I had discussed the possible closing of Pearl River Mart before under the guise of a fragrance review but at the time it seemed to have been a problem readily remedied by a venue hop, of which the company has had experience with, or just something else that would optimistically dismiss the possibility of the brick and mortar store just closing.
However, this move would prove not to be as easy or as viable as their previous jump, and it seems that there were no viable options for my optimistic heart to hold onto. News has come out that the huge, historic, ethnic icon is going to leave the scene permanently, though I’m not sure when. This was announced in December of 2015, and while I don’t think the store has closed down yet, I count the news as another one of 2015’s losses. A loss that implies a rapid dissipation, as the things that make up the NYC landscape will continue to disappear.
In this op-ed by Michelle Chen, the daughter of the managers of the store, she outlines a problem I had mentioned before in my other post.
When people think of gentrification of neighborhoods, they assume the fishmonger and pushcart vendor are the commercial analog to displaced working-class tenants, but in truth the entire retail ecosystem is upturned. More established small businesses, including restaurants and mid-range retail shops and specialty stores, buttress the scaffold of a local economy. When the petty bourgeois substrate collapses, it opens the door to an invasion of franchises with no indigenous links to the community. That paves the way for an endless succession of heavily capitalized brands with little incentive to reinvest in the community’s infrastructure or tax base.
Pearl River’s struggle to stay afloat on Broadway was surely the product of many economic factors—the Great Recession being perhaps the most immediate. But it also shows how the trope of “mom and pop shops” being evicted doesn’t quite capture the nuanced transactions entailed in the “bleaching” of neighborhoods.
While this loss hits like the loss of a relative, I won’t repeat my little anecdote with my mother. If you want to read that again, and a partial list of iconic restaurants that met the same fate, the link to the other post is above. Instead, I’m going to take this time to highlight several key people and groups working to preserve a city of old, that I will hopefully get to expand upon in another post soon.
- Margaret Chin: First Chinese-American councilperson to represent lower Manhattan (1st District), elected in 2009 has been working towards preserving Chinatown and Queens for years before being elected to chair.
- Wellington Chen: Executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District and the Chinatown Partnership.
- Wing Lam: One of Chinatown’s most prominent left-wing activists and co-founder and director of the Chinese Staff & Workers Association.
- Right to the City: This organization is a vocal opponent to gentrification and the displacement of low-income people, people of color, marginalized LGBTQ communities, and youths of color from their historic urban neighborhoods.
- The Local 802, Associated Musicians of Greater New York: One of the largest local unions of professional musicians in the world and representative of the common interests of all musicians by advancing industry standards, organize a community of all musicians and aspiring musicians, preserve the integrity of live musical performance, and advance music in education.
- Coalition for Community Advancement: An alliance of East New York residents and organizations that work to make sure the city’s zoning plans reflected neighborhood interests.
- Eric Ng: President of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, which oversees the interests of some 60 family associations and other nonprofits.
- Christopher Kui: Executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, an organization focused on affordable housing.
- Rafael Espinal: The Council member for the 37th District of the New York City Council, he represents portions of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Bushwick, Crown Heights, Cypress Hills, and East New York in Brooklyn. While serving in the State Assembly, he passed 4 bills, fought for health care, immigration, and fiscal issues, and put pressure on City and State agencies to provide services the district needed.
- Robert E. Cornegy, Jr.: The Council member for the 36th District, including the portions of Bedford Stuyvesant and northern Crown Heights. While chairing the Council’s Committee on Small Business, he has fought for industrial and manufacturing businesses, as well as “mom & pops”.
Please consider learning about these people and organizations, and let me know if I don’t have some important key figures listed! This list is very obviously biased towards Manhattan and bits of Brooklyn; tell me about what’s happening in Queens, Harlem, and the Bronx.
Pear River Mart’s own fantastic history is outlined in Michelle’s lovely pieces, Good Fortune, Long Life and When a Small Business Takes a Great Leap Forward and being so close to the place gives her brilliant perspective I don’t have.