By Sharon Zukin
E. B. White was correct when he wrote more than sixty years ago that New York is a city of neighborhoods, and he was even more correct that every neighborhood has its own “little main street.” “No matter where you live,” he says, “you will find within a block or two a grocery store, a barbershop, a newsstand and shoeshine shack, an ice-coal-and-wood cellar.., a dry cleaner, a laundry, a delicatessen” and on to the “hardware store, a liquor store, a shoe-repair shop.” Except for the coal merchant, a little main street like that has been the mainstay of my neighborhood in Greenwich Village and the existential linchpin of my life.
But when I recently returned from a six-month sojourn in Amsterdam, I was shocked by the changes. Though the storefronts look pretty much the same as before I left, many shops I knew have vanished. They weren’t just victims of the owner’s retirement or economic recession.
The branch of a local supermarket chain, “family owned since 1932,” had lost so many customers to a nearby Whole Foods Market that it closed. The longtime photo shop, which had clung to life for the past few years by taking passport pictures and digital images for eBay sellers, is now a Middle Eastern humus restaurant. While I was away a corner diner morphed into an “artisanal gelato” shop selling small five-dollar cones. The futon store turned into an informal but upscale “pasta pizza bar.”
You should understand that University Place is a short and fairly placid shopping street. Though Greenwich Village has been reputed to be the capital of hip culture since before the first hipster was born, you might find a local shopping street like this in Boston, Philadelphia or Dallas. When I moved there in the 1970s I found the usual bread-and-butter stores that White describes. I could buy a loaf of rye bread, shop for fresh fish for dinner, and have my prescriptions filled and my pants dry cleaned. I could buy flowers for my husband’s birthday, browse a well-stocked bookshop or hardware store and tell the butcher which cut of beef I wanted. I could get a burger at any of three diners or eat Italian or Japanese.
This wasn’t Nobu territory. None of the stores boasted gourmet quality products. But in those days there was no Yelp to rate the local bagel store and in most of the small shops you could talk with the owner. This made the street feel like home, as Jane Jacobs famously pointed out for the street where she lived on the other side of the Village.
For a long time University Place shared the area’s rakish reputation as a breeding ground for artists, writers and political radicals. The Hotel Albert, built in the 1880s, had hosted Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and Hart Crane. In the 1950s the owner commissioned Salvador Dali to design an open-air bus called a Loconik, named for both the railroads’ means of transportation and the Village’s denizens, beatniks, to give free tours of the neighborhood. Also in the postwar years the Abstract Expressionist artists and their literary friends drank and argued through the night at the Cedar Tavern, two blocks away.
By the end of the sixties, though, the street’s reputation for louche rebellion had run aground. Some of the Albert’s last celebrated guests, rock bands, fell apart because of drink and drugs, and the hotel declined into seedy disrepair. Like a dowager forced to pawn her last string of pearls, the Albert was sold and transformed into condos.
At the same time the blocks around University Place were also being transformed. The brownstone houses were still as grand as they had been in Henry James’s lifetime, but the loft buildings where small factories, artisans’ workshops and artists’ studios had coexisted peaceably for years began to be converted to living lofts and offices for psychotherapists, architects, and small film companies.
While the creative class was setting up shop, the two nearby private universities, New York University and The New School, began to expand. There were financial problems and hasty acquisitions but overall their student bodies and tuition revenues grew, which gave them motivation and capital to expand even more.
As a result, “studentification” is reshaping University Place in the universities’ image. Though this has been a neighborhood where white-haired residents are not afraid to pick their way with their caretakers or walkers, the crowd of pedestrians grows younger and faster every year. A good portion of the young women are so tall and skinny they look like fashion models.
I don’t mind the mix of ages and body types but the stores are changing to meet a young, affluent and mobile market. My “little main street” is losing the local character praised by E. B. White and mimicking the food court in an upscale mall.
This is happening not only on my shopping street, but in neighborhoods throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. The stock market, recession and U.S. debt limit crisis haven’t stopped the upward trend of real estate prices here. Young white families with children are still moving in, balancing the demographic trend toward lower-income nonwhites and single member households that began in the 1950s and 1960s. Young families and older folks are the ballooning extremes of Manhattan’s demographic dumbbell.
Yet both groups face a crunch of public services, starting with overcrowded classrooms in public schools and the fiercest ever competition for private school enrollments, and a shutdown of senior citizen centers. Meanwhile the city and state governments have joined the nationwide uprising by public officials to curb the costs of the public labor force by all possible means. Though it isn’t easy to fire teachers and other employees who are still protected by labor union contracts with local authorities, the retrenchment of the public sector makes life in the city harder.
During this torrid summer I am painfully aware of the city’s always needy infrastructure: the uneven surfaces, not to mention potholes of midtown streets, the hot and airless subway platforms, the aged water and sewage pipes that need to be replaced. Money, as always, is tight.
I know that Amsterdam, like all European cities, faces similar problems. Cutbacks to public services and their continued privatization provoked brief labor strikes and a lot of grumbling during my stay there. Individual homeowners and the city government as well face the high costs of replacing old building and bridge foundations, for the beautiful 17th century canal houses of Amsterdam’s UNESCO World Heritage Site were built in the water.
Despite the unrelenting homogenization of city life though I have found one thing in New York unchanged. New Yorkers still love this city because it is gritty and lively, and probably the most sensually diverse city in the world. But their sense of feeling at home in their neighborhood depends on keeping their little main street truly local.
Sharon Zukin is Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Loft Living, Landscapes of Power (winner of the C. Wright Mills Award), The Cultures of Cities, Point of Purchase, and most recently Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. You can read her previous posts here.