New neighborhood businesses far from Midtown are thriving. Maybe it’s time to redefine what “comeback” means.
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Ginia Bellafante writes the Big City column, a weekly commentary on the politics, culture and life of New York City.
For several weeks now, Mayor Eric Adams has been obsessively pushing a recovery agenda hinged on the return of tens of thousands of workers to offices in Midtown and Lower Manhattan. In his plan, the pandemic would be left more or less to history when the starting bell signaling the return to normalcy rings. But the surreal counterprogramming of the past few days gave us, instead, a Covid-positive mayor addressing a rattled city from quarantine after a gunman opened fire on an N train in Brooklyn during rush hour on Tuesday morning.
In the past month, the weekly average of new Covid cases in New York more than tripled, confirming the sense that every time we decide that the pandemic is behind us, it reasserts its power to obstruct. Earlier this week, four Broadway productions were forced to cancel performances, for example.
The Adams administration has centered its revival messaging on the need for bigger crowds in central business districts, which in turn support restaurants, halal trucks, coffee shops and other outfits — enterprises that will disappear in the absence of sustained patronage.
The plea is meant to appeal to the conscience of a creative class that, unlike the financial or real-estate sectors, has not fully embraced returning to offices and hates chains the way fish hate dry land, valuing small, idiosyncratic businesses as a matter of personal identity.
What does Midtown have to offer, then? Unable to afford rent in the East 50s, the baker turning out hibiscus doughnuts has established her operation miles away, where people are still beaming into Zoom meetings as if it were Easter week 2020. The young advertising copywriter comfortably situated at his stand-up desk in his East Village apartment is being asked to come back uptown for the romance of an $18 salad at Sweetgreen.
Even if he and his comrades were enticed by such proposition, a very robust return to office in Midtown will never replicate the world as it was, simply because hybrid work will endure, and density cannot revert to five-day-a-week prepandemic levels. A more balanced approach to recovery would focus equally on development in residential communities where people working at home leave their apartments for lunch or a haircut or a birthday cake or a bag of kibble.
One of the very few bright spots over the past two years has been a renewed vibrancy in neighborhoods that had been plagued by empty storefronts before the pandemic and where some landlords were now more responsive to changing economic dynamics that allowed them to look beyond a tenant pool of banks and drugstores.
According to the mayor’s office, the number of new businesses that opened in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Fort Greene and Crown Heights surged between the peak of the pandemic and the first quarter of last year. And according to Regina Myer, president of Downtown Brooklyn’s business improvement district, the emphasis on minority entrepreneurship is really visible.
Brooklyn Heights has had a couple of restaurants open to great success as well as a French market; a bakery and Korean chicken place are due shortly. In Queens — specifically in Astoria, Jackson Heights and Flushing — more than 700 new businesses got going during the first year of the pandemic, in itself remarkable. Should this sort of progress be sidelined to accommodate static views of urban configuration that cater to transient office workers and largely drain commercial areas of vitality during the weekends?
Over a period in February and March, a survey of nearly 9,500 private-sector employees, commissioned by the Partnership for New York City, a consortium of business interests, asked what might be done to contribute to the city’s renaissance. Some respondents pointed precisely to the ways in which remote work enriched the places where people live. “Recognize that non-Manhattan neighborhoods have actually benefited and stop centering the recovery on return to office,” as one worker put it.
“The way I think about it, we have had a Manhattan-centric economy for a long time,” Kathryn Wylde, the president and chief executive of the Partnership, told me. “In the past seven or eight years, we’ve seen more jobs created in Brooklyn and Queens than in Manhattan. We’ve seen the beginning of a shift. But we haven’t shifted our planning and policies.” She pointed to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s resurrection of the idea for a 14-mile transit line connecting Jackson Heights, in Queens, and Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, as an example of the sort of thinking that will be required for a more geographically diffuse economy.
Ideally, more jobs would be created outside of traditional corridors, and housing and ancillary businesses would follow. Recently Maria Torres-Springer, the deputy mayor for economic and workforce development, explained the significance of several new Metro North stops added in the Bronx, near medical institutions like Montefiore, which she envisioned attracting health care start-ups nearby.
“We’ve been thinking about that area as a great opportunity to leverage those investments in transportation to make sure there’s more economic activity,” she told me.
The survey conducted by the Partnership for New York City also revealed persistent worries about crime and disorder, particularly in the transit system. This, above all else, may be the biggest hindrance to getting people back into office buildings. In addition to the troubling events of this week, which included two teenagers stabbed in different subway stations, the first months of the year witnessed the death of Michelle Go, pushed from a platform in Times Square; the assault of a scientist by hammer, a few minutes after she left work; and the attack of a woman at a Bronx subway station who was struck in the face with human waste.
Whether subway crime is truly rampant or whether it is simply perceived to be, the fact remains that it presents a significant obstacle to convincing New Yorkers to spend dozens of hours a week in a patch of central Manhattan oversaturated with things they do not necessarily want at prices they rarely find reasonable. The cold brew turns out to be just as good at home.