Economic Dirty Bomb Goes Off in New York
With a Whimper, Not a Bang… the Old Neighborhood Empties
A block from my apartment, on a still largely mom-and-pop, relatively low-slung stretch of Broadway, two spanking new apartment towers rose just as the good times were ending for New York. As I pass the tower on the west side of Broadway each morning, one of its massive ground-floor windows displays the same eternal message in white letters against a bright red background: "Locate yourself at the center of the fastest expanding portion of the affluent Upper West Side."
Successive windows assure any potential renter that this retail space (10,586 square feet available! 110 feet of frontage! 30 foot ceilings! Multiple configurations possible!) is conveniently located only "steps from the 96th Street subway station, servicing 11 million riders annually."
Here's the catch, though: That building was completed as 2007 ended and yet, were you to peer through a window into the gloom beyond, you would make out only a cavernous space of concrete, pillars, and pipes. All those "square feet" and not the slightest evidence that any business is moving in any time soon. Across Broadway, the same thing is true of the other tower.
That once hopeful paean to an "expanding" and "affluent" neighborhood now seems like a notice from a lost era. Those signs, already oddly forlorn only months after our world began its full-scale economic meltdown, now seem like messages in a bottle floating in from BC: Before the Collapse.
And it's not just new buildings having problems either, judging by the increasing number of metal grills and shutters over storefronts in mid-day, all that brown butcher paper covering the insides of windows, or those omnipresent "for rent" and "for lease" signs hawking "retail space" with the names, phone numbers, and websites of real estate agents.
I hadn't paid much attention to any of this until, running late one drizzly evening about a month ago, and needing a piece of meat for dinner, I decided to stop at Oppenheimer's, a butcher shop only three blocks from home. I had shopped there regularly until a new owner came in some years ago, and then the habit slowly died. The store still had its awning ("Oppenheimer, Established 1964, Prime Meats & Seafood") and the same proud boast of "Steaks and Chops Cut to Order, Oven-ready roasts, Fresh-ground meats, Seasonal favorites," but you couldn't miss the "retail space available" sign in the window and, when I put my face to the glass, the shop's insides had been gutted.
Taken aback, I made my way home and said to my wife, "Did you know that Oppenheimer's closed down?" She replied matter-of-factly, "That was months ago."
Okay, that's me, not likely to win an award for awareness of my surroundings. Still, I soon found myself, notebook in hand, walking the neighborhood and looking. Really looking. Now, understand, in New York City, there's nothing strange about small businesses going down, or buildings going up. It's a city that, since birth, has regularly cannibalized itself.
What's strange in my experience -- a New Yorker born and bred -- is when storefronts, once emptied, aren't quickly repopulated.
Broadway in daylight now seems increasingly like an archeological dig in the making. Those storefronts with their fading decals ("Zagat rated") and their old signs look, for all the world, like teeth knocked out of a mouth. In a city in which a section of Broadway was once known as the Great White Way for its profligate use of electricity, and everything normally is aglow at any hour, these dead commercial spaces feel like so many tiny black holes. Get on the wrong set of streets -- Broadway's hardly the worst -- and New York can easily seem like a creeping vision of Hell, not as fire but as darkness slowly snuffing out the blaze of life.
A Stroll in the Neighborhood
Let me take you, then, on a little tour of the new face of my neighborhood. Along the ten blocks closest to my home, the banks (with one exception), the fast food restaurants (Subway, Dunkin' Donuts, Blimpie), and above all the chain drugstores that crowd onto successive blocks (Rite Aid, Walgreens, Duane Reade) still stand. It's the small places that seem to be dropping like flies.
So here we go up those subway steps at 96th where a branch of WaMu (Washington Mutual Bank, placed in receivership by the FDIC in September 2008 and quickly sold to JP Morgan) stands empty. Now, start walking up the east side of Broadway, past Citibank on 96th and the Bank of America at the corner of 97th, until you come to little Alpine Sound Electronics, or the shell of it anyway, where I used to buy my cheap, waterproof watches for my daily swim at the Y. Now it's gone, though an emphatic "sale, sale, sale, sale, sale" sign over the door is a reminder of its final moments.
Take another sec and check out the other side of the street, where at mid-block a canopy advertising "Moroccan & Indian Home Decoratives... Aromatherapy... Exotic Gifts" still stands, but with a "Store for Rent" sign in the window and a desolate interior -- a couple of ratty shelves, a single chair, a half-filled black garbage bag, and a broom. Right beside it is (or was) a tiny children's clothing store. Its striped awning now sports a gaping hole in its center as if it had been hit by a missile, though its window still says, "Made in New York City... enjoyed worldwide!" Not so much today.
But let's not tarry. Keep going past 98th, by that butchered butcher shop, but do note, next to it, another vacancy, the shell that housed a small wine bar and restaurant, Vinacciolo, that came and went. Only two long, bare, narrow tables remain on a floor scattered with trash.
Now, we're almost at 100th, passing those two towers with their unrented frontages and, on the east side of the street, the classic façade of the old Metro movie house, closed to build one tower, and still empty. The cracked glass of the ticket teller's booth backed by plywood gives the neighborhood that distinctive Last Picture Show feel.
Just above 100th on the west side of Broadway is the store once occupied by Sterling Optical. They moved more than two years ago (I followed them faithfully) and the metal security grill has remained in place ever since. Ditto the storefront next to it, empty but for a little hand-lettered sign on the door, "Fedex Please Knock Hard" -- it better be mighty hard! -- and a tiny "Zagat Rated 2006 Shopping Guide" decal on the window.
