Tuesday, November 21, 2017

You can still walk and shop in New York City: less, but still better than any other US city

In most American cities, most people rarely walk, and when they do they often walk into you because they are unused to it and are distracted, most often by their phone. In New York City, people are much more used to walking; they do it all the time. And while they may sometimes seem distracted, they are almost always aware of where they are and who is around them. So, when they walk into you, it is not because they are unaware, it is because they think they have the right of way and you should not be in it. (It should go without saying that suburbs, in general, do not count; at least not those suburbs that are so undistinctive that they could be outside Dallas, New York, Chicago, Kansas City, or Minneapolis.)

The kind of car-based life that most Americans lead, particularly with regard to shopping, is very difficult in New York. It is expensive to own a car, because parking on the street is hard to find and often costly, and long-term parking in a garage costs more than the rent for a two-bedroom apartment in most towns. Plus, despite this fact, there is a lot of traffic, including cabs and trucks, and little room for those trucks to double-park, so driving is often inconvenient. Going to the supermarket for a week’s worth of groceries is absurd, and going to fill up the SUV at Costco a rare event (indeed, more often a cab).

Fortunately, neighborhoods in New York have an alternative; lots of small stores that you can walk to and carry stuff home from. Supermarkets, as well as greengrocers and butchers and fish markets, are within a few blocks. Walking home from the subway, the main mode of transportation to and from work, you stop and buy things for dinner. Or maybe a staple or two you’re running out of. There are restaurants and bars and coffee houses you can walk to, and stores to buy household appliances and stuff for your computer and your phone, and books and presents for people. Basically, the neighborhood is a small (or not so small!) town where you can walk to everything (unless you are very infirm, and then there is the bus, or a cab, or delivery). The idea that if you need something you have to get in your car and drive to get it is ingrained in most Americans, city or suburban or rural, but in New York it is not. You walk a lot.

Thus, it is sad to read, in an editorial in the New York Times (November19, 2017, “Why is New York full of empty stores?”)about the degradation of New York neighborhoods, about the closure of family businesses of all sorts, of stores that have been in place for decades, because landlords have raised the rent – often by 100% or more – and made the cost of doing business impossible. Presumably they hope to rent to large corporate chain stores or trendy boutiques selling discretionary items at high enough prices to cover the rent, but as the article says, how many stores selling $400 t-shirts can a neighborhood support? So, often, the stores stay empty, or the new tenant doesn’t last long, and this is not good for the former tenants or their patrons. Is it good for the landlord? It must, somehow, be; maybe they get a tax break if they can’t get “market rent” for their commercial properties. The fact that there are so many empty stores and yet landlords are not dissuaded from kicking more people out suggests there must be some way they benefit. In visiting New York, I sat with relatives who talked about this problem, discussing this, that, and the other store or restaurant that had been around for years or decades that was now closing down. We have, in fact, talked about this for decades, and it has been true. Fewer family-owned stores, more chain stores one would find in a suburban mall, more Starbucks and banks and drug stores.

Banks and drug stores seem to be especially popular. Actually going into a bank and taking out or depositing money (as opposed to just using any old ATM) seems much more common in New York than elsewhere, and there are certainly banks all over the place; there cannot be too many. And drug stores! Once, Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side seemed to be covered with stores selling medical supplies (“truss stores”) but not with the ubiquity of the current chains, mainly CVS and Duane Reade in this area. But they have changed. Some years ago I took a photo of the east side of Amsterdam Avenue at 96th St., where the big Ionic-columned “bank”-looking building on the north side (which, of course, used to be a bank, the East River Savings Bank) was now a CVS, and the first floor of the building on the south corner, once and independent drug store, was now a bank! However, as of now, the latter is a nothing, another vacant property.

And, yet, an “outlander”, someone from one of those American cities where you need to get into a car to get a box of tissues or a bag of coffee, will still see New York neighborhoods as full of stores, places to walk, and be amazed at how easy it is to survive car-free. I just walked about 20 blocks (1 mile, for the non-initiated) down Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the neighborhood pictured in the Times photo. In addition to a few stops (at Zabar’s, for lox, and a pizza place, for a hero, and the local supermarket on the corner for a couple of staples on the way up), I passed hundreds of small stores. Yes, banks and drug stores on every block, and a Starbuck’s on every other, and many mall-brand chain stores, but also many fruit-and-vegetable stores (every 3 blocks) and flower vendors and small jewelers and fish markets and cell-phone-supply-and-screen-repair stores. There seem to be fewer pizza places, only ever 3-4 blocks, but every one of them has better pizza than anywhere else in the US, and those that are chains are local (e.g., Famous Famiglia). Not a Domino’s, Little Caesar’s, Pizza Hut, Godfather’s or Papa John’s to be seen.

Yes, change has been happening for a long time, and will continue to happen, and it will be some for the better and a lot for the worse. But a lot of it depends on your frame of reference; for long-time Westsiders (or probably those from European cities, which are mostly more like New York) it is all downhill. But for folks from the rest of America, there is a still a great time to bed had walking in The City, and it is pretty easy to see how nice it would be to hardly ever have to drive anywhere for what you need.

Sigh. It’s a great place to visit, and to walk.


  1. Good to read your observations. So many of the points you describe are related to gentrification, as paler, more affluent interlopers move from everywhere to the center of financial power. They pay twice what lifelong New Yorkers can afford for rent, parking, gas, food and toothpaste, driving prices higher and higher. The silver lining? Great to have you and your family in town for a while.

  2. All true...it's also quite intense, there. When I moved from w. 106 st to cambridge I felt like i had moved to the country.

  3. All true...it's also quite intense, there. When I moved from w. 106 st to cambridge I felt like i had moved to the country.


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