban spaces and how they're "supposed" to work. Sometimes it seems like you're aligning yourself with that guy, even though I know you don't want to.

Anonymous said...

Pennypacker - that's b/c its a novelty to them. Most have probably never left NYC.

RonFWNC said...

Wonderful piece, one of your best. It's good to view the franchising of Manhattan with a little perspective. Although it may be speeding up, it's certainly not a new phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

I can hear the response from the 'chain-lovers' now: "there were always chain stores in New York, shut up and deal with it". These are usually the same people that tell you "New York City has always evolved and changed, you're just into nostalgia..shut up and deal with it."

While I'm not old enough to remember what the chains of the 60s were like compared to now, it's more than evident that we now live in a more consumer based culture than we had in the past. Maybe that's why the fact that there were a ton of H&H Automats and Howard Johnson's in the city wasn't a major sticking point decades ago. It also seems that back then there was that 'balance' that you mention in your post. If you've lived here for 25 years or more you can see that the chains are genericizing the landscape of the city, just as they are the suburbs. 25 or even 15 years ago it didn't feel like that in Manhattan. So when I think about the NYC of 15-25 years ago I know I'm not romanticizing the past, but remembering it accurately.

The sad and infuriating thing about this and all of these vanishing cultural entities is the en masse acceptance of it all. New York always seemed to be the embodiment of critical and independent thinking. These days it seems more like the herds gathering around a corporate monolith with 'Thus Spake Zarathustra' playing in the background. I just-don't-fucking-get it!

Jeremiah Moss said...

true about Barnes and Noble--but the date 1994 is meant to indicate when it came to Astor Place. i still have a fondness for their rag-tag old flagship on 5th Ave.

Brendan, i think "who shops at the chains" is really all--or the vast majority--of us. i find it's increasingly difficult to avoid them--which is what they want.

how do people deal with this dilemma? do you avoid ALL chains ALL the time? or do you minimized your use?

the Publishers said...

Clearly there is a difference in how these chain do business now compared with earlier decades. During peak years Horn & Hardart had maybe 50 stores in NYC. Dunkin' Donuts has ten times that. The saturation of the Subways and the Starbucks is nothing less than aggression and that's why a lot of people hate them. Here in beautiful Sunnyside I can stand in front of the last remaining indie donut shop and see two Dunkin Donuts. If there's a reason for that beyond choking off another Mom 'n' Pop shop, I'm not seeing it.

Crazy Eddie said...

Speaking of “old school” chains, for steak, my father use to take me out to “Tads Steaks” on 14th on Irving Place. Since we were a working class family, that’s what “going out” to dinner was all about. No way could we afford Luchow’s. We also used to eat quite frequently at the Automat across the street. This tread has been quite informative and thought provoking. If you look at the 14th street IHOP, the vast majority of customers (and the employees) are people of color.

For prescription drugs, I use the CVS on First Ave since they are 24/7. For food purchases, I try to avoid the chains. Full disclosure, I have used the K-Mart on Astor Place a lot, especially for housewares purchases.

The bottom line, as commentators have posted, is that we have now reached the tipping point, due to the insanity of commercial real estate rental costs, of chains being everything and everywhere.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a chain lover (is anyone?) Other than TJ Maxx I can't think of a single one I patronize on a regular basis. But I think that the cures are worse than the disease. Let the city evolve, and if you don't like it, don't shop there, or move. I'm happier to let this city destroy itself than I am to let my neighbors decide whether a restaurant passes a purity test.

Little Earthquake said...

Some chains I like, some chains I hate. I vote with my wallet.

I definitely don't support Byzantine zoning laws that create cartels out of local businesses just because they don't want a chain moving in.

It's like trying to get a TV show off the air because you don't like it. You're just shining a huge spotlight on it. Better just to change the channel.

Adam F said...

I don't disagree with you Jeremiah, but I think you're taking a somewhat one-sided approach. While the New York piece you reference did say 7-11 hopes to overtake bodegas, it also explains how the ones in New York City are run by local entrepreneurs, who, rather than open a bodega, prefer the 7-11 because of the technology it gives them to track inventory and generate more profit. It's not like the Doritos 7-11 stocks is any different from the ones bodegas stock. Obviously, I hate the 7-11 signage, but is it really so bad that we should begrudge somebody for choosing the route that makes the best living for them and their family and decides to open a 7-11 instead of a classic bodega? In the end it's still a "local" running the business and making a living from it.

