Jane Jacobs’ beloved Greenwich Village is America’s exemplary city neighborhood (Or perhaps Sesame Street is!)
Featuring what Jacobs famously described as a “ballet” on the bustling sidewalks outside her apartment window, her early 1960s neighborhood, with its mix of small businesses and dense housing, has become every modern city planner’s ideal.
Another NYC artifact, CBGB, may be America’s exemplary legacy business, one of those neighborhood businesses that seems to house the heart and soul of the surrounding community.
CBGB is obviously a white hipster example of a legacy business, but it offers a perfect case study about how important it may or may not be to preserve our legacy businesses—something the Seattle City Council is currently considering doing.
CBGB was the epicenter of the mid-1970s punk explosion. It closed its doors in 2006 after 33 years.
(The club was only really making history for about five years, between 1975 and 1980 when Patti Smith, Suicide, Blondie, Richard Hell, and the Talking Heads were playing there; my genteel jangle pop band played there in 1985, which, at the time, seemed like 100 years after the fact.)
CBGB’s natural demise brings up a question: What’s actually lost if legacy businesses go out of business? Hell, if CBGB can close (!?), and the world still turns…
In Bethesda, Md, the suburb where I grew up, Tastee Diner is considered a legacy business; I spent thousands of teenage hours there talking about Ronald Reagan, music, revolution, international trade, and other grand high school concerns.
Return to Tastee Diner, 1/20/12
Today, Tastee Diner is in danger of closing. Marriott Inc., which is based in Bethesda, wants to buy the property as they expand their headquarters in downtown Bethesda.
I’m not in favor of this specific redevelopment—”a 22-story office tower and a Marriott-branded hotel”—because I think downtown developments need to include housing and a mix of ground-floor business rather than monolithic corporate uses.
A 22-tower office tower sounds pretty ugly.
I’m not knee-jerk pro-development.
But I’m also not knee-jerk pro-preservation. And I’m definitely not in favor of mandating nostalgia.
This brings me to the Seattle City Council. The council’s call to preserve legacy businesses sounds like a quixotic fight against change.
Seattle is currently in the throes of anxiety about development (and change), and the Council is thinking about dedicating City dollars to save legacy businesses by “direct[ing] assistance to historic businesses, along with [giving] financial incentives for landlords to keep renting to those businesses.”
Picking which local businesses are “legacy businesses” is a muddled, subjective exercise in the first place. And it will, no doubt, also create questions about whose cultural touchstones are being prioritized and whose aren’t.
But that’s not my main objection to the idea of legacy businesses. For me, it comes down to asking what’s cued up to replace the business. Am I sad that Sunset Bowl in Ballard is gone? Yes. Am I sad Piecora’s Pizza on Madison is gone? Definitely.
But, given that we’re in the middle of an affordable housing crisis that requires building more housing to maintain community, I’m glad about the 233-unit multi-family housing development that went up in place of the Sunset Bowl and about the multi-family apartments that are going up at the old Piecora’s spot. (The Piecora family also sold the property for an impressive $10.3 million, so I’m not sad for them.) If Tastee was being replaced with a mixed-use development, I’d be thrilled.
The way to fight gentrification isn’t through symbolic last stands on behalf of signature neighborhood businesses. The way to fight gentrification is by having integrated development and land-use policies that keep affordable housing in the mix in the first place, instead of propping up symbols of another time.
By the way: legacy businesses can certainly transform with the times by coming up with new, relevant and inspired missions that simultaneously honor their pasts—like Scarecrow has done in Seattle’s U. District, taking on the responsibility of becoming a film education non-profit.
And I’m certainly a fan of historic preservation like at Constitution Hall in Philadelphia, the museum at the Lexington-Concord battlefield in suburban Massachusetts, or the Lorraine Motel room in Memphis where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Honoring historical events by preserving the places where they happened is educational and beautiful; on my 2006 Boston Tea Party sojourn to Griffin’s Wharf, which was closed for repairs, we slipped through the yellow tape and threw Starbucks coffee into the water below.
But the City Council isn’t thinking about preserving historic ground. It’s thinking about preserving nostalgic haze.
To be honest, my seemingly dismissive attitude about sentimental spots runs counter to my own, overly-Romantic DNA.
7/11/16, The exact location on Jones St. & W. 4th St., West Village
But I do know this: While we can celebrate the past, we can’t live in it.
The rich cultural je ne sais quoi of local spots doesn’t disappear when the physical space does. We’ll always be animated by the memories of piling into Lee’s van after the high school theater cast party to go to Tastee for a chocolate shake with a side of fries & gravy, hanging out there until 3am after. But do we need Tastee Diner to linger 30 years on in order to cherish what happened there?
I felt the groovy magic when I stopped into a West Village clothing boutique where Jane Jacobs’ (!) apartment used to be; the fashionable woman at the counter told us their request for official landmark status had, so far, been denied. But they did put up their own makeshift plaque.
6/2/14, 555 Hudson St., Greenwich Village