What Amazon’s Rise Means for New York City

What Amazon’s Rise Means for New York City

Amazon has changed the way we shop, but two Amazon products will change the face of New York City as we know it — and they’re not what you might expect. As much as we’ve seen Amazon innovate online, the tech giant is also changing the way we shop for basics, and that impacts local stores in every neighborhood. The issue is, of course, that mom-and-pop stores will have trouble competing with the pricing Amazon secures through the sheer quantity it sells. When looking at Amazon and its effect on brick-and-mortar stores, the company’s rise is likely to both threaten and encourage the shops that line our city streets.

First, here’s what Amazon is bringing back from the past. Remember bookstores? When Amazon Books announced its first NYC location on Columbus Circle, not only New Yorkers were skeptical. Books, printed on paper? Sold in an actual building? It seemed so…analog. Inside Amazon Books, the shelves are actually set up and stocked based on the online data collected from customers everywhere, so it’s a mix of both. The location was chosen based on data including the purchasing habits in the neighborhood. There must be a lot of Kindle owners on the west side! The next location will be at 7 W 34th Street.

One interesting aesthetic detail is the store places its books with the cover facing out. This is the way you would see the book online, but it’s also a pleasant surprise compared to the library style of a row of book spines. Somewhere, book designers are rejoicing. It’s all set up to encourage shoppers to come into the store and spend time using a mix of information and intuition to buy. Something is charming about bringing bookshops back to the city. What this means for the neighborhood is more foot traffic and a destination for shopping which could encourage related businesses to establish themselves nearby.

There could be another effect of the arrival of Amazon Books. As a massive store, Amazon can set trends. Smaller, beloved bookstores of New York could potentially benefit from the rise of book shopping. What if book readings and poetry nights could actually receive a boost from the competition? Amazon Books, in bringing back the bookstore, might revitalize a whole reading culture again. The New York Public Library will always be great, but books can use all the help they can get.

The other product that will change the face of New York City is Amazon Fresh. There are many home grocery delivery services, and even entire home meals pre-packaged and delivered ready to cook from companies such as Blue Apron. But New York is still a city of bodegas and corner delis. Amazon, with its recent agreement to purchase Whole Foods, is going to own a significant share of the food business. Small shops will have to be more gourmet, specialty, or stand out in other ways.

Farmers markets are another business that could be impacted by Amazon. Shopping locally is especially important at these markets, because it supports the people who grow the produce and make the foods directly. Here’s a list of NYC farmer’s markets that can be sorted by day and area so you can find one nearby. Some of these local businesses may already be online, but they will have to compete with online ordering more and more each year.

What will really cause a change in New York’s streets could be the way all shops function. Amazon loves to use data to make suggestions to customers, enabling customers to shop. Currently, AmazonFresh lets people select items online which are delivered to their doorstep.  n neighborhoods without much fresh organic produce, this could be extremely beneficial to people’s health. If people get in the habit of shopping from home for essentials, they may stop going out for groceries at all.

One certain downside? Amazon’s takeover is unlikely to be beneficial for jobs. Grocery stores operated by Amazon will probably be heavily automated, letting people scan and check out without ever speaking to a person, or simply driving by to pick up pre-selected items. Isn’t part of New York’s charm the surly shopkeeper, the friendly butcher, the always-there bodega owner? This balance of convenience and human contact is difficult to achieve. New York will have to think carefully about how to preserve neighborhood shops, which define our streets and have become a part of our daily lives.

A History of Harlem (And Why It’s Hot Right Now)

A History of Harlem (And Why It’s Hot Right Now)

The Harlem neighborhood is an emblematic part of Manhattan, but few know its beginning as Dutch farmland and later as a key point for George Washington during the American Revolution. Now, it’s a hot neighborhood for its restaurants, cultural heritage, and central location. Knowing Harlem’s history, and its many phases of change, is essential to understanding why it is now one of the newly hot places to live in New York City.

Harlem is a large area of Uptown, from the East River to the Hudson River, and from the bottom of Washington Heights at 155th Street down to around 96th Street. It is commonly divided into Central Harlem, West Harlem, and East Harlem (often called Spanish Harlem).

Harlem was formally incorporated in 1660 as New Haarlem, named after the Dutch city of Haarlem. The Dutch settlers recognized the flat lands would be good for farming, in part because they saw Manhattans and other Native American tribes farming there. Later, the Dutch tried to change the name to Lancaster, luckily without success!

During the American Revolution, George Washington established a base in Harlem to fight off the British troops. He successfully pushed them back, marking his first American victory. To retaliate, the British burnt Harlem down, starting the first in a series of rebuilding and rebirths for the area.

By the 1820s, Harlem had only a few families and was difficult to reach from other areas of the city. Prominent American figures held large areas of land, including Alexander Hamilton and the Roosevelt family (several generations before President Roosevelt would be born). Harlem was considered the countryside, and the land was mostly used for farms.

