Sunday, October 30, 2005

Tha Malling of Washington Heights?

On November 30th, 2005, an era will end on the corner of 187th and Ft. Washington Ave. That’s the date when GeoMart Hardware’s lease is up for renewal. The landlord is tripling the rent to a staggering $9,600 a month—for a storefront measuring less than 1,000 square feet. That leaves GeoMart, a local fixture for over a decade, with no choice but to close its doors for good. Rumor has it that a bright new Bank of America branch is set to open in its place. That means the local neighborhood will lose not only a convenient place to shop for an impossibly large variety of house wares, but a source of free home improvement advice and local gossip from the owner and fellow shoppers alike.

GeoMart is a victim of forces convulsing through commercial districts all over New York City. Growing neighborhood prosperity has brought about remarkable improvements in quality of life in recent years in Upper Manhattan and communities all over the five boroughs. But there’s an inextricable downside to this prosperity: rapidly rising housing prices have brought real pain to families facing apartment rents soaring beyond their reach. Likewise exploding commercial rents are forcing the closure of the locally-owned mom-and-pop stores which give neighborhoods their vibrancy and uniqueness.

What kind of businesses can afford today’s inflated commercial rents? Increasing, the answer is chain retailers. There was a time when national retail businesses largely ignored New York City, and especially places like Upper Manhattan. No longer. Today there are no fewer than 10 chain drug stores north of 155th Street, putting enormous pressure on our many independent pharmacies, some of which have already closed. Dunkin Donuts now has six locations here Uptown. Local pizzerias face competition from multiple Domino’s and Papa John’s outlets.

Look beyond Upper Manhattan and the picture is even more dramatic. New York City—where the corner deli is practically part of our DNA—is today home to over three dozen 7-Elevens. Most of these are in Queens and Brooklyn, but one opened recently on E. 23rd St. in Manhattan, and there are now even four in the heartland of the bodega, the Bronx. And no less a behemoth than Wal-Mart is moving aggressively to enter the largest urban market in America. Its first attempt to open a mega-store in Queens was defeated this spring by a coalition of community and labor groups, but now a second effort to establish a site in Staten Island seems like it may succeed.

Parts of Upper Manhattan still face commercial blight, and in such areas the addition of any clean, well-maintained business—locally owned or not—is a welcome improvement. But in our community’s most vibrant commercial districts, we are seeing the earliest signs of a trend which has been playing out for years on the Upper West Side, where even Starbucks stores (yes Starbucks!), are being priced out in favor of bank branches, and quirky independent establishments are becoming an endangered species.

For now, the closing of GeoMart may only be a loss of one store on one corner. But I’ll sure miss the convenience of being able to pick up a pack of screws, and a little home improvement wisdom, right on my block. And I hope the day will never come when the unique streetscapes of the neighborhood which I so love end up looking like the Mall of America.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

so sad. L.I. Glatt on 181st is also about to close becuase of high rent. VIP cleaners on 187 & phurst is being pushed out in march. it's the beginning of the end...

5:04 PM  
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1:29 AM  
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5:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sad about Glatt, and it's sad that a long time ago, the fabulous Karl Ehmer had to shutter, too. Generally speaking, the nabe's (from 207th through 168th Sts, not been the same since at least 1988-89.

1:07 PM  

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