As dusk approaches on a dank, chilly Monday, I quickly slide past the beggar planted in front of the Wachovia Bank on the corner of Broadway and 85th. At least he didn’t physically accost me, as too often happened back in the 80s, when the city was overrun by aggressive panhandlers.
For decades, this was a bustling restaurant corner, with throngs of people meeting friends for brunch or dinner. A few years ago, Wachovia took over the space from Time Cafe. Now the corner is desolate and forbidding at night, the bank’s yellow neon sign casting an eerie glow on the street.
Dozens of local hangouts and icons have recently gone out of business, altering the character of the neighborhood. As I walk up Amsterdam Avenue, the number of shuttered restaurants, bars, dry cleaners and other merchants is frightening.
Time Out, the popular sports bar off 76th, and neighborhood diner Shining Star on 78th are gone. Vietnamese restaurant Monsoon on 81st has been a vacant eyesore for years.
I turn up to Broadway. Sovereign Bank owns the corner of 82nd, Bank of America the corner of 83rd. On 84th, Morris Brothers, a local institution that outfitted neighborhood kids for camp and back-to-school clothing for over 60 years, vanished three years ago. GameStop, a national chain headquartered in Grapevine, Texas, has since taken over the space.
A couple of years ago, a TD Bank started construction on the corner of 86th and Columbus Avenue, directly across the street from a Chase branch. In the dead of night, someone had posted a desperate plea on the wall: Please–this neighborhood does not need another bank! By the next morning the sign was torn down and construction resumed.
That memory runs through my mind as I go up Broadway, past the Wachovia on 85th, the Citibank on the corner of 86th and the Bank of America on 87th.
As I continue my walk, my mind flashes on the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Who has stolen my old friends and replaced them with these soulless pods?
We are all aware of how Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and other “too big to fail” banks took insane gambles with other people’s (our) money, ran their businesses irresponsibly, then were bailed out by the government (us).
Now small businesses that were run responsibly and had their rents jacked up (sometimes doubled) are going to their banks for a loan to try to stay afloat and being uniformly refused–often by the same irresponsible scoundrels we bailed out. Is it me, or is there something grotesquely wrong with this scenario?
On Thursday, I leave town for a few days and return on Sunday to bright, sunny skies. Columbus Avenue is filled with strollers, the Museum of Natural History and Planetarium swarm with visitors and lines of young people spill out the door of Shake Shack on 77th and Columbus.
The neighborhood seems more alive than ever and I think, it will take more than a few obscene rent hikes and avaricious bankers to bring down this vital, thriving neighborhood.
As the light fades, the street crowds thin. On my way home, I again pass the Wachovia on the corner of 85th. A different panhandler calls out “Spare change?” I continue on, but the wiry beggar blocks my path and seizes my arm, his words now more threat than request.
“I said, Spare change?”
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