Unwelcome New Neighbors

Paleo Retiree writes:

After a few months away from town, The Question Lady and I returned to our home in Manhattan to discover some new neighbors. Here’s a little collage of them:

nyc_downtown_7-eleven_collage01

Three new 7-Eleven stores. Three! All within a few blocks of us. What kind of expansion-rampage is the 7-Eleven corporation on anyway?

A fast word of explanation. The neighborhood we live in is Greenwich Village. The Village: home of John Reed, Eugene O’Neill, Jane Jacobs, Beat poetry, W.H. Auden, and punk rock. Here are some not-untypical views of the Village.

village_collage01

Coffee houses … Tons of theaters and yoga studios … Oddball boutiques and living spaces … Low-lying, leafy streets … The Village is bliss for anyone who loves funky-sophisticated urban living. (Sad that such neighborhoods are so few and far between in the U.S.) Compare the textures — visual and social — of the Village to the textures of the 7-Eleven storefronts. Definitely not a good match.

The Village is someplace we had to put some effort into getting to. Although back in the ’40s and ’50s the Village was a place where an actor could live while working as a waiter, in recent decades it’s become desirable and expensive. (The old, more affordable “Village” feeling has moved out to various neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens.) So The Question Lady and I really had to apply ourselves to be able to make the move into a modest Village apartment, and we spend a sizable number of scheckels maintaining our lives here. It’s a place we not only love, in other words. It’s one we have worked hard to be able to make a life in.

Let me admit upfront that the Village collage above is pretty idealized. I put it together to emphasize the neighborhood’s small-scale urban beauty and quirkiness. In truth the Village isn’t all boho utopia. It includes some rasty, in fact downright tacky and bleak areas. And during the years that we’ve lived here, we’ve seen the area be invaded by three unwelcome (by us) waves: yuppies; corporate America (Staples, Starbucks, innumerable bank branches); and  developers and chic architects intent on capitalizing on the loveliness of the neighborhood while doing everything they can to ruin it. Hey, have a gander at this recent addition to our funky streets:

sculpture_for_living09_2

Full of charm and character, right? (More about these particular invaders in a future posting.) Still, the Village remains a neighborhood with a distinctive identity and a lot of personality.

There’s some apprehension involved in living in a neighborhood that suits you. Things can get ruined so quickly, after all. And the Village’s ecosystem is such a fragile one …

Here’s one source of anxiety. The Village is bordered on the north side by 14th Street — think discount department stores, Best Buy, small shops with loud radios selling stolen merchandise … It’s rough, it’s loud, it’s crowded. On the south side (not just of the Village but of the contiguous, equally lovely SoHo), there’s Canal Street — very similar to 14th Street but even more congested. How is it that 14th Street and Canal Street don’t spill farther into the neighborhoods of SoHo and the Village than they do? It’s a really remarkable urban phenomenon. Stand at the intersection of 14th and Broadway and you might almost be in Times Square. Go two blocks south and you’re in quiet, offbeat Greenwich Village. Stand at the intersection of Church and Canal and you have to watch your pockets. Head north a block and you’re among sexy Eurotrash and deluxe art galleries. How does that happen?

(Answer: Greenwich Village and SoHo are full of neighborhood organizations and protest groups, and the residents have worked out all kinds of formal and informal understandings with local politicians and the NYPD. The Village isn’t anything like a suburban gated community in terms of its feeling — it feels more like Paris than Hidden Hills. But, as a practical matter and in an unofficial way, it’s a bit of a protected enclave anyway.)

Now, to some extent the Village depends economically on attracting non-Village inhabitants: bridge ‘n’ tunnel people (ie., kids from NJ and Westchester, in for the night to drink and party), tourists, working-class people out for some exotic fun. As a practical matter, if/when you walk around the Village you aren’t just amidst beret-wearing artists; you’re also passing by stressed-out yuppies, giggling students, bellowing drunks, smelly panhandlers, and boastful Guidos. So I wouldn’t want everyone to just leave the Village alone. Besides, part of the fun of the Village is the crazy-quilt mix of people that pass through it.

But how many non-Village interlopers can the Village absorb and still remain the Village? The chain-store numbers have gone up really alarmingly in the years we’ve lived here, for instance. How many of them can open before the Village goes all bland and anonymous? There have been moments when The Question Lady and I, running across yet another Vitamin Shoppe, have wondered out loud what the point of living in the Village is if we’re just going to be living amidst the same set of retail outlets that suburban mommies and daddies patronize.

Another example is Washington Square Park, the square-with-an-arch-and-a-fountain in the NYU area that is at the exact center of the Village. Back in the bad old 1970s, the park was overrun by so many druggies, bums and panhandlers that it became essentially unusable by anyone else. We Village inhabitants may not generally be big fans of cops — but we were awfully glad when the sleazy, dangerous people were shoo’d away and the park was cleaned up. Washington Square Park became part of Greenwich Village — Greenwich Village as we knew it and liked it — once again.

Back to those newly-arrived 7-Elevens … 7-Elevens? In the Village? Three of them?

