The destruction and looting New York has experienced in the wake of protests against police violence has not been seen in many decades, and the lasting impact will be felt for decades to come. The shattering of storefronts in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx is a major blow to our lively, handsome and secure streetscape. The damage is physical, yes, but it is also a psychological blow.
It has taken generations to remove the forbidding steel gates that characterized commercial districts across the five boroughs. They went up during the years of rising crime and public disorder in the 1960s and 1970s, the only period in New York's history when the population actually decreased. There has been no more visible symbol of the city's renaissance than the removal of those fortress-like, graffiti-marred roll-down gates. The recent rampages presage their return, much to the detriment of the livable city we have worked so hard to attain.
A well-designed storefront offers transparency from the street into the business within. Storefront also describes the open relationship between a business and the public. As an adjective, it describes a specific type of business, one with a more direct connection to the public. My architecture practice is in a storefront. Now, the shattered glass of countless storefronts - multinational brands and small, neighborhood-serving operations alike - has become a symbol of our lack of public trust.
Across the city, business owners are boarding up their windows either because of damage inflicted during the night or as a precautionary measure. So much plywood is being affixed that latecomers have been forced to buy birch panels, the expensive stuff.
For the past three years, I have been working with NYC Small Business Services and the Pitkin Ave. BID on streetscape improvements in Jamaica, Queens, and Brownsville, Brooklyn. The benefits to building owners, shopkeepers and passersby have been pronounced. I encourage the removal of gates and reopening windows that had been boarded up on the upper floors, even if the space is no longer occupied by tenants. Incrementally, each restored, upgraded and gate-free storefront encourages a vibrant and pleasant shopping experience. A lively, welcoming, breathing streetscape is hardly a privilege exclusive to places like Madison Avenue.
Every shattered storefront represents a business wounded, yes, but it also compromises our trust in the community. Where we once felt safe, we no longer can. This is the broken windows theory in reverse: Instead of building public confidence by repairing the broken windows, benches and streetlights, the jagged glass and opaque wood increase our fears.
In the wake of these events, it will be a challenge to convince a shopkeeper not to install a metal gate. And would anyone with a gate now remove it? So much of what our city has accomplished since the bad old days of the 1970s has been lost in less than a week.
We need to separate the legitimate protests over a man's unjust death from attacks on storefront businesses. One is admirable, the other is criminal.
As an architect, I have to believe our well-being can be enhanced by the physical environment. Beyond the looting, the very act of destroying storefronts is theft; it steals from our neighbors what they worked so hard to attain, their own place in the city.
Even before the pandemic, we were witnessing an alarming increase in the number of empty stores in retail districts across all five boroughs. Many small establishments will never reopen after the health crisis eases. Now, those businesses which managed to hold on - on Broadway and on Fordham Road and in between - must repair unanticipated physical damage before they can restock their shelves.
It will not be easy this time. When next you pass a storefront, look at it. Appreciate the great investment it represents, and respect the open community it encourages.
Heim, an architect, has a storefront office in Sunnyside, Queens.
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