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that real development began. In 1832, the arrival of the New York and Harlem Railroad (now Metro North) changed everything. It was the first street railway in the world and one of the first railroads in the United States. At first, it used horses, then steam engines, and finally electricity. With reliable transportation in place, Harlem was finally a viable place for development. Many cultural centers were established over the years, including the City College of New York in 1907. The easy access to transportation is one of the reasons Harlem is popular right now.

Harlem has seen a diverse flow of residents, most notably black, Jewish, Italian, Puerto Rican and Latin American populations who were pushed out of other areas of the city. In the early 20th century a large population of black residents fleeing the Jim Crow laws of the South established homes in Harlem. Prohibition, The Harlem Renaissance, housing policies elsewhere in the city and the Harlem Riot all had an impact on the area, but it has come back each time.

Because so many of the multi-ethnic influences are preserved, Harlem is now experiencing an economic renaissance as people move into the area to experience the arts and culture. Historic buildings and sites to visit include the home of author Langston Hughes (20 East 127th Street), the home of Alexander Hamilton Grange (West 141st Street and St Nicholas Avenue), and the many historic churches and theaters such as the Apollo Theater (253 West 125th Street). There are also many popular restaurants and bars which draw crowds.

For people looking for their next home, the architecture is a major draw for Harlem, especially in areas such as Mount Morris Historic District where historic townhouses sit along tree-lined streets. Also popular are beautiful brownstone apartment buildings, many of which are in the process of being modernized on the inside. New residents of Harlem have the benefit of experiencing the history of New York City, with all its diversity, while also participating in the growth and yet another rejuvenation of the area.

The Islands You Haven’t Heard of in New York City

The Islands You Haven’t Heard of in New York City

Manhattan, Staten, Riker’s, Governor’s. New York is a city of islands, with only The Bronx connected to the U.S. mainland. The rest of us are in good company, however, as there are dozens of little-known or visited islands around NYC, each (well, most of them) with rich stories of their own. Here are just a few:

City Island

City Island is somewhat of an anachronism in NYC and residents are happy to keep it that way. Located northeast of the Bronx and accessible by a small private bridge, this island is home to a New England-like oceanfront community of around 4,000 (fewer than some blocks in the rest of the city). City Islanders, or “clamdiggers,” consider the place an oasis apart from the rest of the city and can be somewhat insular. If you hope to visit the City Island Nautical Museum or try some of their famous seafood, your best bet to past the security gates is the Bx29 bus.

Hart Island

A stone’s throw from City Island, Hart Island has attained some notoriety in recent years for its burial grounds of unclaimed people and prisoners. Formerly home to a boy’s prison and Civil War POW camps, more than 1 million people have been laid to rest here since it was converted to a municipal cemetery in 1869. Not a hotspot for vacationers, Hart Island visitation is strictly limited to twice per month ferry trips for relatives of the dead and morbidly curious tourists who have requested spots ahead of time.

Hoffman and Swinburne Islands

It might seem farfetched now, but as nearby Fort Wadsworth serves to remind us, New York has historically been a vitally important port during wartime. Hoffman and Swinburne Island, originally created as quarantine stations for immigrants arriving at nearby Ellis Island, also served as training grounds for Merchant Marines during WWII, and more integrally, were designated anchor points for anti-submarine nets to keep the city’s harbors safe. Thankfully, they were never called into duty for this use, and are currently protected lands as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area managed by the U.S. Park Service.

U Thant/Belmont Island

For a spot of land measuring just 100 by 200 feet, this tiny island on the East River has had a colorful history. Made up of materials from the digging of the 7 train tunnels connecting Manhattan and Queens, Belmont Island (named for the tunnels’ financier) became U Thant Island when the land was leased by devout followers of the Indian meditation guru Sri Chinmoy and designated a Buddhist shrine. The island sat quietly until 2004, when in protest of the then-ongoing Republican National Convention, artist and island-hopper Duke Reilly rowed out to the island and declared it a sovereign nation, hanging a homemade flag from the island’s navigation tower. He was taken home by the Coast Guard, and U Thant Island continues to sit peacefully.

North Brother Island

North Brother Island sits southeast of the Bronx and has been the site of some of the more harrowing stories of New York City history. It sat uninhabited until 1885 when the city designated it the site of Riverside Hospital, a place where highly contagious patients could be treated safely away from the rest of the city. It was the home to perhaps the most famous such patient, Typhoid Mary, who notoriously spread the disease around the city as a cook for several wealthy families. Less famously (but more destructively), the island was also the beaching point of the doomed passenger ship the General Slocum, which ran aground on North Brother Island after catching fire in the East River. A memorial to those who lost their lives currently stands in Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan.

