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President’s Letter, October 2017

President of The Municipal Art Society of New York Elizabeth Goldstein

Elizabeth Goldstein

Since I have been back in New York, I’ve heard from folks all over town worrying about the fate of the city’s retail. All you have to do is walk the streets of Manhattan and you know something is wrong. In fact, the retail spaces on the ground floor of our building on Madison Avenue at East 51st Street have been vacant since MAS moved in three years ago. In many parts of town, it is hard to spot any of the mom-and-pop shops that used to characterize our neighborhoods: the cobbler, the local tailor, the newsstand… and forget about finding a locally owned clothing shop.

Some blocks now feel like they could be in any city in America. Even parts of SoHo feel very much like that, much to my enormous surprise. Broadway, for instance, is now lined with stores that could be found in any shopping mall. They occupy some of the most interesting historic industrial buildings in New York, yet, despite having chosen a place defined by its architectural character, the stores and merchandise is the same as it would be if you were on Miracle Mile in Chicago, or in Union Square in San Francisco.

But wander into Nolita – or even better, the Lower East Side – and you still find little shops run by local purveyors, making a business of providing extraordinary products. And it isn’t just in the hip neighborhoods where this is true. I was meeting a friend for dinner recently near Ninth Avenue and West 42 Street and remembered that someone had told me about an old Greek grocer that was still tucked behind the Port Authority. So I poked around and sure enough, they are still there with their fabulous nuts, spices, and rose jam! As I stroll through my current neighborhood in Brooklyn (Sunset Park) and my future neighborhood in Queens (Jackson Heights), I stumble upon everything from Mexican clay cooking pots to saris.

I have been reading everything I can get my hands on, looking for an explanation. Most people, including real estate experts, bear witness to this alarming change but don’t have much factual insight into its cause. Is this about the increasing dominance of the digital marketplace? Or is this because of rapidly rising rents? Or perhaps this is a result of a changing dynamic of the role of retail in commercial buildings in particular?

The life of the street is so driven by the vibrancy of retail that we would all benefit from knowing more about these factors and how to respond to them.

Our colleagues at the Center for Urban Future have been doing some interesting work tracking the proliferation of chain stores in New York City. And Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer has done a great study on small mom-and-pop businesses.

While the experts debate the root of the problem, we want to ask for your help. As the holiday season approaches, we are asking MAS members and friends to share your favorite local places to shop. We’ve put together a very short survey below – please contribute your tips and ideas! We hope to collect these New York gems and create a shopping guide to help reverse this distressing trend.

Thanks….. and enjoy the rest of fall, now that it is really here.

Elizabeth's signature

Elizabeth Goldstein
The Municipal Art Society of New York