leanor Foa Dienstag

Empty Spaces

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I used to joke that, after a trip, when I returned to my East Side neighborhood in New York, I would walk around the block to see which store had closed. At first there were small losses: a corner grocery store where I bought inexpensive condiments and flowers; a shoe repair shop. Then it escalated to a locally beloved family-run card and party shop, a Greek restaurant, a convenience store and small dress shop. In came the Duane Reades and CVSs, as well as the Chase and TD Banks.

Recently, however, this evisceration of neighborhood shops has swept Manhattan like a silent tsunami. Wherever I go – east side, west side, uptown, downtown, from Soho to fashionable Madison Avenue, the boutiques and small stores that gave each neighborhood its charm, conveniences and identities are gone. Wiped out.

Who are the villains?  Rapacious real estate interests? Condo and co-op boards whose retail space offer casino-like rewards? Amazon, and all online portals to retail shops?  Overworked New Yorkers for whom time is money and therefore shop more online – Fresh Direct, Blue Apron — than ever before? All of the above?

Whatever the reason, we are living through a profound revolution whose ultimate consequence is nothing less than the destruction of neighborhood retail life as it has existed for several centuries.

Last Saturday I walked down Third Avenue, from 74th Street to 64th Street, camera in hand, to record the empty spaces I encountered. What I found was astonishing. Whole blocks devoid of retail life.

Take a look at the visual record, below.

Yesterday, I chatted with the owner of a tiny Chinese takeout place on 1st Avenue. It’s been my favorite Chinese place since I moved into the neighborhood in the late 1970s. It is now surrounded by four empty stores that recently closed up and left:  a corner restaurant, a liquor store, a bakery, and an independent drug store.

“Looks like you’re the last store standing,” I said.

“In six years,” he replied, “the whole block will come down.”

“But what about all the people living above you?” It’s a block of four and five story walk-ups.

“Empty,” he said. “The rooms look lived in because they are all on timers.”

I left more depressed than ever.

All photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag

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