Investment in the Built Environment — Prologue

I posted a version of this in the afternoon of February 22, but a few hours later I reverted it to Draft status. It was just a series of mostly-disconnected, extended quotations, and I don’t want my posts to be just a series of mostly-disconnected, extended quotations. They need to be able to stand on their own.

This is where my whole blogging problem starts to manifest itself. On the one hand, I want the blog to be focussed and informative. At the same time, I’d like to be able to just post longer-than-Tweet pieces on things I’m interested in — books I’m reading, or the fact that I’m listening to James Irsay sitting in for Chris Whent on Here of a Sunday Morning, analyzing Chopin etudes — without them being particularly informative.

Also, because I now have five followers (!), I feel that I owe them something. The problem is, I don’t know what exactly.

I had the same problem years ago, before the innernet. A friend of mine and I wanted to put together a literary magazine. Not like Paris Review, but fiction and poetry that we and our friends wrote, but I didn’t know how to approach it. On the one hand, I wanted it to be serious, so I wanted it to look nice. Of course, a serious literary magazine that looks nice is like the Paris Review, and is expensive to produce and distribute. These things are usually the pet projects of the idle rich. The other idea was to put together something more along the lines of Ray Gun, or any number of local mimeographed booklets circulating in the neighborhood. I really didn’t like this idea though. I hated Ray Gun’s typography. However, the benefit of this method was that it didn’t have to look “nice,” and it would be easy to reproduce and distribute because I could run them off on the copier at work and we could put them on the consignment shelf at St. Mark’s Books, and distribute them by hand.

The result was that we collected enough to put out our first edition, but it never happened because I couldn’t decide what it should look like. In retrospect, we should have gone with the low-fi version. Work with what you’ve got.

End of Prologue.

Neil Smith Walking Tour

I was just about to post the next in my gentrification series when… Take a look at this! It was retweeted by David Harvey. I got it at 2:27pm:

(I don’t know how to explain what happened. The time I got this was 2:27pm. The walking tour began at 2:30pm. Now, however, when I embed the tweet, the time shows as 2:45pm.)

I replied: “When? Today? In three minutes?” Right away, though, I deleted it. I thought “David Harvey isn’t responsible for this tour. And he doesn’t even know me!”

So I went to the source tweet, and responded to them something like: “You really need to give people more notice of these things.” Then I thought “Maybe they did. I don’t follow them, I follow David Harvey,” so I deleted that one too.

Apparently, Neil Smith led walking tours in New York. I never knew this. I’m really surprised I never knew this. In all the years I’ve lived in New York, this is the kind of thing I would know. Maybe they were CUNY-Grad events? I don’t know. I’m sorry I missed these though.

Fine Fare

Fine Fare is a supermarket at the end of my block. I’ve never liked this store, for many reasons, some of which are: 1) they used to make you check your bag when you went in; 2) they used to make you pay for your deli purchases at the deli counter, instead of at the register; 3) the baggers used to shake you down for tips, especially this one woman who was not quite well and would chase you out of the store if you didn’t tip her. The workers there are not unionized, the way they are at Key Food and Associated. It always seemed to me that they should organize and demand more money from the owners rather than from the customers.

Well, I say “used to” because now things are changing. I wish I had a photo of the entrance before the new gates and awning were put in a couple of weeks ago. The previous gates were set up to deter shopping-cart theft, and you could barely fit through the opening. That by itself made it undesirable to enter, in a feng shui sort of way. Now you can see that they’ve opened it up quite a bit.

finefare-entrance1

finefare-entrance2

Take a look at photo above. Where that man is standing there used to be shelves. I don’t even remember what was there, but it limited the entrance-way only slightly less than the gates you would have just passed through. And there stood one of the employees, who would ask for your bag, and give you half a playing card as your receipt. I’ve lived on this block for over ten years, and after the first time I went in and refused to turn over my bag and was told I couldn’t come in, I never went back (with my bag) again. I was so annoyed by it that I would go to Key Food, until Associated opened on 8th Street, even though both were more expensive. This past year, I decided I was just going to refuse to give my bag to them and see what happened. Twice they asked for it and twice I declined (politely, of course), and both times they let me in. They were already softening!

