Among the construction projects on Broadway between 103rd and 107th Streets, several small neighborhood stores quietly subsist, challenged to keep up with the changing face of the area. But within the past two years, four stores have lost the battle: 104th Street Restaurant, Jo-An, Prima Italia Pizzeria, and the newspaper shop News, Inc., have closed their doors with little warning.
Although many community members look upon this change as an inevitable and positive result of economic growth, some say it will be impossible for the neighborhood's longtime resident mom-and-pop stores to continue to adapt to rising retail prices, and point to the closing of several neighborhood stores as a sign of the decline of the neighborhood. Still others in the area refute these assumptions, attributing the closings instead to poor business management.
In 2002, 104th Street Restaurant closed its doors with a promise that a newly renovated restaurant would open in the near future. Instead, shortly after closing the doors, the owners held an auction to sell the restaurant equipment and vacated the premises. The space has remained empty since 2002. A sign recently appeared in the window announcing "Space for Rent," but was removed two days later with no signs of a new occupant. Similarly, Jo-An, the citywide-heralded Japanese restaurant, claimed it would be temporarily closing for renovations during the summer of 2002. The store has remained vacant since.
Prima Italia Pizzeria closed its doors late one evening, stating it was relocating to a new storefront on Amsterdam Avenue. The storefront could not be located along the avenue, and the company's new location is not listed in the telephone directory.
News, Inc. closed its doors late one night in January 2004. When asked why the store was closing, the owner said that the landlord had raised the rent to an exorbitant price and he could not pay. The store remained closed for several weeks but reopened as a wireless cell phone provider last week.
A neighboring store owner who wished to remain unnamed says the rent was not raised at News, Inc. Instead, he claims the newspaper and cigarette store had been mismanaged and was behind on rent. As a longtime businessman in the neighborhood and renter with the same managing agent as 104th Street Restaurant and News, Inc.--David Associates--he claims many of the store closings are due to mismanagement and not rising rent prices. He said that his rent has been at a fair rate since he opened his store.
David Associates declined to comment on their rental rates or the status of their vacant storefronts.
Community members have voiced their discomfort with the changing face of the Manhattan Valley area, which extends north from 96th Street to 110th Street and east from Broadway to Central Park West, for many years.
"In the past few years the stretch of Broadway between 96th and 110th Streets--the neighborhood's only shopping thoroughfare--has undergone a decided transformation for the worse," read a March 23 letter from co-chair of West Siders for Viable Neighborhoods' Jock Davenport to President Lee Bollinger at Columbia University. "Drugstore chains (six of them at last count) have invaded to duke it out amongst themselves in a Darwinian struggle for supremacy ... Those of us who have lived here for any length of time regard these developments--a glut of drugstores, and absence of supermarkets--as an intolerable lowering of our quality of life,"
The group has targeted its efforts toward the University in hopes that they will subsidize a moderately priced supermarket in the retail space at 103rd Street slated to open in 2005.
But some contend that the change is the foreseeable result of a changing economy, saying community groups and boards are limited in their scope of power to change the face along Broadway.
"Manhattanville has done a lot of catching up with its northern and southern neighbors along Broadway. Mom-and-pop stores were able to benefit from the economic valley for many years, but it is at the landlords' discretion to raise or lower rental rates," said Dan Cohen, neighborhood resident and activist.
Although prior efforts were thwarted, Cohen suggests the implementation of a Business Improvement District dedicated to the security, cleanliness, and support of neighborhood businesses would create a cohesive union between community members and businesses.
Amidst the sudden closings, positive signs of growth can be found. At A Grocery Store on the east side of Broadway between 104th and 105th, renovations are in full swing. While several workers and family members work to assemble a new refrigerator unit, a neighbor taps on the door, giving the crew a "thumbs-up" signal and saying, "things look good!"
When asked about the motivation for the renovations and the changing face of Broadway, Derehm, owner of A Grocery Store for 10 years, answers, "The neighborhood has changed, but people need to see new things. The change of the neighborhood is good for business."