By the same token, I try and support my local bodega instead of the CVS around the corner, but the prices are so much cheaper at CVS. I know that by supporting the bodega I'm paying the extra dollar to keep our city diverse, but when you're on a lean budget the savings CVS offers is tempting. I'm sure many families far worse off than I am feel the same way.

I don't want a CVS on every corner and that's why I agree with your ultimate argument, but I think for all the chain-bashing you do, it would be worthwhile to take a moment to think about those other issues.

Anonymous said...

I think 1994 was the watershed year for the explosion of chain stores in NYC. That was the year Starbucks opened its first location on Broadway and 87th Street and Subway opened its first store on East 23rd Street. It was also the year the CVS and Rite Aid started opening up all over the city and Duane Reade (which previously had confined itself almost exclusively to Midtown and the Financial District) moved with a vengeance into every residential neighborhood in Manhattan and beyond. Once these beachheads were established, the chains proliferated, making NYC resemble every other place in the US.

Brendan said...

During and immediately after college, I used to buy clothes at thrift stores and army/navy type stores. But now that I have a job that requires me to look respectable, I admit I buy many of my clothes at chain stores. What are the alternatives? I can't afford boutiques, nor do I care enough about clothes to want to.

Groceries is another one. My old neighborhood had a great local grocery store, very cheap, good selection, where I shopped all the time. In my current neighborhood all the full grocery stores are chains, except for one which is upscale and expensive, so I end up at the chains most of the time. I've found grocery chains are much less homogenous across locations than other kinds of chains though. It's really just the sign out front that's the same.

Otherwise I pretty much avoid chains. People camping out to get into an Ikea makes me despair. I don't want to think about it.

Jeremiah Moss said...

i have the same clothing issue--being a grown-up with a respectable job means no thrift shops. the chain clothing stores are affordable--and their stuff usually fits.

what is the alternative there? expensive boutiques?

Anonymous said...

Elsewhere in NYC, someone is sipping a Diet Red Bull from 7-11, reading a sartorial blog, and complaining about the suburbanization of casual menswear

Claribel said...

Anon at 9:48am, my parents used to take me and my brother to the Barnes & Noble on 18th and Fifth back in the 70s and 80s too. My mom went there to get her textbooks. I have a lot of great memories connected to that store and the neighborhood.

I agree, yet another thought-provoking post. I have an arbitrary approach to chain store shopping too. I can’t avoid them completely because they’re what I can afford, but I also shop as much as possible in my neighborhood and at favorite businesses throughout the boroughs.

One of the conflicts that I have with chains is that a lot of them are global now and have access to hundreds of millions of dollars in equity and debt financing that makes their expansions possible. This enables them both to afford and contribute to the escalating commercial rents in NYC, pricing out the mom & pops that don’t have that kind of financing available to them. So the small-businesses-should-pay-fair-market-value-rent argument will never be a great argument for me unless one can define "fair" fairly. Chains are also contributing to the sameness of cities around the globe, creating that familiarity for tourists who aren’t interested in experiencing different cultures and lifestyles.

Another issue is the issue of too big to fail. Large businesses aren’t invested long term in neighborhood communities in the way that smaller businesses are. Yes, they provide jobs, but they’re also capable of taking jobs away in larger numbers. So the bigger they get and the more competition they drive out, the greater their inclination to take risks and the harder the fall on a community if their risks fail. Barnes & Noble wiped out several great local bookstores with its Astor Place and Lincoln Center megastores that didn’t survive. It doesn’t matter how it affected the neighborhoods, it only matters to corporate chains what the shareholders think. Manhattan is all about the megastore today, big and loud and striving for attention and getting more ridiculous in the process. There’s very little chance of a renaissance these days if it’s constantly in one’s face that we should be shopping just so we can feed the corporate beasts.

onemorefoldedsunset said...