Well now that’s all over. Where the people’s bags used to be stashed are now shelves with… food!

I saw the owner (manager?) and told him I really liked the changes. He was quite proud of it himself, and gave me a brief tour, showing me where the new refrigerator units would go, and where the new five-level shelves would go, replacing the existing, two-level shelves, and told me they were putting in new floors too, although that would be the last thing they do, since he didn’t want them to be ruined by all the materials coming in. The whole project should be completed by March, he said.

I tell you, I’m quite pleased by this. I’ve bought plenty of stuff from Fine Fare over the years (it’s only when I had my bag that I wouldn’t go in) but I’ll be glad to do all my grocery shopping there in the future. We might not even have to go to Fairway any more!

Fine Fare, like no other fare!

Response to The Villager

For some reason, the moderator of the comments section of thevillager.com saw fit to exclude my response to Clayton Patterson’s most recent article, Let’s get back to our roots: We need new leaders. It wasn’t long, or offensive, so I don’t know why they censored it, unless they just can’t brook any disagreement with Mr. Patterson.

This is what I wrote (as best as I can recall):

Mr. Patterson puts the cart before the horse. Leaders come out of the people. It used to be that the people of this neighborhood were communists, socialists, even anarchists. Today they are mostly liberals. Liberals don’t care about the poor.* They care more about which stores open in the neighborhood than they do about the condition of the people who work in those stores.

And if artists need to live in slums to be creative, there’s no shortage of those in the world. “The breeding places of disease, the infamous holes and cellars in which the capitalist mode of production confines our workers night after night, are not abolished; they are merely shifted elsewhere! The same economic necessity which produced them in the first place, produces them in the next place also.” (F. Engels, The Housing Question.)

*I bet this is where they balked!

So that’s what I wrote, but since I’m posting this on Quilas, I will expand it a bit.

I don’t know why it is that people isolate the experiences of artists when talking about this neighborhood. (Well, yes I do, but they shouldn’t do it.) The movement of artists into this area occurred during a specific period of time — post-WW2. Artists were not immigrants; they played a significant role in gentrifying this neighborhood. I wrote briefly about this in my post Artists Made This Neighborhood?

I’m not hostile to artists, but their plight was the plight of thousands more who had no other options, the way the artists did, to live elsewhere. Today, artists are seen as the victims of gentrification when, in the main, they were the tools of gentrification.

The Local Economy?

There was another bodega walk this past Saturday.

no711-bodega-walk-0216

By the looks of their photos though, it wasn’t well attended.

Here is a flyer they typed up. I’m only going to address a few of their claims.

why-no-711-flier

(I left in the line about the free market because it’s funny. East Villagers, Unite! Defend the Free Market!)

It makes no sense to describe the East Village as having its own economy. There is no East Village industry, there are no East Village exports. Bodegas do not create a net inflow of capital (i.e., money is not coming into the East Village because of bodegas). The people of this area do not depend on the bodegas for their livelihood. If this were Pittsburgh and the steel mills were closing, it would be a different story. Rather than complain about which stores are opening, it would be better to limit the number and locations of all stores. Rather than view the area as an enterprise zone, it should be viewed as a neighborhood.

Whenever the phrase “the economy” is used, what is meant is profits — and in this case, it’s not even gross profits, it’s the Owner Class’s share of those profits. If one 7‑Eleven displaces one bodega, the net effect is zero, all else being equal. The revenue that went to the bodega now goes to the 7‑Eleven. If that was $10,000/month, it stays $10,000/month. The difference exists in how much of this remains with the owner. The bodega owner would have kept the entire $10,000, but the 7‑Eleven owner must send 50% of it to the corporate office, so he keeps only $5,000. So some of the profits do leave the area. But they don’t consider the effect on a particular owner, since the owner’s salary might be an increase for him. They only consider the effect to the Owner Class: Owner A receives $10,000, Owner B receives $5,000, net effect to Owner Class: -$5,000.

