Atlantic Cities

Of Storefronts, Soulless Banks, and the Slow Death of Nora Ephron's Upper West Side

Of Storefronts, Soulless Banks, and the Slow Death of Nora Ephron's Upper West Side
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People are always saying that change is a good thing. But all they're really saying is that something you didn't want to happen at all... has happened. My store is closing this week. I own a store, did I ever tell you that? It's a lovely store, and in a week it'll be something really depressing, like a Baby Gap. Soon, it'll be just a memory. In fact, someone, some foolish person, will probably think it's a tribute to this city, the way it keeps changing on you, the way you can never count on it, or something. I know because that's the sort of thing I'm always saying. But the truth is... I'm heartbroken.

That’s from the 1998 Nora Ephron romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail, in which the owner of a sweet children’s bookshop on the Upper West Side of New York is forced out of business by a juggernaut chain bookstore, a thinly veiled version of Barnes & Noble.

Well, this last week, we lost Ephron herself, and her finely tuned ear for the gestalt of this particular corner of Manhattan. She was right about the way New York breaks your heart, the way she was right about so many things. The Upper West Side that she studied and documented with the acuity of an anthropologist and the wit of Oscar Wilde has changed, and changed, and changed again over the last generation. And that change has hurt.

As real estate prices have climbed, the mom and pop stores that long defined the neighborhood have steadily disappeared. Mega-retailers have consolidated storefronts, presenting long, dull corporate faces to the sidewalk and deadening street life. The once hectic and jumbled shopping landscape has been smoothed and polished and made increasingly bland. A walk down Broadway used to be all jangle and buzz, an urban improvisation of sound and action. Now it’s more like a prerecorded loop that repeats block after block, the dull hum of air conditioning and fluorescent light.

The change has even claimed some of those who got it rolling. In 2011, the massive Barnes & Noble across the street from Lincoln Center – blamed in part for the 1996 demise of the beloved local bookstore Shakespeare & Co., which surely pained Ephron -- shut its doors because the rent was too damn high. This prompted its own confusing wave of nostalgia and heartbreak. We’ve come to that point, now: when even certain chains can seem quaint and old-fashioned. (The branch on 82nd and Broadway is hanging on.)

Barnes & Noble at least sold things, and gave people a place to hang out as well. (It also started as a local bookstore, on lower Broadway.) The latest horde of soul-eating behemoths to stalk the streets of the Upper West Side is even more bland and lifeless than any Baby Gap. These are the banks. They don’t sell anything except money. And they are seemingly on every corner -- excepting the corners occupied by chain drugstores.

In an effort to inoculate the neighborhood against the plague of banks and big retail, the New York City Council last week passed a zoning regulation that limits the size of all storefronts to 40 feet on the area’s commercial strips, and bank storefronts to 25 feet. The new rules, crafted by the City Planning Department and championed by City Council member Gale Brewer, were controversial among corporate boosters, despite strong support from neighborhood residents. One chronically irate New York Post columnist, Steve Cuozzo, had this to say:

Egged on by leftist reactionaries nostalgic for the 1970s, the City Council is plowing ahead with its scheme to wreck the fragile chemistry of Manhattan’s healthiest retail environment — the Upper West Side.

In the end, the new zoning was approved by the council 49-2, with plenty of concessions. The 29 banks already in the zone, with their serried ranks of ATMs, are grandfathered in. Pressure from business groups won loopholes in the ordinance that will allow some businesses to keep building bigger.

Still, the residents of the Upper West Side have taken a stand against bankification. “We cannot be successful as a neighborhood if it’s all banks, and that’s what it’s becoming,” council member Brewer told the New York Times. “We have to put a halt to it.”

Other neighborhoods are looking at similar ordinances. Because it is not just the Upper West Side. All over New York, the grit and texture of the streets are being eroded by the steady drip of money.

The process is documented in a sad and wonderful 2008 documentary called Twilight Becomes Night, by filmmaker Virginie-Alvine Perrette. A native New Yorker, Perrette records the vanishing world of the city’s small-time shopkeepers, people who keep neighborhoods glued together and have long given the city its flavor and vitality. When they are gone, Perrette’s film asks, what will be left?

If all the jagged, idiosyncratic pieces of the city are replaced by interchangeable parts, is the city still there at all? And can an ordinance written by a city's bureaucrats hold back the tidal forces of change?

I can't know what Ephron would say. But I am fully prepared to be heartbroken.



Photo credit: Ed Yourdon/Flickr

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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