Williamsburg

In Williamsburg, trickle of chain stores gives way to a flood

September 30, 2014 By Matthew Taub Special to the Eagle from Brooklyn Brief
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The lettering was subtle, the colors muted and soft.

J. Crew’s signage on its new Wythe Avenue storefront, like the run-up to its opening over the weekend, involved careful steps to avoid too much attention or any ostentatious displays.

The clothing store has been “collaborating with local artisans and community members, in the hopes that the new store will be embraced by its neighbors, rather than shunned,” reported Brooklyn Magazine. The publication’s interview with J.Crew’s executive creative director, Jenna Lyons, praised the store’s opening, but other critics were not as kind. Gothamist lampooned it as “an addition that furthers the Connecticutification of the neighborhood once beloved by artists,” while Brokelyn found the company’s whole public relations campaign to be “beyond parody.”

“It was going to happen eventually. I’m just surprised at the speed at which it’s happening,” said Russell, who refused his last name but looked over the new location from the second floor balcony entrance of Brooklyn Oenology across the street.

Indeed, American Apparel and Urban Outfitters are already lined side-by-side just around the corner. Whole Foods and Apple have both considered a location on Bedford Avenue where Kings Pharmacy was recently shuttered, overrun by its landlord’s desire to renovate.  

“In London, we had the Shoreditch neighborhood, which took at least 10 years to change over,” Russell added. “It seems to go faster and faster now.”

Hesitant about revealing his identity, Russell said he “had a store on North Third Street,” where a recent $100 million real estate deal may put several independent businesses in jeopardy.

“Everyone worries that, when our leases are up, we’re all out,” he said.

Jeremiah Moss, who runs the website Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, agreed.

“Soon there will be no New York left in New York,” he wrote in a recent editorial that ran in the Daily News. “The city is becoming, for the first time in its long and illustrious history of exceptionalism, just another Anywhere, U.S.A.” 

Moss is advocating for re-zoning that favors “mom and pop” businesses instead of big chains, passage of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act to prevent “insane rent hikes,” fining landlords who leave storefronts vacant while they wait for pricey chains and ending million-dollar tax breaks given away to corporate monoliths.

But tenants like Russell had a more fatalistic outlook.

“I know people who have been here long enough; they complained when Kings Pharmacy opened because it forced out an even smaller retailer,” he said. “There’s always people with lots of viewpoints, but that doesn’t mean they’re right, or that everything should stay.”

Are chains really so bad? Proponents of them point to the fact that they often have a level of reliability and cost competitiveness that makes them attractive, and for which they should not be punished on the free market. Longer hours of operation, clearer codes of conduct for staff (with stricter punishment of sexual harassment or other misconduct), and dependable payments to employees are some of the benefits cited.

Opponents, however, claim that in addition to a corporate culture that stomps out diversity in taste, chains rarely reinvest in their communities as much as local business owners, and are only cost competitive because they’re often the recipients of corporate welfare (with cut throat wages forcing workers to rely on public assistance), along with erratic work schedules that seek to keep employees just below insurance and overtime requirements.

But the verdict can also be a mixed one. Costco, emblematic of “big box” chains, reports some of the highest retail wages and employee satisfaction levels. Smaller businesses, meanwhile, are occasionally the location for hostile work environments. And, of course, small independent stores often prosper into the larger loathsome chains, while even giants like McDonald’s may not survive the millennial generation.

“What bothers me is that the people who made this place cool and desirable get priced out, but they have nothing to show for it,” Russell said.

 


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