Now we need to look at the number of people working at each location. For my calculations, I use the likely-minimum number of workers. (My research indicates a minimum of two workers per bodega. According to Entrepreneur.com, the number of employees needed to run a 7‑Eleven is seven to ten.)

Bodega 7-Eleven
Profits/mo: $10,000 **$5,000
Wages/mo. – 2 empl.* 2,320
Wages/mo. – 7 empl.* 8,120
_____ _____
Total Income $12,320 $13,120
*$7.25/hr x 40 hrs
**1/2 goes to corporate hq
.

So with sales held constant, and the minimum number of workers employed, a 7‑Eleven raises the income of the neighborhood.

Equally ludicrous is the claim that 7‑Eleven has an unfair advantage over local businesses by being exempt from the >16-ounce soda ban. The only businesses in the neighborhood affected by the “soda ban” are restaurants and movie theaters, neither of which compete with 7‑Eleven. Mind you, Slurpees® are probably disgusting (I’ve never had one), and I don’t encourage anyone to drink them, and they should be regulated by the ban, but they do not give the 7‑Eleven an unfair advantage.

As far as homogenizing the neighborhood? That happened a long time ago.

A Return From The Suburbs?

In Philadelphia and elsewhere an “urban renaissance” of sorts may well have begun in the 1950s and 1960s, but it was not fueled by any significant return of the middle class from the suburbs. Even at the height of the 1980s gentrification, suburban expansion proceeded apace. This would seem to cast doubt on the traditional cultural and economic explanations of gentrification as the result of altered consumer choices amid economic constraints.

If a dimension of consumer choice certainly remains, consumer sovereignty is more difficult to defend as a definitive explanation for gentrification. The problem is that gentrification is not simply a North American phenomenon but also emerged in the 1950s and 1960s in Europe and Australia, where the extent and experience of prior middle-class (an indeed working-class) suburbanization and the relation between suburb and inner city are substantially different.

If cultural choice and consumer preference really explain gentrification, this amounts either to the hypothesis that individual preferences change in unison not only nationally but internationally — a bleak view of human nature and cultural individuality — or that the overriding constraints are strong enough to obliterate the individuality implied in consumer preference. If the latter is the case, the concept of consumer preference is at best contradictory: a process first conceived in terms of individual consumption preference has now to be explained as resulting from cultural unidimensionality in the middle class — still rather bleak.

[T]he gentrifier as consumer is only one of many actors participating in the process. To explain gentrification according to the gentrifier’s preferences alone, while ignoring the role of builders, developers, landlords, mortgage lenders, government agencies, real estate agents — gentrifiers as producers — is excessively narrow. A broader theory of gentrification must take the role of the producers as well as the consumers into account, and when this is done it appears that the needs of production — in particular the need to earn profit — are a more decisive initiative behind gentrification than consumer preference. … [T]he relationship between production and consumption is symbiotic, but it is a symbiosis in which the movement of capital in search of profit predominates.

Consumer sovereignty explanations have taken for granted the availability of areas ripe for gentrification when this was precisely what had to be explained.

Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier (London/New York: Routledge, 1996) 55-57.

Back To Work

I wound up writing about the No 7-Eleven effort in the “East Village” a lot more than I had intended. After first reading about it on EV Grieve, there was something about it that just didn’t sit right with me, and I wanted to flesh out what that was. I tried to summarize it — I wound up posting a piece that was just notes I was working with, and another sniping at their opposition to the city’s ban on >16-ounce sodas in restaurants/movie theaters/etc. It wasn’t until I visited the bodegas myself that it all came together.

