Earlier this morning, my daughter and I made a Target run, just across the street from our Brooklyn home. Normally bustling with activity, there is lately no more than a trickle of masked humans entering and exiting the urban mall where it’s located. Forget that the typology — the mall — was foreign to New York City for most of its against-the-grain existence. New Yorkers always favored the mom-and-pop store — the go-it-alone, anti-chain, anti-cookie-cutter, anti-establishment vendor — reflective, I think, of the independent spirit of its denizens. New Yorkers, if anything, wear their differences — their uniqueness — as badges of honor.
Well, it all went downhill after the first true chain store opened in the city, in 1996. I remember it — and our collective reaction — clearly. When it happened, most of us muttered to ourselves, “WTF?!”. The culprit, of all possible interlopers, was K-Mart. K-mart. And of all places, they chose to open in 19th century clothing pioneer A.T. Stewart’s erstwhile ‘Marble Palace’, on Astor Square, in the East Village. It was fitting. Stewart’s was truly the first department store in the nation, and one of the first three in the world, with Au Bon Marché in Paris and Whiteley’s in London — presaging retail’s transformation from a constellation of unconnected, specialized vendors to a one-stop-shop, much like K-Mart itself. When it was built in 1848, Stewart’s, it could be said, presaged the demise of the small business.
Well, it’s only accelerated since.
Shortly after K-Mart’s success, Home Depot was right on its tail, on West 23rd Street. I remember that one, too. Home Depot? Another WTF. From there, it all fell apart: fashion, housewares, food… it all went the way of the chain. Eventually, even stalwart NYC businesses — those one-off bastions of localized uniqueness — joined the fray, franchising and installing themselves in every corner of the city. Zabaar’s crossed town, Citarella went downtown, Sarabeth’s proliferated, Bloomingdale’s took over Soho, Barneys dipped a toe in Brooklyn (I mean, really?), and New York went from a city of destination retail to a sanitized, ubiquitous and utterly generic shopping experience. Apart from the buildings and the outsized personalities, you could be anywhere. Madison Avenue, 5th Avenue, the Meatpacking District, Soho… all the same sh*t.