Desolate. Decaying. Devoid of street life.

These are words that you wouldn’t think could describe the bustling Canal Street in Lower Manhattan. Take a walk on the West Side from Broadway to the Hudson River, however, and you’ll notice a lack of vibrant street life that encompasses everything people love about the surrounding neighborhoods. That isn’t to say there aren’t people walking around, selling counterfeit handbags and Rolex watches, or shopping at the few hardware stores that remain.

Walking on Canal Street after work for the past year, I’ve noticed major differences from when I used to go there countless days after high school. Small businesses, affordable housing, and industrial suppliers have nearly disappeared, leaving behind vacant storefronts and decrepit buildings sporting countless “For Lease” signs. I would always think: How could such a busy, main street in Manhattan be so neglected despite being surrounded by bustling neighborhoods? This piqued my interest about how real estate on major attractive hubs is being transformed.

From a commercial real estate perspective, the changes on Canal Street have been ongoing for over a decade. In 2008, the Bloomberg administration cracked down on the notorious counterfeit vendors and property owners enabling them in Chinatown. With rising rents in Chinatown, the luxury market in SoHo and Tribeca, and the growing presence of chain retailers, a major sign of trouble to small businesses on Canal Street was the closure of Pearl Paint in 2014. Then, in 2017, the closing of Argo Electronics, after 37 years in business, sealed the fate for Canal Street’s future. A bustling electronics store filled with cardboard boxes that had any electronic equipment you needed, its closing was another nail in the coffin for small businesses on a central city street.

A recent photo essay of the street’s changing landscape in Curbed caught my eye, in which Nathan Kensinger describes how hedge fund and real estate speculators are buying out properties in an aggressive effort to gentrify, “clean up,” and reinvent one of Manhattan’s main arteries. In this process, however, these speculators have choked the area of any street life, so much so that even large retailers are hesitating to move in. United American Land, for example, with ten properties on Canal Street, has held one block of buildings with empty storefronts for over 5 years. One of those is the architectural piece that is the former National City Bank Building on Canal and Broadway, currently vacant because Duane Reade couldn’t sustain itself at the location.

If big box retailers can’t afford Lower Manhattan, then who can?

Looking to the farther West Side, Tribeca developers have created a neighborhood for the uber-rich combining the preservation of historic buildings with new glass cube high rises that are devoid of mixed-use commercial space. The disparity is clear on this side of Canal Street: it is now a mix of multi-million dollar condos and empty storefronts.

Canal Street is a microcosm of what has happened to many main Manhattan streets and avenues, as well as other cities around the country. Higher income neighborhoods with strong community boards on their side have been able to preserve their street life. This has created a growing disparity of which neighborhoods will continue to have local restaurants, cafes, and shops, such as the West Village, versus those that get swallowed by gentrification, hotels, and chain stores.

Some questions arise for me when thinking about these changes:

  • What is a city without a vibrant street life that makes space for all types of businesses (local, small, mid-sized, and corporate), but rather emulates surburbanization?

Street design, which is not pedestrian friendly, is one issue that plagues Canal Street into becoming another dull avenue. Cars regularly speed toward the The Holland Tunnel on the West Side and traffic guards struggle to manage the flow of traffic during rush hour. Transportation Alternatives called Canal Street the “Boulevard of Death” (which is the same nickname attributed to my hometown Queens Blvd), advocating for a redesign that would calm the highway-like nature of the corridor. It’s plainly unpleasant. Sidewalks are regularly overflowing with people, with the abundance of tourists in Chinatown, and a more pedestrian-friendly redesign would encourage smaller businesses to open up shop. The area already has the pre-requisites with mixed-use buildings and inevitable new developments to come. Without a proper redesign for walkability, we’re left with congestion, honking, and risking a transformation into another big-box commercial strip.

In terms of the developers, when new buildings are built or old ones are renovated, our criteria for density should change. Many of the luxury developments that come to fruition have huge retail spaces that only chain retailers can afford (or in this case, maybe not even). Denser commercial spaces and apartments would provide a good mix for the area to revitalize, rather than becoming another one of Manhattan’s corporate playgrounds that resemble suburban malls. Granted, the “affordability,” or what remains of it, will be difficult to preserve as the real estate firms have taken hold. But, if investors and city officials are serious about the diversity of these areas, then they can strike a balance.

The most candid way to express the feeling about New York avenues and corridors becoming homogenous is a quote by the editor-in-chief of Observer, after the Pearl Paint closure.

“How many goddamn Duane Reades do we possibly need?!”

urbanist / tidsoptimist / daydreamer / student & future planner at Pratt GCPE / jtschikov.wordpress.com

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