nothing stays the same, a/k/a the gentrification issue in Chelsea + Lower East Side

car repair shop edition
Oh the serendipity of juxtaposition!

If you looked at The Real Deal this morning (which is still in full spasm mode over the 100th edition celebrations) you’d have seen two items just 5 posts apart dealing with car service locations and future development, both of which hit some bells about how Manhattan loft neighborhoods typically develop. One is framed as a lament that a 3rd generation auto body shop is being “forced out” by the surge in development around Chelsea’s High line (i.e., by “High Line hype”). The other reads as a changing of the (ethnic) guard story as an auto repair shop is sold to condo developers.

What both stories have in common (besides auto shops) is the theme of change … as in nothing stays the same. Including, in some cases, that ‘good’ things in a neighborhood sometimes are replaced by ‘other’ things. This is a common theme for Manhattan loft neighborhoods especially, so I would likely have been interested in either story. But the combination of the two, and their proximity on the front page of TRD this morning, made them even more neon.

emotion and irony
Before getting to the metaphysics of Manhattan loft neighborhoods let me note the portrayal of emotion in the two original source articles. In both, the auto shop proprietors regret moving. On West 29th Street the guy nods to history, then threatens war in the New York Post rendition, indicating (shall we say) that he fails to see the value in a certain much-publicized twisty park:

"My grandfather started the business in 1920, horse-and-buggy time. There were no cars. He was doing the leaf springs on carriages. And now they want me out? Please."

"I’m going to fight this until the judge’s gavel slams down and says I have to vacate the premises.

"I want to leave with head held high, not pushed out by the city, not pushed out by the landlord, not being thrown out because of a stupid park."

And there is the requisite quote from the requisite neighbor about what-a-shame-it-is-that-the-guy-has-to-leave:

Local flower-shop owner Maryann Finegan, who gets her five delivery trucks serviced at Brownfeld’s, said she would be devastated if the auto-shop owner was forced to leave.

"This neighborhood wants to homogenize everything into a Yuppieville," she lamented.

Meanwhile, on Delancey Street the departing car repair shop owners have more mixed emotions, as reported in a wonderful blog post with a horrible headline from The Lo-Down:

“I’m really heartbroken about it, but I don’t know who feels worse, me or my dad,” said the younger Marano, who started working in his father’s shop as a boy of six. “In the end, it was a smart business decision.”

It won’t help the guy on West 29th Street to blame his grandfather, or his dad, but he’s been a tenant that entire time. Though not many businesses survive in any single location for the 90+ years they have been there, there is no comfort in that when they are forced out. But the guys on Delancey Street (only there since 1954) show the only way for a business to attempt to control its fate:

Public land records show that the Marano family bought out their former landlord and took over ownership of 210 Delancey in 1979. They subsequently purchased four adjacent properties from the city government at public auction in three separate transactions between 1983 and 1999, at very modest prices. The family paid $81,000 for 49 Pitt St., $21,500 for 51 Pitt St., and $152,000 for 206 and 208 Delancey, combined—a total of $254,500, according to public records.

There is no price given for the 1979 purchase of the car repair lot at 210 Delancey Street, but one assumes it was a small fraction of the quarter of a million for the 4 lots separetely purcahsed as late as 1999. Those purchases were in real money for a small business at the time they were made, but the family was smart enough (and flush enough) to buy their future. In the end, they had the choice to keep the business going (without being able to expand, due to zoning) or to cash out. As the younger Marano said, “In the end, it was a smart business decision.”

The business presumably supported the family for nearly 60 years, then they turned something more than a quarter of a million in purchases from 1979 to 1999 into $8.4mm in 2011. Bittersweet, but they paid to have a choice, and they chose to cash out and leave.

The colorful and quotable guy on West 29th Street did not have that choice, because no one thought to buy the building since 1920. Unfortunately, he neither has the means nor the opportunity now:

"I have a small shop, I barely make the rent," said the mechanic. "But you know what? . . . I do want to keep my family legacy going."

The Market does what The Market does
Note that in neither case is The Government forcing the auto shop to move, that in each case it is the landlord calling the shots.

Personally, I love neighborhoods with a mix of residential, retail and industrial, which is why I bought lofts in Tribeca in 1980 and a nabe-with-no-name in the West 20s in 1993. (That, and the fact that gritty neighborhoods are cheaper than polished areas.) I am by no means averse to grit, let alone character (and the West 29th Street guy seems like one gritty character). But I am agnostic about change, except in the sense that it always happens, whether I like the particular change or not.

This is all especially true in Manhattan, which has been about money to a unique degree since the Dutch arrived, if not the Lenape. Government has a role to play with zoning (mostly) but changing uses always put pressure on existing uses. That was true of the butter-and-egg guy in Tribeca who one day in the 1990s realized his big trucks were no longer safe in a nabe filled with strollers (see my March 12, 2010, Quote For The Day, 2000 edition), just as it was true of the food businesses with big (noisy) trucks in Williamsburg more recently (see my June 25, 2010, loft law extension / what’s the big deal? UPDATED w maps).

This happens in different ways and on a longer time frame in areas that have been exclusively residential for a long time, as well. Think of the changes in Central Harlem from a mostly Jewish mostly upper middle class area circa (1910?), to a mostly African-American mostly upper middle class, to a much more mixed economic base, to (in recent years) a much more ethnically mixed population. Even in such neighborhoods, and even with owners, each generation of owners is temporary, giving way to the next, which may be different.

Think of grandpa on West 29th Street who opened a shop to service horse-drawn carriages. Chances are that in those days the neighborhood was dominated by trades servicing the nearby docks (including flophouses, taverns and whore houses) and that few people lived nearby. More recently, there was the nightclub + ecstasy phase. Now the High Line means residential development creeping north and west.

Or take the Lower East Side location of the other auto repair shop. When grandpa opened his carriage repair shop on West 29th Street, Delancey Street was a center of a mostly Jewish (mostly German?) immigrant population of scant financial means. Here is what is near the intersection of Delancey and Pitt Streets now:

The condo owners’ future neighbors include a real cross-section of the Lower East Side. The Samuel Gompers Houses public housing complex occupies a 4-acre swath directly across Pitt Street, from Delancey to Rivington. A few doors north, a local resident plans Manhattan’s first fully sustainable single-family home at 61 Pitt St. At 85 Pitt St., a drug-related shooting claimed the life of a 23-year-old Brooklyn man in June.

Next door, directly to the west at 78 Ridge St. on the corner of Delancey, is the River Ridge condo building, which replaced a former poultry slaughterhouse in 2007, taking a variety of grief about its bridge-side location and slow sales. To the north, at 53 Pitt St., is a seven-story residential building that’s home to ground-level stores and upstairs apartments.

Have I beaten this car horse to death yet? Nothing stays the same. To have the maximum choice, don’t rent someone else’s property. Drink a lot of water. Wear a hat in the sun.

All change is not evil. But fighting change in usage in Manhattan is like Canute at the beach. I seem to have written more about gentrification in 2010 than in other years, for some reason. I will end on this one: May 15, 2010, required reading: gentrification, preservation and King Canute (with some terrific links).

Have a great holiday weekend! (Where did summer go??)

© Sandy Mattingly 2011

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