Shooter’s Island

An uninformed observer would never guess that this unassuming bird habitat, nestled between Staten Island and New Jersey, was once the dominion of spies fighting the American Revolution. Originally a hunting preserve (hence the name), quiet and isolated Shooter’s Island was designated by George Washington as a drop-off point for top-secret missives used to help topple the British. In post-war years, the island belonged to industry as the home of refineries and shipyards, and was the site of the 1902 launch of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany’s private yacht, attended by President Theodore Roosevelt and filmed for posterity by Thomas Edison. Returning to its calm and isolated roots, Shooter’s Island is currently a bird sanctuary.

Ghosts of New York City Real Estate: Hard to Spot, Harder to Bust

Ghosts of New York City Real Estate: Hard to Spot, Harder to Bust

New York City is a beautiful, historic city with some of the most lovely and desirable neighborhoods in the country. But the Big Apple also has a ghost problem. In the always-desirable New York housing market, behavior at each end of the economic spectrum illustrates why New Yorkers looking for a place to live can face considerable difficulties.

First up: Ghost apartments. Not literally haunted, ghost apartments are units that are owned by a wealthy person (or a shell company) that, for the most part, remain unoccupied.

Why is this a concern? There are multiple reasons but, primarily, it’s the hidden costs associated with the empty apartments that contribute to the overall housing challenges in New York. Starting with the most obvious impact—there’s no one living in the apartment. That means that a costly piece of real estate has been purchased or rented, but no money is flowing into the economy on that street. If no one lives in the apartment, there is no one shopping at the corner store, eating out, joining the neighborhood gym or even grabbing the occasional cup of coffee.

The math is pretty simple. Fewer housing units mean fewer people, less foot traffic, and not as much need for local goods and services.

There’s a second major impact on the housing economy when wealthier residents rent an apartment, rather than purchasing a single-family home—taxes. Single-family homes in New York are taxed at a higher rate and produce more tax revenue than a single rental unit generates.

Finally, there’s the cost to the average New Yorker—time. When “ghost apartments” become common, residents may move further away from their place of employment, or areas that are familiar socially. Walking is replaced by long commutes, and employers have less ability to hire hyper-locally.

So, what’s an average New Yorker to do?

Some choose to go off the books and become ghost tenants, another not-so-supernatural phenomenon. Ghost tenants are people (adults) living in an apartment without being on the lease, or having any formal status as a tenant. According to a 2016 article in Slate, which focuses on public housing, “Although 400,000 people officially live in New York City’s traditional public housing units, it’s estimated that as many as 100,000 to 200,000 more reside there secretly.”

The market rate for a one-bedroom apartment in New York, in 2015, was $3,100. In the Slate article, the Ghost Tenant “Gigi” was sharing a mid-town apartment, with her parents, in a public housing project that rented for under $1,000.

If “caught” the whole family can be evicted from public housing. In both public and privately owned buildings, more tenants mean more wear-and-tear on facilities which can lead to hazardous or unpleasant living conditions. At best, the rent will increase based on the income that’s brought to the household by the ghost tenant, which is hardly helpful in reversing the problem. 

Then there are communication and safety concerns. If a ghost tenant has a P.O. box and no official street address, they are harder to find, by, say, a school or employer, if needed. If there’s a problem in the building—a gas leak, a fire–emergency responders won’t know to look for the ghost tenant.

When it comes to real estate, it’s best kept balanced and affordable when the appropriate amount of tenants live in an apartment, and when the owners of said apartments actually live there. But eradicating these ghosts is easier said than done, and productive solutions remain few and far between.

It’s clear that ghost apartments and ghost tenants are part of the New York real estate landscape, and one the Ghost Busters can’t solve. These issues, present on both ends of the economic spectrum, must be addressed by developers focusing on building, refurbishing, and maintaining housing units that are affordable by the average New Yorker who lives in the wonderful city so many call home. 

When Two Bookstores Close, Another Opens in Cobble Hill

When Two Bookstores Close, Another Opens in Cobble Hill

When one door closes, another opens, and though this is not always the case for bookstores, the adage is holding true in Cobble Hill—to some extent, anyway.

The Brooklyn neighborhood recently suffered the news that BookCourt, a Cobble Hill staple, would be closing after 35 years in business when its owners retire at the end of the year. This news came not long after the neighborhood’s chaotic but lovable bookstore, aptly called Community Bookstore, was cleared of its unkempt stacks.

Luckily, another independent bookstore is in the works, and in a world where it sometimes seems bookstores big and small are losing business, it will be a welcome addition.

The new store, called “Books Are Magic,” is set to open on or around May 1. While the name may seem a little trite, most bibliophiles can agree that books are magic (if not actually, then certainly metaphorically). The new store is a business venture by Emma Straub, author of novels such as Modern Lovers and The Vacationers, and a former employee of BookCourt. According to her website, “A neighborhood without an independent bookstore is a body without a heart. And so we’re building a new heart.”