Well, you get the idea, if you haven't already experienced the equivalent wherever you live. At 101st, A & S Art/Framing ("custom framing and mirrors"), a sliver of a store, has closed up shop. Between 102nd and 103rd, Planet Kids is emptying out. ("After 18 years we are closing on March 31st...") On 103rd, the Royal Kabab & Curry restaurant has, like the optician, moved on to lower-rent digs without being replaced; and, on 105th, Tokyo Pop, a Japanese restaurant, all of whose wait staff mysteriously spoke English with French accents, has also disappeared, though its papered-over windows uniquely promise a "Pizzabar" in the Spring. (I'm not holding my breath.)
Actually, if you head in just about any direction, the toll is apparent. Go south on Broadway from 96th, for instance, and you pass the same proliferating patches of emptiness. At 93rd, the tiny storefront of the all-detective bookstore Murder Ink, which closed on the last day of 2006 (about the moment when this deepening recession officially began) remains unoccupied.
Further south, there are slaughtered neighborhood restaurants galore. Not surprisingly, even in food-mad New York, people are eating out less and our streets, except perhaps on a Saturday night, seem visibly less populated. Near the corner of 91st, Mary Ann's, a festive Tex-Mex spot, bit the dust; just before 90th, the upscale seafood restaurant Docks Oyster Bar shut its doors so recently that its red "restaurant" sign is still lit ("Docks thanks you all for your loyal patronage over the years but this restaurant is now closed..."); at the corner of 88th, in the spacious two-floor space that used to house Boulevard (on whose paper tablecloths my kids and I drew faces with restaurant-provided crayons), and then a dizzying succession of restaurants whose names escape me, the bar chairs are carefully stored upside down on the bar and a "For Rent" sign is in the window; and, on 77th, Ruby Foo's, a giant pan-Asian joint, described by Zagat's as "Disneyfied," has shut, too.
Only below 72nd street, where the neighborhood gets noticeably tonier, and the banks (TD, HSBC, Capital One, Chase, Bank of America) begin to breed and multiply, and the urban mall stores (Pottery Barn, Barnes & Noble, The Gap, Bed Bath & Beyond) proliferate, do the deaths end (except for a Circuit City branch at the corner of 67th that went down with that bankrupt chain).
Here, stores are still clean, well-lighted places, though a remarkable number of them sport signs that say: "save up to 50%," "up to 70% off..."
9/11, The Sequel
Let's not exaggerate. New York City is not downtown Elkhart, Indiana -- not yet anyway (although the other night on Amsterdam Avenue, just east of Broadway, I noted a block of 12 tiny storefronts, nine of which had been emptied). Yes, rents on avenues like Broadway remain sky-high and, these days, getting a bank loan if you're a small start-up is bloody murder, and the city's zoos are losing their state funding, the hospitals are getting rid of staff, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is having layoffs, the unemployment rate is rising fast, property values are sinking, mass transit riders are facing fare increases as well as major service cuts, and the Greater New York Orchid Society has canceled its annual show. Nonetheless, this global financial capital is still surfing the final modest wavelets of the tsunami of money that flowed through its veins in the good times (some of which continues to head "our" way, thanks to government bailout plans).
Still, as you walk past those patches of darkness, a thought almost can't help but form. For the last seven years, we've been waiting for 9/11, The Sequel, to arrive from Afghanistan or some similar place. The media has regularly featured fantasy scenarios in which Islamic terrorists sneak atomic bombs or "dirty bombs" into cities like New York and set them off. ABC's Charles Gibson even highlighted such a possibility in a Democratic presidential debate. ("I want to go to another question... The next president of the United States may have to deal with a nuclear attack on an American city. I've read a lot about this in recent days. The best nuclear experts in the world say there's a 30 percent chance in the next 10 years...") And the Bush administration claimed as one of its great accomplishments the prevention of a repeat of 9/11.
And yet, in a sense, as on September 11, 2001, maybe we were just looking the wrong way. After all, you might say that an economic dirty bomb did go off in downtown New York and this city (not to say, the nation and the world) has been experiencing a second 9/11 ever since, even if in slow motion.
In my neighborhood, back in those fateful September days in 2001, you could hear the sirens, see the jets streak overhead, catch the acrid smell of the towers and everything chemical in them burning, and like the rest of America, watch those apocalyptic-looking scenes of the towers collapsing in clouds of ash and smoke again and again. But if the look then was apocalyptic, the damage, however grim, was limited.
This time around there's no dust, no ash, no acrid smell, no sirens, no jets, and no brave rescuers either. And yet the effect might, sooner or later, be far more apocalyptic and the lives swallowed up far greater. This time, of course, the fanatical extremists were homegrown. Their "caves" were on Wall Street. They hijacked our economy and did their level best to take down our world.
And they may have come closer than most of us imagine. Alpine Sound and Oppenheimer, Tokyo Pop and Planet Kids, Docks and Ruby Foo's have all gone down (and more are surely headed that way). For the people who owned, or ran, or worked in them, unlike the survivors of the original 9/11, there will be no moving bios in the local papers, no talk of compensation, and no majestic memorials to argue about.
For the perpetrators, who have, at worst, gone home pocketing their millions, there will be no retribution. No invasions will be launched, no missiles shot into homes or hideouts. None of them will be pursued to their lairs, or kidnapped off the streets of New York, or from their palatial mansions, or apartments, or estates. None will be spirited to foreign lands to be imprisoned and tortured. None will be labeled "enemy combatants."
Quite the opposite, in 9/11, The Sequel, the U.S. government is willing to pay many of them and their institutions in the multi-billions for their time and further efforts.
In the second 9/11, all the pain and torture is in the neighborhood.
© 2009 Tom Engelhardt