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Tom Engelhardt: Economic Dirty Bomb Goes Off in New York

March 22, 2009

Tom Engelhardt

A block from my apartment, on a still largely mom-and-pop, relatively low-slung stretch of Broadway, two spanking new apartment towers rose just as the good times were ending for New York. As I pass the tower on the west side of Broadway each morning, one of its massive ground-floor windows displays the same eternal message 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 any potential renter 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 as 2007 ended and yet, were you to peer through a window into the gloom beyond, you would make out only a cavernous space of concrete, pillars, and pipes. All those “square feet” and not the slightest evidence that any business is moving in any time soon. Across Broadway, the same thing is true of the other tower.

That once hopeful paean to an “expanding” and “affluent” neighborhood now seems like a notice from a lost era. Those signs, already oddly forlorn only months after our world began its full-scale economic meltdown, now seem like messages in a bottle floating in from BC: Before the Collapse.

And it’s not just new buildings having problems either, judging by the increasing number of metal grills and shutters over storefronts in mid-day, all that brown butcher paper covering the insides of windows, or those omnipresent “for rent” and “for lease” signs hawking “retail space” with the names, phone numbers, and websites of real estate agents.

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 only three blocks from home. I had shopped there regularly until a new owner came in some years ago, and then the habit slowly died. 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, the shop’s insides had been gutted.

Taken aback, I made my way home and said to my wife, “Did you know that Oppenheimer’s closed down?” She replied matter-of-factly, “That was months ago.”

Okay, 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 going down, or buildings going up. It’s a city that, since birth, has regularly cannibalized itself.

What’s strange in my experience — a New Yorker born and bred — is when storefronts, once emptied, aren’t quickly repopulated.

Broadway in daylight now seems increasingly like an archeological 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 a section of Broadway was once known as the Great White Way for its profligate use of electricity, and 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…

Read more at TOMDISPATCH.COM

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the American Age of Denial. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site and an alternative history of the mad Bush years.

Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt

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