The store will be located on 225 Smith Street between Butler and Douglas, not far from BookCourt’s old location. As she’s been preparing for the opening, Emma has shared her journey on social media and with the press. She’s even hinted at collaborations with neighbors including Warby Parker and the cheese shop Stinky Brooklyn. Books, glasses, and cheese? Sounds like Brooklyn alright.

One independent bookstore replacing two may not be ideal for residents used to having their choice of store, and the “two out, one in” is annoyingly reminiscent of the Trump Administration’s regulation policy. With Barnes & Noble just a short walk down Court Street, too, it seems the community’s dedication to books (or magic, if you will) will live on.

And who knows? Maybe another overstuffed literary treasure trove will pop up to fill the hole left by Community Bookstore, too. Stranger things have happened in Brooklyn.

Is the Bronx the New Brooklyn?

Is the Bronx the New Brooklyn?

Some real estate professionals say there’s no doubt north is the way to go.

With only Manhattan separating them, is it time for the Bronx to admit that it has more in common with Brooklyn than previously thought?

According to some real estate professionals, the answer is a resounding yes. Even if the idea of the Bronx being a great place to live or invest raises eyebrows from hipsters to former-hippies now comfortable in their Manhattan apartments.

Consider this bit of history. When the Sex and the City character, Miranda, announced she was moving to Brooklyn the idea was so abhorrent to Manhattanites that the New York Post ran an article listing all the (real-life!) hip spots that Carrie and Miranda could frequent.

Now, only a decade later, Brooklyn’s average rent for a one-bedroom apartment runs between $1,600 and $2,900, depending on the neighborhood. It costs about $790,000 on average to buy a home, and well into the millions in trendier neighborhoods.

What’s a dedicated middle-class New Yorker to do?

Manhattan? Probably not with rents running $3,000 and buying about a $2 million endeavor.

It may be time to head north.

First, there’s the basic premise that Brooklyn prices are continuing to go up, so the Bronx is a more affordable option given the average rent of $1,200/month.

But consider the other benefits of the Bronx, like great transportation. The subway and other public transportation options are excellent—and traveling from midtown to the south Bronx is a fairly short commute.

For example, it’s only a 24-minute subway ride from Radio City Music Hall to Yankee Stadium. The residential areas just north of the stadium are considered up-and-coming, and affordable, according to multiple sources.

If driving is a must, it’s actually possible in the Bronx. I-87 along the west side of the borough is far easier to navigate than, say, the lower east side or Time’s Square.

For the more green-minded commuters, the recent opening of the historic High Bridge (New York’s oldest standing bridge, originally used to transport water from the Croton River to New York) offers a quick, convenient pedestrian and bicycle route from Highbridge to Upper Manhattan. 

Not only are the rents in the neighborhood still reasonable, but the apartments are often in renovated historic buildings, originally constructed in the 1920s and 1930s.

For even more gorgeous, historic, architecture the buildings along the 5-mile stretch of the Grand Concourse are an excellent option. While this area, originally inspired in the early 1900s by the Champs-Elysees in Paris, fell into considerable disrepair in the 1970s and ‘80s, an $18 million restoration and landscaping initiative in 2008 revitalized the neighborhood.

Further north still is Fordham Heights, which is flanked by both the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden, and much more affordable than the real estate near Central Park.

Continuing north (no worries, not Niagra Falls!) recent re-zoning along Webster Avenue has created spaces now open to residential development that is working and middle-class friendly.

While these areas are not all a short commute to the culture and delights of Manhattan, they are still within close enough proximity (about an hour on public transportation) for trips into the city, business meetings, or even daily commutes.

Plus, culture and great food is already a part of the Bronx! In addition to the Zoo and the Garden, multiple colleges and universities offer music, dance and theatrical events.

The food scene? Solid—and growing.

Many New Yorkers believe that the Bronx is home to “real” Little Italy. Practically disdainful of catering to tourists, Arthur Avenue in the Belmont Neighborhood is still lined with Italian shops, markets and restaurants that have been there since Italian immigrants settled the neighborhood in the 1950s.

For the real “foodies” of New York, it’s good to know that there’s a culture of food that’s diverse enough to bring Anthony Bourdain to the Bronx.

In 2014, CNN aired a Bronx episode of Bourdain’s show “Parts Unknown.” Bourdain sampled Arthur Avenue’s Italian offerings, but dove whole-heartedly into Puerto Rican, African and Caribbean dishes.

“If the Bronx were a neighborhood in Manhattan, sort of shrunk down, you’d have hipsters crawling all over this place.” Bourdain quipped.

Affordable, easily accessible by public transportation, and with vibrant neighborhoods and ethnic diversity–in a New York minute the Bronx may beat Brooklyn as the place to live.