Now that I’m done with that, I can go back to writing about my main focus of concern these days: gentrification.

If you’ve been following this, you will know that I’ve been reading Neil Smith’s book The New Urban Frontier. My next few posts will come from Chapter 3: Local Arguments, which is really the crux of the book, if you ask me. Here is where Smith challenges the traditional consumer-sovereignty assumptions expressed by the “back to the city” nomenclature, examines the importance of capital investment in shaping/re-shaping the urban landscape, analyses disinvestment (a widely-ignored determinant of urban change), and discusses the “rent gap.”

So, stay tuned!

The Bodega Walk or: Unintended Consequences

You may remember from such posts as No 7-Eleven on Avenue A that I was was unable to attend the Bodega Walk held February 2, so I decided I would visit the bodegas myself. I did that this weekend. I can’t say that I discovered anything to challenge the assumptions I wrote about earlier, but I did discover one thing, one unintended consequence of the bodega walks, which I’ll address at the end of this post.

I put together a list of questions that I would ask the owners and the the employes, respectively. When I first thought about doing this, I had in mind to speak to the employees as well as the owners, but then I realized that no employee would be able to speak freely with the owner present — this is true regardless of the job — so I abandoned that idea. I decided to ask the owners the Employee questions. It wasn’t as if they wouldn’t know the answers, after all.

These are the questions I prepared:

To owners:
Do you own this building?
How much do you pay in rent?
Do you live in this neighborhood?
How many people work for you?
Are you worried about 7-Eleven moving into the space on Avenue A and 11th?
What do you think the greatest impact will be on your business?
What are your best-selling items?

To employees:
Are you paid at least minimum wage?
Are you paid in cash or by check?
Do you get paid sick days? Vacation days?
Are you paid time-and-a-half for overtime?

In all of these bodegas, I met only one owner. It seems that, while Sunday afternoon was a good time for me to venture out, it’s not the time when most owners are on the premises. I asked him the Owner questions above: he does not own the building; he declined to answer the rent question; he lives in the neighborhood; he employs three people; he thinks the 7-Eleven “on the corner” will have a big impact on his business. Since he specified the corner, I asked if another bodega opening on the corner would have the same impact, or was it because it was a 7-Eleven that the impact would be negative? He wasn’t sure. He thinks the greatest impact on his business will be that 7-Eleven has cheaper products. “I have Boar’s Head,”(1) he said. He didn’t know what his best selling items were: “Sandwiches, Cheerios…”.

Then I asked him the Employee questions. I have to say that none of his answers were convincing. Are your employees related? A shrug of the shoulders and a hesitant Yeah. Maybe he thought I meant related to each other? Do you pay your employees at least minimum wage? An equivocating Yes. (It may be that he was caught off-guard by the question and had to quickly think of the ramifications of answering it, but it left me wondering.) Are they paid in cash or by check? Cash. Do they receive paid sick/vacation days? Puckering his lips and raising his shoulders, Yeah. Really? Yeah. The way he responded, I thought that maybe he didn’t understand the question. I thanked him for his time, and set out for the other stores.

At none of the other stores was the owner present. At one, I spoke with a Manager. He said he couldn’t answer the Owner questions, but for Employees he answered: minimum wage, paid in cash, no sick days. In another place, an employee answered all of my Employee questions without hesitation, but told me: You know, 7-Eleven employees don’t have paid sick days either. Only when you have a union do you get those things. At another, one of the employees became very agitated when I asked my questions. He complained about people coming into the store — seven people in the past week, according to him — asking all of these questions about 7-Eleven. He said he was not the owner nor the manager, but told the other employee not to answer any of my questions, and told me I should leave.

