A Wrinkle in the Narrative: Gentrification & Small Businesses

In a few weeks on October 3, 2017, my first book, Left Bank of the Hudson: Jersey City and the Artists of 111 1st Street, will be published by Fordham University Press. To prepare for that and my accompanying book tour, I’ve been focusing on gentrification: reading about it, thinking about it, and talking about it.

Recently, I was chatting with a friend, who is a purveyor of handcrafted candles and body products. She shared her own observations about the effects of gentrification upon small businesses.

According to her experience, unique and funky businesses fare well in the earlier waves of gentrification. A market selling the wares of artists and quirky vendors activates an underutilized and under-maintained plaza, transforming it into a lively community space. A coffee shop opens on a moribund block, creating a third-space for residents and attracting other new businesses to long-shuttered storefronts.

These new businesses offer goods, services, and experiences to an emerging population and instill a neighborhood with a magnetic charm. Then, more entrepreneurs open businesses, copying and sometimes brazenly imitating the model and image of the initial trendsetters. A given commercial strip might be able to support an artisanal jeweler or a high-priced cafe. But, this district cannot support two, three, or four.

storefront
Vacant storefronts on Bleecker Street, New York, New York (Courtesy of New York State Senator Brad Hoylman).

Meanwhile, landlords see the neighborhood changing and demand higher rents. Some property owners simply mothball their properties, believing that a deep-pocketed commercial tenant will soon come knocking. This has led to blight in various cities and even in tony shopping streets (e.g. Bleecker Street in New York City’s West Village neighborhood).

What happens next? The original retail pioneers–the weekly artsy-crafty vendor, the cafe owner–work harder for less money or find themselves priced out. Some businesses realize that they cannot grow. Some find it difficult, if not impossible to break even. Some make the difficult decision to fold up or move on. These businesses serve as signs of gentrification and they quickly become its early victims.

A vibrant neighborhood seems rife with possibility, delight, and even surprise. Without unique, interesting, and daresay weird small businesses, a neighborhood losses this capability. If a neighborhood lacks character, why should anyone bother caring about it? Unfortunately, certain neighborhoods might soon discover the answer to this question.

 

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