I have been traveling quite a bit these days and have not been able to spend much time on my beloved 125th Street. You can imagine my shock when I walked across town and discovered the “new 125th Street.” I was absolutely astonished at the sheer number of national chain stores on 125th. Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic, Applebee’s, Nine West, MAC, Popeyes, Children’s Place, Bath and Body Works, Marshalls, Party City and the list goes on.
Not one of these stores are locally owned. Of course, Harlem residents deserve to have stores that provide clothes, coffee, food and a host of other goods. However, I wonder what the long-term costs will be for the neighborhood and the community if, slowly but surely, many of the locally owned businesses disappear.
Most people are well aware of the skyrocketing real estate and rent prices in New York City. The appearance of many of these big box stores is a byproduct of local businesses losing their shops because of an inability to afford the rent for their respective stores. In these somewhat tight economic times, most families are looking for low prices and convenience when shopping. No one can fault shoppers for that. And many of the large chains provide lower priced goods, consistent product lines and deep discounts on a myriad of goods. However, there is a hidden cost. The good deals and convenience are slowly eroding the profit margins of the local businessman and businesswoman.
I don’t want to idealize the good old days, when people had a butcher, a baker, a cobbler and the like. However, some of the community feelings seem to be dissipating with the entree of big box stores owned by multibillion-dollar corporations. Currently, 116th Street has yet to experience the same influx of multinational corporations, but I wonder just how long that will last.
I don’t want to see local businesses, especially minority-owned businesses that have been in the neighborhood for generations, squeezed out of the market place solely because of raised rent prices and decreased customer sales. Some may argue that the tidal wave of big businesses has already begun and there is nothing we can do to stop it. That pessimistic view may very well be the reality, but what can we do to slow the tide? I believe the answer can be found in supporting local businesses whenever and wherever we can. I may pay a few cents extra here and there, but I am contributing to strengthening the Harlem community, and I am doing my part to make sure my dollars stay in Harlem. It may take a little more effort on our part, but if we want to keep some of the unique flavor that is 125th (or 116th) Street, we must not let Harlem begin to look like another suburban strip mall.
Christina Greer, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Fordham University and the author of “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream.” Follow her on Twitter @Dr_CMGreer.