This is where the unintended consequences come in. Many bodegas employ undocumented workers. With all of the attention being focussed on them — with the tours and the follow-up visits — I suspect many of these workers go home at night fearful they will lose their jobs, or be deported. Maybe it’s unlikely, but they don’t know who all of these people are, coming in all of a sudden, asking questions. It’s not my intention to expose undocumented workers, but to point out that focussing attention on these bodegas might end up hurting the people most vulnerable. I’m not sure what the No 7-Eleven people hope to achieve with their bodega walks, but if nothing else, they should know that they are affecting the workers in ways they may not have considered. It may be that they don’t care, given some of the comments I’ve seen in other blogs on this topic, and the fact that the leaders of this effort are small-business owners themselves. But if they don’t, it’s something the people in the neighborhood should care about.

If 7-Eleven is to be compared unfavorably to them, then we need to take a broader look at bodegas. All of the workers in the stores I visited are paid in cash. That means that not only are the owners not paying into Social Security, but no unemployment is paid either, so that when employees lose their jobs, they can’t claim unemployment benefits. They won’t even be able to prove they worked. I didn’t get to ask anyone if they were paid time-and-a-half for overtime, but I wouldn’t bet on it. 7-Eleven employees do not get paid sick days, no paid health insurance, and have no prospect for advancement.(2) The thing that puts them in a better position is that they work for a company with a visible profile, and have the chance to organize, the way Starbuck’s and Walmart employees have been.

The situation for workers is bad everywhere. To the degree that the people opposing 7-Eleven are apathetic to the conditions of the people who work in the bodegas, or at 7-Eleven, I cannot bring myself to support their effort.

=-=-=-=-=

(1) Boar’s Head negotiates deals with retailers that in some cases make its meats the only premium brand in the store.
(2)
rocunited-7-eleven
Chart by Restaurant Opportunities Center United.

Young People

This post is a diversion from working on my bodega-walk post.

I don’t know if this is the right title: Young People. What I’m about to describe is something young people do, but I don’t know if it’s an essential characteristic. Maybe a better title would be: Young People With Day Jobs Who Live In New York City And Take The Subway To Work. The reason I’m satisfied removing everything after “Young People” from the longer title is that of all of these possibly-qualifying events, it’s pretty much only young people that do what it is that I’m about to describe. And that thing is:

When young people with day jobs who live in New York City and take the subway to work go onto the subway platform, and they see that there are a lot of people already waiting — or even if there are not a lot of people waiting when they arrive, but the train doesn’t come right away and a lot of people eventually do fill the platform — when the train finally does arrive, and is packed with all of the young people with day jobs from the stations before, they squeeze themselves into the car.

What they will learn, if they stay in New York past the five-year mark,* is that there will be another train directly behind the crowded, lead train, that will be almost empty. If they wait for just another two minutes, they will not only not have to squeeze themselves into the car, but they will be able to sit down! And when they arrive at their destination, the people from the train ahead of them will still be filing out of the station, all the worse for wear.**

=-=-=-=-=

*I heard it said once that most people who move to New York City will leave within five years, and that those who do not will never leave.
**This does not apply to the L train, which is always ridiculously crowded.

NYC’s “Soda Ban” and “No 7-Eleven”

This morning I saw that the No 7-Eleven tweeter tweeted a link to an article in today’s New York Times that explains the “soda ban,” with comment:

Who is it unfair to? Are they saying that deli/bodega owners made their money selling >16-ounce fountain sodas, until the ban? Are they saying 7-Eleven competes with local restaurants and movie theaters? I wonder how much thought they put into their pronouncements?

Health efforts such as the “soda ban,” to be effective, must target the source. Everyone knows this. The profits of producers/retailers cannot be what drives health policy. (Naturally, this includes insurance!)

Since Bloomberg took office, New York has become the first city to require chain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus (prompting a federal law compelling all fast food retailers to do the same), to ban trans fats from restaurant foods, to ban public smoking from most corners of the city, and pushed hospitals to keep baby formula locked up in order to encourage breast-feeding in new mothers.

But then these are primarily shopkeepers — by definition, not a very progressive bunch.

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