A photo series reveals the loss of small businesses throughout the metropolis in the past 10 years.
You can’t move forward without taking stock of the past. That’s how New York City has created its signature mixture of progress and historical preservation, continually putting its best foot forward – all the better to remain a competitor in the global scene – but not without an eye toward the loss that both people and neighborhoods have endured in the churn of storefronts and living spaces. Photographers James and Karla Murray prophetically decided ten years ago to focus their eye on mom-and-pop stores, and recently they followed up by photographing those spaces again. The results are dismal for those favoring a varied streetscape, with all its attendant tourism and economic benefits: chain stores like Chase Bank and Duane Reade have replaced many of the spots that caught the photographers’ attention years ago.
Many landmarks that reflected the cultural and ethnic history of New York’s once immigrant-rich neighborhoods have vanished in the past 10 years. In part, their shrinking clientele reflected the movement of immigrant communities to more peripheral parts of the city, and even the absorption of those communities into mainstream American society. The 2nd Avenue Deli is one such loss; the Jewish delicatessen, which occupied its space from 1954 to 2006, was a historically rich yet unpretentious gathering place for the Jewish immigrant communities of the Lower East Side that have since disappeared. It’s hard to argue that an oversized Chase Bank branch contributes to the community in the same way at all.
One of the most bitterly controversial changes in Lower Manhattan occurred when the famous punk club CBGB closed its doors after 33 years. The space was taken over by fashion retailer John Varvatos, which has made some attempts to pay homage to the hallowed space with a record store and in-store concerts. However, John Varvatos is a luxury brand, and ultimately this symbolic interest hasn’t in any way replaced CBGB. It’s just become a symbol of how the values of the area have changed.
The large size of certain new storefronts also jumps out at the viewer in some of the images. It reduces the variety of businesses on a given block, which is something that New Yorkers seem to value, and it often drives up rents. It’s probably not a stretch to say that you could buy an entire meal at the vegetable garden and Joe’s Pizza (which was featured in Spider-Man 2) for the same price as a single scoop of gelato at the cavernous Grom location that is now in their place.
Though New Yorkers have focused on the photos’ content in many an internet comment section, the Murrays’ work is understated but makes a big point. It captures the passage of time in a way that our present desires and curiosity about our surroundings, satisfiable by Google Maps, cannot. Though not every independent storefront replaced was a gem of an establishment, they represented a livelihood for an earlier but entrepreneurial generation of New Yorkers and created something they didn’t realize they enjoyed until it was gone.