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The West Side Spirit

Wanted: Mom & Pop Stores

By Tracy L. Ziemer
December 23, 2004

Enough already. That thunderous sound was me putting my proverbial foot down over the strip-mall-ization of the Upper West Side. Well, either that or it was the sound of hundreds of feet stampeding to the new Bed Bath and Beyond near Lincoln Center. The latter, sadly, is more likely, much to my regret.

One of the reasons I moved to New York and the Upper West Side more than six years ago was so that I wouldn't have to go to a mall again – all those rows of stores selling the same pairs of chinos and cable knit sweaters, offering up bags of blandness capped off with a pitstop at McDonald's or Cinnabon for more blasé fare.

But today, ironically, I find myself firmly planted on what must now be one of the world's largest outdoor strip malls: Broadway. One stroll down this Manhattan boulevard puts me face-to-face with Victoria's Secret, Coach, the Gap, Banana Republic, PC Richards, Staples, Jennifer Convertibles, Claire's, Circuit City, Pottery Barn, Zales and, now, a 53,000 square foot Bed Bath and Beyond store. And Upper East Siders have seen the same thing happening on their most popular thoroughfares, especially 86th Street.

On Broadway, all that's missing is an Orange Julius stand in a median strip. What's next? Wal-Mart taking over Columbia University to serve as an "anchor" store?

The deepening beige hue of the UWS's urban fabric was pointed out to me when my cousin visited from Wisconsin and, while walking down Broadway, said, "New York has all the same stuff we have. It's just outside."

Sadly, this is true. But the difference lies in the choices we make. To choose Manhattan means choosing La Di Da over Claire's for jewelry. Ivy's Books instead of Barnes & Noble. Diana & Jefferies rather than Express. West Side Kids before Kay-B Toys. Sal & Carmine's over Papa John's. Levain Bakery rather than Dunkin' Donuts.

Part of the thrill of living here is not wearing a pair of Gap corduroy pants while drinking a Starbucks while reading the Today Show's latest book recommendation like some guy in Indianapolis is doing right now. That's the whole point.

The lure of cheaper goods and one-stop shopping is intoxicating, to be sure, particularly in a city where grocery shopping can require three stores and a personal scheduler. Who doesn't love the ease of shopping for picture frames and dishes and a new couch under one Pottery Barn roof? Adding a bit of convenience to oft-chaotic Manhattan living is a definite perk these large chain stores bring.

But it's the rapid growth of this slice of the retail pie that gives me a stomach ache. For every 10 Duane Reades, there's one Peter's Pharmacy, an independent business in a sea of sameness.

In many ways, the Upper West Side's density of families makes it a natural for larger, chain stores offering deals on clothes and furniture and electronics. The neighborhood also welcomes comfort and, admittedly, will never be a bastion for the cutting edge. After all, that's why we have 14th Street: To serve as a kind of Mason Dixon Line separating pierced hipsters from baseball-cap wearing guys and cashmere twinset girls. Not wanting a piece of jewelry in my tongue, however, should not be confused with wanting Manhattan, New York to become Manhattan, Kansas.

This is not a problem unique to the Upper West Side, I know. With rising rents, most Manhattan neighborhoods have had to cater to larger companies. SoHo, that once avant-garde home to artists, years ago made room for a Staples and Old Navy and over time has become a tangle of tourists and predictability. Chelsea's 23rd Street now boasts a Home Depot and an Outback Steakhouse. Even St. Mark's in the East Village has gone vanilla and welcomed a Quiznos and SuperCuts amid its urban brocade of tattoo parlors, falafel outposts and bars.

I'd like to see the Upper West Side sidestep its seemingly inevitable transformation into one big outdoor strip mall. I root for the neighborhood to sharpen its unique character of brownstones and city surprises amid leafy trees, where small businesses like Mike's Lumber and Harry's Shoes and Liberty House still thrive in the shadows of mega-stores.

Such unconformity is healthy, and even necessary, for a neighborhood to flourish. In Jane Jacobs' famous book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she writes about the beauty of unchoreographed urban street life: "The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations."

Anyone else want to dance?

Copyright 2004 Manhattan Media

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