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When storefronts suffer, neighborhoods weep

  • 1.  When storefronts suffer, neighborhoods weep

    Posted 06-08-2020 09:09
    Sharing my recently published Op-Ed in the NY Daily News (June 5, 2020):

    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.

    Laura Heim FAIA
    Laura Heim Architect, PLLC
    Sunnyside NY

  • 2.  RE: When storefronts suffer, neighborhoods weep

    Posted 06-10-2020 13:00
    Very well said, Laura.  Thank you for sharing this!

    all the best


    Michael Plottel, FAIA

  • 3.  RE: When storefronts suffer, neighborhoods weep

    Posted 06-10-2020 18:53
    Dear Laura Heim,
    Thank you for posting your article. Your dismay at the destruction of the streetscape that so many had worked hard to improve is quite understandable. Reading what you have to say in the context of what is going on in the country at the moment suggests to me another perspective.  People who have been dispossessed of their humanity for over 400 years, abused, deprived of their rights up until this day, have tried by all legitimate means to have these wrongs redressed but to no avail. Catalyzed by the heinous murder of George Floyd, an incident like so many others before in all parts of the country, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand action. Some people, understandably enough, feel they are at the end of their tether and have nothing left to lose. This has been explained in countless books and social and economic analyses but is evocatively summarized by Kimberly Jones in this short video. [Warning: there is language in here that you may find offensive]. 
    For yet another perspective, listen to Miski Noor, a young black woman building community in Minneapolis, you can watch this interview with Trevor Noah. 
    In short, as much as we architects and urban designers may bemoan the loss of urbane streetscape, there is something more profound that we all need to address before design has a meaning for anybody but ourselves.
    Hubert Murray

    T | 617.492.3532     M | 617.794.4600

  • 4.  RE: When storefronts suffer, neighborhoods weep

    Posted 06-11-2020 17:56
    Thank you Hubert for your sensitive response to our colleague's article. As one of the 2% of Black licensed architects, I can confirm that you captured the pent-up frustration that drove some to seek to have their voices heard through acts of violence. When a tsunami rushes in and recedes leaving devastation in its wake, if the choice is to rebuild things exactly as they were, then we can predict what will be certain to happen the next time the tides become restless. We are, in fact, living in the midst of a sea change (hum, clever) that must be addressed head-on by White people before the societal change that is so long overdue can take place.

    R. Steven Lewis, FAIA, NOMAC
    Thinking Leadership
    c: 202.403.1932

  • 5.  RE: When storefronts suffer, neighborhoods weep

    Posted 06-11-2020 18:10
    Very well said Hubert. I know it's difficult for Architects to understand the destruction of physical property and the delight of urban life, but your comments aptly contextualize the pain and frustration that has led a few to desperate acts, but so many to peacefully and powerfully express their communal aspirations. Interesting how articulate folks like South African, Trevor Noah, and your fellow countryman, John Oliver describe our broken social contract.

    Gary Graham FAIA
    GMI Architects
    Bristol RI

  • 6.  RE: When storefronts suffer, neighborhoods weep

    Posted 06-12-2020 09:47
    Dear Hubert:

    Thank you for your thoughtful response.  I was thinking about responding to the op-ed but couldn't quite put my words together with all the agony that has been going on given the intersecting crises of the coronavirus and racism.

    For sure, the protests revealed that injustice is just plain ugly whether it's smashed storefronts, or the sight of Americans being beaten and run down by police and soldiers armed with expensive equipment costing millions of dollars, or the remembered sight  of health workers resorting to homemade equipment to care for COVID-19 victims, who were disproportionately black, ill-housed, overworked, and underpaid-i.e., lacking in choice to protect themselves from harm as George Floyd was.

    One thing the protests didn't reveal, but that underlies all of this agony, is the high-end looting that the top 1 percent of zillionaires do, extracting every ounce of the world's wealth (including its ecological wealth) for their own private gain. That's the true ugliness that is making communities worldwide, especially communities of color, weep.

    Onward to a more just and beautiful world!

    Sharon Egretta Sutton, PhD, FAIA
    Distinguished Visiting Professor of Architecture
    Parsons School of Design
    New York, New York

  • 7.  RE: When storefronts suffer, neighborhoods weep

    Posted 06-16-2020 10:24
    Dear Sharon, Steven and Hubert -

    Your words resonate loudly and poetically here in Philadelphia. And now we have the killing of Rayshard Williams, who was occupying public space as people who have had too much to drink sometimes do. Here is Trevor Noah, trying to make sense of the shooting. (He cannot make sense of it.)  

    Kiki Bolender, FAIA, LEED AP
    Bolender Architects
    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

    Kiki Bolender FAIA
    Bolender Architects
    Philadelphia PA

  • 8.  RE: When storefronts suffer, neighborhoods weep

    Posted 06-16-2020 10:33
    We watched Trevor last night. He broke it down in simple, relatable terms. Can we actually achieve fundamental change in our lifetime? We ALL must remain vigilant!

    Sent from my iPhone

  • 9.  RE: When storefronts suffer, neighborhoods weep

    Posted 06-16-2020 11:10
    Thank you all for your contributions to this discussion. It is easy when one agrees with one another, not so easy when one has a different point of view, so thank you Laura, for prompting this discussion in the first place. Speaking as a white person who has enjoyed privilege first in the UK, continuing in the US, I am the beneficiary of a perverse 'affirmative action' plan that has been built into these countries' histories for 500 years and more. All the more incumbent upon me, and others like me, to figure out ways in our professional and personal and institutional lives to dismantle such privilegium (= private law) that means literally one law for us, another law for the others.
    What has this got to do with architecture? As architects we can choose which projects we will do to further justice and equity and which projects we can forgo if they fail on those criteria. See Michael Kimmelmann's excellent article in the NYT on prisons. We can also work with our professional skills to change zoning - a well known instrument of privilege. We can volunteer to attend crits at schools that serve people of color and the working class. We can engage in charrettes in underserved neighborhoods to help build an agenda for environmental and social justice.
    Some people will still say this has nothing to do with architecture. My response is that design is really the creation of a future state, from teaspoons to townscapes. As designers we have to create a future that embodies the principles of environmental and social justice, to give others a vision of a world worth working towards, to preserve the planet, to preserve the values of community, to flatten the curve on the myriad inequities that the un-privileged have had to contend with for generations. We shall have to take on the entrenched interests of power and finance and we shall have to go beyond our traditional repertoire of professional skills to do this. But at the heart of it all, we can do what it is that we (supposedly) do best, change a situation for the better. A streetscape of lively storefronts is part of that greater vision but that can only be meaningful if the community in which that street is situated is free from existential fear, free from financial anxiety, free from the daily indignities symbolized by the knee upon the neck.
    Some people will continue to say that this is not architecture. To which my reply is (channeling the great Pablo Casals who suspended his career as a cellist to combat fascism and help refugees from Franco's Spain) when I became an architect, I did not abdicate my position as a human being.

    Hubert Murray FAIA
    Cambridge MA

  • 10.  RE: When storefronts suffer, neighborhoods weep

    Posted 06-16-2020 18:03
    I am proud to be working in Jamaica and Brownsville, improving the streetscape one storefront at a time with a very limited budget as well as restoring abandoned NYCHA houses in Jamaica and Far Rockaway, Queens to create affordable housing. Not high design, not garnering much acclaim, but important work nonetheless. If you want a tour, or are in the area, let me know.

    Laura Heim FAIA
    Laura Heim Architect, PLLC
    Sunnyside NY