Sunday, September 10, 2006
What is it? Did someone leave a bag of laundry outside of the firehouse?
No, it is a carved pumpkin that weighs more than I do.
NYC firefighters are extremely resourceful and creative. I imagine that one of them grew this upstate (where he lives), carved it himself, lovingly padded the back of his truck with hay bales, drove a couple of hours to work, and got a bunch of his brothers to place it -- carefully, carefully -- in a place of honor outside the firehouse. My photo doesn't justly represent the beauty, care, and detail of the carving. In this week of heavy news, it gave me a smile and a recognition of the creative spark we all share.
In the days after 9/11, the neighborhood emptied out. Something like 40% of my neighbors moved away. 100,000 office workers were permanently displaced. The state offered people who signed leases 2 year grants, monthly payments $250 - $500.
New Yorkers love to talk about rent and real estate, and rent bargains are few and far between. This grant, along with offers from landlords, repopulated the neighborhood in a matter of months.
The benefit to the neighborhood was energy; those of us who stayed were glad to see the streets fill up with people again. The benefit to the landlords (including many large firms, like Rockrose and Related) was rapid stabilization of their rent base. The benefit to area businesses was customers. The benefit to the renters was clear.
A win-win-win situation. Right?
In hindsight, I'm not sure.
After 9/11, friends who owned a small business asked me for consulting help as they rebuilt their business. I came to be a manager in that business. We found that our new neighbors were extremely price sensitive. They were less likely to buy our products than previous residents, although some did. Two years later, when the rent subsidies ended, our business dropped off rapidly and considerably.
Several months later, we decided to close the business.
In the final analysis, 9/11 did not cause the closure of small businesses downtown. Demographic change did. The neighborhood used to attract young people -- many with freelance lifestyles, whether they were graphic designers, actors, models (or consultants like myself). Today, the neighborhood population is completely different, professionals and rock stars, and they require different businesses. 30,000 people lived in the area before 9/11. While the population may have grown, we have not replaced the office workers who created a stable customer base for a huge range of small businesses. The ecosystem changed.
9/11 was an economic shock, which may or may not have accelerated the pace of change. But in my opinion, the rent subsidies created churn, and added confounding data to the whirl of information small business owners were already trying to process as they made decisions.
Ecologically, it is like making temporary use of artificial fertilizers to grow plants where they wouldn't otherwise thrive. These plants may bloom, while also using resources required by indigenous plants...and when you stop fertilizing...
Criticism is not due to the decision-makers who conceived these rent subsidies: they made the best decisions possible, given available information.
I would criticize anyone who supported such a program in the aftermath of other disasters. I hope that civic leaders in New Orleans and Mississippi understand this lesson.