My immediate response: seriously not pleased. And instantly wondering, “What can we do to push them back to where they came from?”

Part of me was responding to the corporate/chain dimension: “Oh Christ, not another chain invading our neighborhood. Godammit, can’t there be one place in America where you can live free of corporate dominance?”

The other side of my response had to do with the kind of crowd 7-Elevens tend to attract, which — let’s be honest — isn’t exactly bohemian. Here I suppose I should be careful and delicate. 7-Elevens, in my experience, tend to appeal to the poor-to-working-class crowd. Now, I don’t look down on poor or working-class people. Wish ’em well, I really do. I approve of — and sometimes even enjoy visiting — 14th Street and Canal Street. But, in all honesty, I don’t want to live there. I want to live in Greenwich Village. So every time a store or a restaurant goes up that seems likely to draw people from 14th Street down into the Village, I find myself fretting. Hey, I don’t dislike upscale mommies pushing thousand-dollar prams either. Well, not too much. I just feel like they’ve got other neighborhoods that’d suit them better, you know?

Where politics and development go, I tend to be pretty loosey-goosey. If people aren’t harming you or taking your property, then let ’em do what they want to do. But, but … Well, I also feel a deep attachment to my neighborhood. Greenwich Village isn’t just an abstract scattering of roads and buildings, after all. It’s a living-breathing entity in its own right, and one with a character that I like and have formed a strong bond with. And, while I certainly don’t own it in any technical, let alone financial, sense, I do feel that Greenwich Village is my neighborhood. (Note the possessive: “my” neighborhood. Living someplace that you love confers a kind of ownership, doesn’t it?) So when a twinkly architectural nightmare goes up, or when another chain store opens, or when the crowds from 14th Street start moving ever-closer to the block where The Question Lady and I live, I worry.

Is wanting to protect and conserve something that you love — and something that you’ve worked hard to achieve — wrong? Is it unnatural? Can we can reasonably ask, let alone expect, people to overcome such feelings? And, if we can’t, what does that tell us about libertarianism, egalitarianism, and liberal-ness generally?

About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
This entry was posted in Architecture, Personal reflections and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Unwelcome New Neighbors

  1. missberk says:

    When I left NYC, there was one Starbucks and it wasn’t in my ‘hood. I wonder how many there are now. Sad to hear 7/11 is invading my old haunts (lived in the West Village for years), but you can train them. Our 7/11 is on a tony shopping & dining street. The store (or the corporation) has realized that this store serves a more upscale clientele. They are always well stocked with decent wines, a great beer selection, and many flavors of kombucha. In the non-fermented product category, they sell fancy ice cream, local baked goods (along with their own stuff), and several out of town newspapers, including the NY Times, LA Times, etc. We have been able to manipulate our 7/11 into a fairly decent convenience store that carries what we want. Maybe you can work on them in your neighborhood. Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    Is it a coincidence that 1) the Big Gulp was exempted from Bloomberg’s anti-soda law, and 2) 7-11s seem to be popping up in your area of NYC?

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  3. epiminondas says:

    Good luck on the preservation front. The forces of cheap money and a cynical attitude toward traditional architecture are hard to overcome. It overwhelmed New York in the post war period. Save what you can. To gain an appreciation of the centrifugal forces arrayed against the historic architecture of the West, see this film… http://www.amazon.com/The-Fountainhead-Gary-Cooper/dp/B000HWZ4A2

    The film is weird, but what is most distressing about it is the god-awful architecture the “hero” espouses. Just dreadful. This is the affliction that destroyed so many communities in the forties, fifties and sixties. After that film, every idiot architect in America wanted to be Roark.

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    • Funny that Rand made her hero a champion of modernism, isn’t it? I’ve met some new-classical architects who like the book and like Rand — they think she just didn’t know architecture.

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  4. Jaim Jota says:

    A convenience store does not attract special people, it goes where it smells potential customers. I bet the Village is underserved at certain hours and blocks. The Village is replete with moneyed old people. You feel nostalgic for your lost youth, not for the Village that was a cheap and dirty neighborhood.

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    • Not at all sure what your point is here. In any case, I’m not making an anti 7-Eleven case, I’m just confessing that I’m not thrilled to see them show up in my neighborhood. Two different things.

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  5. Fenster says:

    Re: Canal and 14th as bookends. My sense is that it is not all that remarkable that 14th and Canal haven’t encroached since the change has come from the inside out, with the gentrification of the in-between area, from boho to bobo. Canal and 14th have enough remaining non-gentrified life and energy to have successfully resisted the blandishments of the hip. But they need to be dense and energetic to not change. Jump Canal, with its frenzied discount shopping, and you are back to the Soho-like Tribeca. So Canal at least has been vital enough to hold out, but not to act as a barrier.

    I last lived in Manhattan some 20 years ago and I am gearing up to live there again. I am amazed at how, compared with a short couple of decades ago, various manifestations of white, essentially middle-class living (everything from low-end artists to young professionals to affluent families) have settled like a cloud in almost every corner of Manhattan south of 110th, and some parts north.

