Returning to NYC, circa 2018…
I hadn’t done it for awhile. I believe 2015 was when I last spent significant time away from my little studio apartment on West 87th Street, and returning home always brings with it a fair share of Pros and Cons. For example: Con - lugging all my belongings back up four flights of stairs; Pro - sleeping in my own bed once again. Con - finding parking spaces for my island car on a regular basis; Pro - becoming reacquainted with my piano and neighborhood. Starting over again has always been fun and unsettling at the same time. I didn’t expect last week’s move to be any different.
And in many ways, it wasn’t. Although this time I found the cushions to my sofa were stained… My writing desk appears more beat-up than I remember leaving it… And while I was initially pleased to discover the interior to my fridge sparkling clean, the following day I realized this was only because everything I had left behind - all the unopened bottles of ketchup, expensive mustard, A-1 sauce, salad dressings - was now gone. But these are almost predictable events that somehow never occurred before, so my luck was bound to run out sooner or later. With NYC strangers living in one’s apartment, I realize how lucky it can be to return to a TV still attached to the brick wall.
But this year, I have to admit to a formerly big Pro having switched into a maddeningly disturbing Con. One of the first things I always used to do immediately upon returning to NYC from Martha’s Vineyard - and the first one of these homecomings happened in 1994 - was walk around a ten-block radius of my neighborhood to discover the inevitable changes to the buildings and businesses around me. You could always count on a beautiful new restaurant or bar suddenly rising in a spot that held little appeal before, which would counter the sad realization that some other favored destination was no longer around. But this year, after being away for five and a half months, the changes consist almost entirely of empty storefronts.
“Retail Space Available” now seems like the mantra of today’s Upper West Side. Two restaurants, just one block away, that I thought had been thriving, are now boarded up and empty. Granted, the flower shop that magically arrived before I left is still on the other side of Columbus Avenue from my doorstep, but all the businesses on either side remain nonexistent. My hopes for fun discoveries among those vacant storefronts along Amsterdam and Broadway, between 88th and 91st, were not rewarded. (Oh, and major gas-line work is causing traffic-ensnaring construction issues to all the streets immediately nearby, including the one where my car is currently parked, but that’s another story. Central Park West is now a driving hazard, although, thankfully, Central Park itself remains an amazing beauty and I still can scarcely believe it qualifies as my backyard…)
So - what happened? Of course the high rents are causing these changes, but why is it so much worse now than before? Well - I haven’t done any research, but I think I have an answer, which I’ll share below. This month’s blog will be informational in nature, with NYC hearsay being the sole source I’m relying on.
I’ve always admired and respected the job Michael Bloomberg did as Mayor. He took a page from downtown Burlington, Vermont in making Times Square pedestrian-friendly, and for the first time in years the area now attracts hordes of residents as well as tourists. He single-handedly stopped the practice of smoking in restaurants, and then stadiums, and then parks, which seemed an impossible dream at the time and has since turned into a new, happy reality. His vision helped bring about future NYC innovations, like the High-Line park - created on an abandoned above-ground railway station - and the increasing number of piers now decorating the Hudson River from Riverside to Battery Park. I’m sure he was a valued eye in the incredible transformation of the downtown area after 9/11.
So there’s no surprise that he didn’t want rent-control, which building owners have been trying to eradicate for years, to die under his watch. BUT - from what I’ve been told - the way he accomplished this is what has led to the many business closures of today. He proposed that if the owners would get off his case about rent control, he would agree to let them do whatever they wanted with storefront leases once they were up for renewal. Again - I haven’t researched this - but I’m guessing that much like regular rents, a landlord was formerly allowed to raise commercial rates only by so much after each lease was over. But now, a couple of years after Mr. Bloomberg left office, they can charge whatever they want. And they have been as greedy as one might have predicted. And local businesses, understandably, have been loathe to give away such a large percentage of their profits in such a highway-robbery-type manner.
Again - I write fiction and have never wanted to be an investigative reporter. But these are the facts as I know them and it seems like such a shame. How can Mom and Pop stores, which were formerly such a vibrant aspect of the Upper West Side and so many other NYC neighborhoods, exist anymore? Do we really need more banks, realty companies, and empty lots?
Well, don’t get me wrong - I’m still loving being back in NYC and can’t wait to see what happens next on my own unusual journey. But things have definitely changed.
Doesn’t mean some enlightened politician - and they all have their Pros and Cons - can’t come around and change them around again. A Democratic blue wave, in my humble opinion, would be a wonderful first step. For this and a host of other, even more troubling issues…
And by the way, I hope you are all planning on voting in a couple of weeks.
I know I am.