For pharmacies I either go to the 24 hour Neergaard on Fifth Avenue, the oldest business on the avenue, & never long lines, or my local small pharmacy, Ansonia. Both places are great.
My son worked in the original Barnes & Noble for a while & couldn't get over how different it felt from the other B&Ns - a much more laconic & bookish experience, with an older & more interesting group of employees. He loved it. The balance thing is almost impossible though. I support as many local businesses as I can, but many of the newer independent ones are too expensive for me & at least in the lower end chains I'm not an economic anomaly. I still go to thrift stores for some stuff,& get some good 99c store bargains: reading glasses for $1.50! I make a pathetic salary in a child welfare agency, but feel lucky enough. Half the people I work with have second (& even third) jobs & are really struggling to pay the bills. Chains are an inevitable choice in that situation.

Anonymous said...

If you patronize one particular store in your neighborhood, does it matter that it's a chain?

My grandfather lived his entire life in the East Village (LES pre-1960s). On rare occasion he'd go to McDonald's on First and 5th for an apple pie. Or a cup of coffee at Starbucks on 2nd Ave. He had NO IDEA of the concept of a chain. They were merely businesses that were there that he tried. He wanted an item, he went in. He didn't discriminate a "chain" store from a single enterprise.

He also was a regular at the local Polish diners, more than anywhere else. But his basic needs rose above any political point of view about big business. He was as blue collar as they come. He took everything at face value.

Katrink said...

How's this for chain mania - the longtime Key Foods in Windsor Terrace (Brooklyn), the only supermarket in the neighborhood, is closing. It will be replaced by... WALGREENS. There already are two great family-owned pharmacies in the area. Who needs Walgreens? Whereas a supermarket is a necessity, especially for the local seniors.

5th Gen said...

@Little Earthquake

"I definitely don't support Byzantine zoning laws that create cartels out of local businesses just because they don't want a chain moving in"

Every time you post it's some sort of neoclassical econ argument about how tyrannical it is to interfere with the free market, or how the terrible the unintended consequences of anything but an untrammeled laissez-faire system will be. You really don't think a community has a right to make zoning regs that favor some types of businesses over others? Or gasp, the interests of residents over business interests? Do you actually live in NYC and value its unique aspects? Because your ideological principles would permit the mallification of America's crown jewel.

Who do you think gentrified the neighborhoods such that they are now attractive to chains. It's not the chains themselves or the buildings' absentee landlords. Who do you think would be shopping at the chains? Are tourists swarming into Manhattan so they can peruse the goods at 7-11? No, again, it's the residents. And the residents of a neighborhood have every right to block a chain from coming into their backyard knowing they themselves would patronize it - it's called precommitment.

Janet Cornt said...

There needs to be a little acknowledgement of class in this discussion. The libraries close too early and there aren't enough of them. If one wants to do homework in the evening then Barnes & Noble and Starbucks are essential for their free Internet connections. Yes, in theory McDonald's has them, but they don't always work. In my opinion, B&N has the best Internet. I don't know how I'd do homework and part-time web work without B&N. NYC funds a lot of free Internet in parks, indoor and outside, in the Wall Street area. That is so unfair. NYC should fund free Internet in more under-served areas without B&N, Starbucks and libraries. How can the High Line get free Internet service but not Marcus Garvey Park or Van Cortlandt?

Shawn said...

There is a dirty little fact about chain stores in NYC.

That McDonald's in the East Village on 1st Ave? Or the one on 14th Street between 1st and Ave A?

Who's in there? Mostly poor people. Working class. Even less than the working class. After all, they sure as hell can't afford fancy restaurants, which as we all know from reading Jeremiah is basically all we have left.

Most of us have choices to not go into chains, but a lot of poor people don't, because the chains have $.99 items.

I feel for those people in those chain restaurants. Because the food is awful and practically poison. And they have no damn choice.

laura said...

sad, what do poor people do for lunch? the fast food is sickening, & the diners are closing. not everyone can bring a sandwich from home, but if they can they are better off. im not against all chain stores. we had them for over 50 years, but they did not dominate. howard johnson's & the automat had real food. & small business were everywhere. you had options for everything. as for bodegas, i like them because they are all different. some have fresh fruit, other sell olive oil, dry beans, household items etc. most of them have a nice homey feel to them. i do use CVS/duane reade if its not a box type. if its smaller & i can get in & out fast ok. i like the CVS on 14th/1st. btw, speaking of 14th st, what happened to that little hispanic coffee shop on the s/side, either between 1st& A, or A&B?