Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Unchain Challenge

While I'm in the fight to stop the spread of big, national, global chain stores in the city, I am no purist. As I've said here before, for me, it's about moderation. But even if you want to avoid the chains completely, it isn't easy. As they proliferate, they destroy the alternatives, taking away our ability to choose.

Writer and urbanist Matt Falber has taken on the challenge to shop only local in New York City. He's blogging about it on his site. So far, quitting the chains cold turkey hasn't been easy. I asked Matt a few questions about his endeavor.

Matt at his local pharmacy

Q: What made you take this on?

A: I was volunteering at a town hall a few weeks ago. People were contributing ideas about how to improve quality of life and I was writing them on a whiteboard. One man said to me, "We need to learn from what's happened to the West Village and Chelsea and keep it from happening to other neighborhoods."

I knew what he meant immediately. I regularly mourn the sad state of 8th Ave between 23rd and 14th Street. It seems more empty than full. Several businesses that I admired all over the city have closed their doors because of high rents. And there's always the lingering fear that if the businesses can't afford to live in the city, how will I continue to afford to live in the city.

Then I read the piece that The New Yorker wrote this past weekend about the "blighted" West Village. It was a brilliant way to frame it, as Robert Moses tried to have the entire neighborhood demolished by calling it blighted. In a way though, it's true. We're losing the very thing that makes NYC special. For a while I've been saying to people, maybe it will fix itself. If all the restaurants can't afford to be there, maybe the rents will go down. The problem is, while small businesses can't afford it, chains can. And there's very little that's unique about the businesses that replace local institutions once they close.

Then, two days after reading The New Yorker, I was wandering through the East Village. That's when it hit me. Despite all of the businesses that have closed down there, that's the city that I love. It's unique and creative and you can actually see it disappearing as chains and luxury buildings encroach. At that moment I felt I had to do something. I also realized that I've been a fervent supporter of chains. I'm admittedly impressed by the way some chains operate. For example, Chipotle responsibly sources their food, but if I'm eating at a Chipotle, I'm missing out on what makes NY different from any other place.

Q: How's it been to go from chains to unchains?

A: Well, I've just started, but it's actually been harder than I thought it would be. I've already found myself frustrated because I'm hungry and everywhere I look it seems like there's only chain options. I walked from 28th and Broadway to 40th and 8th the other day and the vast majority of businesses were chains. I'm talking like one or two places a block that weren't.

Q: What do you miss about the chains?

A: The convenience. I don't have any good coffee shops near me in Washington Heights. The comfort of knowing what you're getting. The fact that Starbucks has offered me a free drink on my birthday. I really spent a lot of time deciding whether it would be acceptable to redeem it. I don't think this is just about financial exchange though. If I'm in a Starbucks, I'm not really getting anything special.

I'm not saying every moment of our lives has to be unique and original, but I think the whole point of doing this is to take a stand and say that the character that small businesses bring to our city is one of the things that makes us unique. New York wouldn't be known for its matzoh ball soup, egg creams, or bagels if it weren't for small businesses.

Q: What do you like better about the mom and pops?

A: So far, I've had really great conversations about things, though not always. Some small businesses aren't very friendly, but others have tons of heart. The coffee shop I wrote about on my first day, Cafe Bruins, is a pop up. The owner just decided he wanted to do something in an interesting space. It's as much about the quality of the experience and the product as it is about making a dollar. My barista, a really knowledgeable guy named Sasha, told me all about the process that was involved in making each of the coffees they served. The staff were also really interested in getting to know me.

It was so different than queuing up in a Starbucks and paying for a flatwhite with my smartphone.

Sasha relayed to me that he's not sure how Starbucks could even make an actual flatwhite as they don't have the equipment for it.

Q: How long do you think you can keep this up?

A: I'm not sure. So far it requires a fair amount of planning. I'm going to try to make it a permanent way of life, as long as I'm not visiting somebody in a suburb. Lots of my friends in smaller towns have told me they wouldn't be able to attempt something like this where they live.

Despite the initial effort, the hope is that as I get used to new places it will become easier. I think we're very conditioned to look for brand names. I've found myself realizing businesses I never noticed before because their name was printed in a fairly standard font on an awning the same color as a row of businesses next to theirs. I think that several small businesses could learn a lot about presentation and making themselves stand out. Then again, there's plenty that are good at it that I did notice but might not have patronized out of convenience.

I really hope that by writing about the places I go, I'll inspire others to walk a little farther for something unique. Unless we want chains to continue to dominate the island, we've got to make a conscious effort to support businesses operated by creative locals.

Stop the chaining of New York City. Join #SaveNYC


Unknown said...

Great piece and thanks again for your great work on this all-pervasive and incredibly difficult problem.

What about local chains such as Fairway?

Barbara L. Hanson said...

I never need to shop in chains. I don't count Union Market amd Duane Reade, because they are strictly local.

Brian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian said...

This strikes me as so much tilting at windmills. Is going to The Bean instead of Starbucks really the answer? Seems pretty much the same thing. Also, Ms. Hanson, if Duane Reade was a publicly traded corporation based in New York that was taken over by a huge publicly traded corporation named Walgreens three years ago, so it ain't "strictly local".

pitbull friend said...

@Donnie Moder: Every movement starts out looking like it's a handful of people tilting at windmills. Until it's not. I think this is a great idea. Although I don't live in NY, I'm concerned about chainification everywhere. For years, I've made an effort to stay away from chains. When there is no "mom and pop" to patronize, for instance, I go to a locally owned, unionized supermarket rather than buying groceries at Walmart or Target. I'm seeing more and more interest in this from a variety of people. Where I live, local coffee shops are actually more common than Starbucks. I hope we can get that kind of action going in other sectors.

Even if it doesn't work, or doesn't work perfectly, we may as well go down fighting.

Unknown said...

Unfortunately the Duane Reades/Walgreens, Starbucks et al are merely the symptoms and not the underlying problem. The fact that chains are the only retail businesses that can afford the rent gets back to landlords desire to make not just profits, but staggering ones, and a city political structure that allows only the super rich to prosper.

Gena Hymowech said...

If you want a good local cafe in Washington Heights, Cafe Bunni is amazing, even better than Starbucks.

Walter said...

I never set foot in any chain stores. The only exception is Chase Bank. But, in my defense, when I opened my account there it was the Federal Savings Bank, then it became the Dime Savings Bank....after that it became Washington Mutual and finally Chase Bank. One of the reasons I'm hesitant to cancel my account is that I have many monthly payments scheduled and several direct deposits go there as well. I get my drugs (the legal ones anyway) from Carmine at the Block drug store on 6th Street.
Years and years ago I used to go to K-Mart to buy black t-shirts, because nobody in the neighborhood had any that didn't have any corporate logos. But by now I have about 50 shirts that I get laundered on 5th Street between 1st and 2nd. And the coffee from my local deli suits me just fine.