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  6. ironrailsironweights says:

    7-11 has largely saturated many suburban areas. Manhattan is one of the few remaining expansion opportunities.
    Culture shock aside, its stores actually are suitable for the type of space available in Manhattan. They don’t require a large amount of square footage, and as deliveries tend to be in small quantities they don’t need loading docks.

    Peter

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    • The Village is stuffed to the gills with small deli-type stores, many of them open all night. 7-Eleven presumably sees some kind of business opportunity here anyway. I wonder what it is. (And I wish they’d go away.)

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  7. Matt Forney says:

    Jesus, 7-Eleven…

    When I came home to Syracuse after being gone for nine some-odd months, I found that 7-Eleven had bought up one of our local convenience store chains. Now you’ve got 7-Elevens everywhere. Even the little rural town near Ithaca where my dad grew up now has a 7-Eleven, standing out like a sore thumb among all the rustic brick buildings. It’s not just the corporate homogenization that bothers me, it’s the fact that 7-Eleven’s selection of products sucks compares to Wilson Farms, the chain that they replaced. I have yet to find a single 7-Eleven anywhere in America (and I’ve been from Portland to Chicago to Boston) that carries Full Throttles, for example.

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  8. agnostic says:

    “The Village is stuffed to the gills with small deli-type stores, many of them open all night. 7-Eleven presumably sees some kind of business opportunity here anyway.”

    Low-trust people. Some deli you’ve never heard of — too chancy. Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Target, Apple, Amazon, 7-11 — now those all have big national reputations. Less uncertainty when you buy from them.

    It would be a mistake to see this as a lib / con thing, a rich / poor thing, or a white / non-white thing. Every group these days is so risk-averse, including their choices as consumers. They have to be served by pre-approved sellers. That requires them to be huge, in order for their ratings to count (not based on a small sample size).

    One effect is the spread of national chains, but the other is stuff like Amazon or the websites of Wal-Mart, Target, Apple (iTunes too), and so on. Or only getting news from NYT, CNN, or whatever, ignoring or dismissing regional sources (what would they know? — they’re small).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I know what you mean. The Village is a funny case, though. A lot of people here are by nature and ideology mucho in favor of local tradespeople and merchants, and are by nature and ideology against big chains, at least for our neighborhood. There was quite a lot of resistance when K-Mart wanted to open a big branch here, for instance. (K-Mart won, I don’t know how. Whenever I’ve popped into their store here, most of the people shopping there don’t seem like neighbors, they seem like people who live elsewhere who got off the subway especially to shop at K-Mart. They don’t seem to hang around either — they seem to get right back on the subway.) The all-night deli situation is an interesting one too. The small Asian markets are plentiful and have been for decades. They’re pretty standardized themselves at this point, so you know pretty much what to expect when you go in one. Village residents use them freely. Whenever I’ve watched the business at one of the new 7-Eleven’s for a few minutes, most of the customers don’t seem like locals. They seem like 14th St-type people.

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      • ironrailsironweights says:

        While it may be a relatively minor point, many delis and other small businesses hurt themselves – very stupidly, I may say – by requiring minimum purchase amounts for customers using debit and credit cards. 7-11’s would never do that.

        Peter

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  9. Sir Barken Hyena says:

    I don’t know what the resolution is but I know the feeling. Orange groves used to dominate my part of the Phoenix metro area but they’re going one by one to macmansions. I watched huge one grove 1/2 mile from my house being uprooted by this giant claw thing and fed entire into giant wood chippers. There were mountains of sawdust. I wanted to cry. But what do you do? It’s not economical for the growers anymore, it’s not like we can force them to keep operating at a loss. It’s an all around bummer.

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    • I’d settle for less bullying by the developers, corporations and chains, and for a little more intelligent self-defense (where zoning and permissions and such go) on the part of the locales. Change may be inevitable but it doesn’t always have to be change for the shittier.

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  10. dearieme says:

    On architects: by about 1970 people in Britain were saying that the architects and city planners had done more harm than the Luftwaffe.

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  11. Glynn Marshes says:

    In this case, boycotting might work.

    A few years ago, my town (older suburb, abuts the city, fairly high population density, not a lot of space for new construction) lost its only locally owned “family style” restaurant.

    A Rite-Aid took its place.

    There wasn’t an organized boycott that I know of, but there was a lot of spontaneous and genuine anger, and many people vowed that they would never patronize it. (People understood that the restaurant owners wanted out, but would have preferred that another restaurant take its place.)

    I figured it was just bluster, but to my surprise every time I stopped into that Rite-Aid afterwards, it felt deserted. Despite its central location and ample parking and national advertising.

    A CVS a couple blocks away is almost always jammed.

    That Rite-Aid lasted a couple of years, then shut down.

    You don’t have to affect traffic much — just enough that a store will be flagged as “under-performing.” Get 10 or 20 percent of 7-11’s expected volume to patronize local delis etc. instead and you might be able to weed them out, eventually . . .

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