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Postcards From the Recession

In New York, a second, silent 9/11

There are no collapsing towers or jets screaming overhead, but, storefront by storefront, the economic crisis is ripping holes in the city.

March 22, 2009|Tom Engelhardt | Tom Engelhardt runs the Nation Institute's tomdispatch.com, where a longer version of this article appears.

A block from my Manhattan apartment, on a still largely mom-and-pop, relatively low-slung stretch of Broadway, two spanking new apartment towers sprouted just as the good times were ending. A massive ground-floor window on one of them displays a message advertising retail space in white letters against a bright red background: "Locate yourself at the center of the fastest expanding portion of the affluent Upper West Side."

Successive windows assure potential renters that this retail space (10,586 square feet available! 110 feet of frontage! 30-foot ceilings! Multiple configurations possible!) is conveniently located only "steps from the 96th Street subway station, servicing 11 million riders annually."

Here's the catch, though: That building was completed in late 2007, yet it remains an empty, cavernous space of concrete, pillars and pipes. All those "square feet" and not the slightest evidence that any business is moving in. Across Broadway, the same thing is true of the other tower.

And it's not just new buildings having problems, judging by the increasing number of metal grills and shutters over storefronts at midday, all that brown butcher paper covering the insides of windows and those omnipresent "for rent" and "for lease" signs that have replaced window displays.

I hadn't paid much attention to any of this until, running late one drizzly evening about a month ago and needing a piece of meat for dinner, I decided to stop at Oppenheimer's, a butcher shop three blocks from home. The store still had its awning ("Oppenheimer, Established 1964, Prime Meats & Seafood") and the same proud boast of "steaks and chops cut to order, oven-ready roasts, fresh-ground meats, seasonal favorites," but you couldn't miss the "retail space available" sign in the window, and when I put my face to the glass, I could see that the shop's insides had been gutted.

On making it home, I said to my wife, "Did you know that Oppenheimer's closed down?" She replied matter-of-factly: "That was months ago."

OK, that's me, not likely to win an award for awareness of my surroundings. Still, I soon found myself, notebook in hand, walking the neighborhood and looking. Really looking. Now, understand, in New York City, there's nothing strange about small businesses failing or buildings rising. It's a city that since birth has regularly cannibalized itself.

What's strange in my experience, as a born-and-bred New Yorker, is that when storefronts are emptied now, they aren't quickly repopulated.

Broadway in daylight seems increasingly like an archaeological dig in the making. Those storefronts with their fading decals ("Zagat rated") and their old signs look for all the world like teeth knocked out of a mouth. In a city in which everything normally is aglow at any hour, these dead commercial spaces feel like so many tiny black holes. Get on the wrong set of streets -- Broadway's hardly the worst -- and New York can easily seem like a creeping vision of Hell, not as fire but as darkness slowly snuffing out the blaze of life.

In my neighborhood, at least so far, the banks, the fast-food restaurants and the chain drugstores still stand. It's the small places that seem to be dropping like flies.

Near the corner of 97th Street sits the shell of Alpine Sound Electronics, where I used to buy cheap, waterproof watches for my daily swim at the Y. An emphatic "sale, sale, sale, sale, sale" sign over the door commemorates the store's final moments.

Reminders of more prosperous times are everywhere. A canopy advertising "Moroccan & Indian Home Decoratives ... Aromatherapy ... Exotic Gifts" remains above one empty store. A hand-lettered sign on the door of another reads, "Fedex Please Knock Hard," and a tiny "Zagat Rated 2006 Shopping Guide" decal still adorns the window. On Amsterdam Avenue just east of Broadway, nine of 12 tiny stores on one block are vacant.

Along Broadway, there's a veritable murderer's row of slaughtered neighborhood restaurants. Not surprisingly, even in food-mad New York, people are eating out less often, and our streets, except perhaps on Saturday nights, seem visibly less populated. Near the corner of 91st, Mary Ann's, a festive Tex-Mex spot, bit the dust; just before 90th, the upscale fish restaurant Docks Oyster Bar posted this sign: "Docks thanks you all for your loyal patronage over the years but this restaurant is now closed"; On 77th, Ruby Foo's, a giant pan-Asian joint described by Zagat's as "Disneyfied," has shut up shop too.

New York City is not downtown Elkhart, Ind., not yet anyway. But signs of distress are everywhere. The city's zoos are losing their state funding, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is laying off staff, the unemployment rate is rising fast, property values are sinking, mass-transit riders are facing fare increases as well as major service cuts, and the Greater New York Orchid Society has canceled its annual show.

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