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April 5th, 2011

Crafting a Vision for Park Slope

How willing are Slopers to make sacrifices to ensure that Park Slope remains a special place to live? Read more in this article I wrote for Park Slope Patch.

In recent months the number of vacant storefronts on Seventh Avenue has reached upwards of 15. With rents ranging anywhere from $5,000 to more than $20,000 per month it seems that cell phone stores, real estate offices and national chains are the only businesses that can afford doing business here.

But aren’t the so-called mom-and-pop-shops or independent businesses an important component of what makes Park Slope the urban haven it is?

Think about it. What would Park Slope be if Seventh Avenue was wall-to-wall large drugstores and other national chains?

Sounds pretty boring. We could call it the Seventh Avenue Strip Mall.

And one thing’s for sure: the Seventh Avenue Strip Mall would certainly lack that ineffable essence that makes Park Slope such a livable neighborhood—and a fun place for locals and visitors to shop and stroll.

A few weeks ago, Video Forum, a popular Seventh Avenue video rental shop, announced that it was closing at the end of March citing Netflix streaming video and a significant drop in revenue.

Perhaps it was just matter of time before they succumbed to market forces. Still, many in the neighborhood lamented the loss of a friendly place to browse for videos and talk to real people—shopkeepers and other customers—about movies.

It was a real community, not a virtual one.

So what would it take for Park Slope to keep its local video rental store business? Would locals be willing to commit to using a brick and mortar rental shop rather than Netflix? Or at least use their local video store in combination with Netflix?

Let’s see what this sacrifice really looks like.

You’d have to willing to pay more money per rental than Netflix, which offers a monthly fee for as many videos as you want. You’d have to be willing to leave your house for a video rather than get your DVDs via a red envelope in your mailbox. And you’d have to be diligent about returning the DVDs on time so as not to accrue late fees.

Are locals willing to sacrifice savings, selection and convenience for the sake of the community feeling that a destination like Video Forum engenders?

How about independent booksellers like the Community Bookstore? I’m old enough to remember when Park Slope had another indie bookstore, Booklink, before the advent of Barnes and Noble and Amazon.

So that the Community Bookstore doesn’t suffer a similar fate as Video Forum, are enough Slopers willing to commit to shopping there rather than a virtual store or chain?

What does this sacrifice really look like?

It could mean ordering a book they don’t have in stock and waiting a few days for the book to come in.

It could mean paying a bit more money for a book that is handed to you by a real person rather than purchased online.

It could also mean splitting your purchases: one for Amazon, one for Barnes and Noble and one (or two) for the Community Bookstore. Even a small step like that might help an independent bookstore survive.

Indeed, these are sacrifices. It takes planning and patience to pass up a book at a Barnes and Noble and say, “Hey, let me see if they’ve got it at the Community Bookstore.”

Clearly, it’s up to each person to decide what they’re willing to sacrifice and whether it’s worth it to them in the short term so that the neighborhood’s unique character thrives.

Melanie Hope Greenberg, a local children’s book author believes that brick-and-mortar shopping is the way to go. “I never use credit cards online,” she wrote in an E-mail.

Some locals are conflicted. Margaret Seilier, who lives in Park Slope with her husband and two daughters, likes the idea of patronizing mom-and-pops. “But the big chains (like Barnes and Noble) are just so convenient sometimes!” she said.

Robin Smith, who lives in Park Slope with her husband and two children in a fourth floor walk up, finds that services like Fresh Direct and Amazon are way too convenient to give up. “But for clothes/shoes/gifts. I love indie stores. Jack Rabbit is great for sporty stuff. All that said I treasure that we live in a hood with few chain stores and cherish shopping in mom/pop stores.”

Still others won’t pass up the convenience of the online experience: Chantall Brachmann-Scott, who lives in Prospect Heights and teaches Pilates and IntenSati, does all her food shopping locally and never uses a service like Fresh Direct. However, she said, “I have to admit I do shop at Amazon for used books because I don’t want to contribute to the waste of making new books. I do love my Netflix, I never set foot in a video store in my life.”

But consumers aren’t the only ones with a civic responsibility.  What about the landlords of the storefronts on Seventh Avenue? How willing are they to make a sacrifice to ensure that this neighborhood retains its essence? Sure, landlords are in business just like everyone else. But how many of them would be willing to reduce the rent to make it possible for local businesses to continue doing business there? Don’t they have a stake in this community, too?

Look at Bergen Street between Flatbush and Fifth avenues. Michael and Matthew Pintchik, the brothers who own the hardware store and a lot of property near the store, had the idea to create a unique shopping destination on Bergen Street with shops like Babeland, Bergen Street Comics, Bark and Bump. So they decided to paint all the storefronts the same color and give them an attractive, uniform look. They culled through many rental applications to select the right mix of interesting indie shops.

Now that’s vision.

Is something like this possible on Seventh Avenue? Are there other landlords with vision out there—or is it just easier to accept the higher rents from businesses that can afford it?

Finally, what about the city itself? In the same way that it’s willing to give landmark status to buildings and neighborhoods, that merit such a designation, is the city willing to create small business strips (like Bergen Street) by giving substantial tax breaks to property owners and shopkeepers to help them stay in business?

Clearly, it takes vision, commitment and sacrifice whether you’re a consumer, a local business, a property owner or a city government when it comes to making sacrifices so that urban streets retain their unique charm and livability.

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