Ten years ago a friend was showing me around his neighbourhood in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Despite my bleary jet-lagged eyes, what really stood out on this early summer morning was the rich diversity of independent local stores that thrived on the commercial cross streets between the tree-lined brownstone terraces.
And that night, we didn’t need to haul ourselves into Manhattan. We had everything we needed right here on the doorstep. Some great bars to start the night, a choice of places to eat and even a couple of fun options for a nightcap.
But as it turned out, this situation was no happy accident. Zoning – New York’s strictly enforced local planning laws – meant ONLY businesses could open up in commercial spaces (no change of use planning applications would be entertained).
Commercial rents were capped and controlled and in these neighbourhood commercial zones, no chains were allowed. So what constituted a chain in Brooklyn? More than two stores, and you’re a chain. Yes, it did mean that as some businesses grew they sometimes had to move on up and out. But it also ensured that while the Subways, KFCs and McDonalds had their place nearby, importantly, it wasn’t here.
It seemed that in the land of the free market, where money always talks loudest, they had a few simple, sensible local provisions that guaranteed a mix of independent, neighbourhood stores.
Most of these stores were family run or small partnerships and the diversity was eye opening. Among the bars, restaurants and cafes were grocery stores, pharmacies, book shops, kids stores, barbers, nail bars and my favourite shop in the entire world – Brooklyn Superhero Supply.
Why is there a Superhero Supply store here? Again, because of those zoning laws.
Volunteers wanted to open a community after-school centre to help kids from all walks of life learn and develop. Somewhere that could also run holiday courses and workshops and be a local beacon to kids who needed a little extra help.
But the zoning laws meant that whatever opened in that space had to be a commercial enterprise. So the smart people behind it opened a superhero store where – out front – you and I could buy tins of invisibility and time travel or use their full cape service (once you’ve taken the pledge to use them for good not evil of course…)
Meanwhile, in a secret space hidden behind a large bookcase, local kids could get the help they needed with their homework and have some serious school holiday fun.
The point here is that the zoning laws didn’t bend even for the most-well intentioned, well-supported and much-needed grassroots community project. (The solution is great example of when the going got tough, the tough got creative… This link will give you more about Brooklyn Supehero Supply, founder Dave Eggars and the pirate and time travel sister stores in LA and Austin, Texas).
Why is the small print of New York’s zoning regulation relevant today? Fast forward a decade, and refocus about 3,000 miles – and here today in the UK there is a pitched battle going on for the heart of nation’s high streets. Bits of the government, Mary Portas, the Daily Telegraph and many, many others are leading a righteous charge to get more diversity and independent, neighbourhood stores back into our towns.
While I wholeheartedly support their valiant efforts, I honestly think it’s a battle that’s been well and truly lost.
The high street is now a “corporates only” zone occupied by the multiples. These large organisations and brands have the scale and backing to afford the rents, and can jump through the hoops set by the commercial property groups who control these prime units. And let’s face it, big concerns are really all these commercial landlords want to deal with anyway (and charities for their massive business rate relief benefits).
But is it really all about the high streets? Why not just let Starbucks, KFC, Boots, Subway, Pret etc have their overpriced spots on our main thoroughfares? Maybe it’s time to get a little bit creative – Brooklyn style…
Maybe what we need to do is adopt the Brooklyn model and concentrate on our local parades. What are parades exactly? Parades are those stretches of shops between the houses that aren’t high streets, but are (or were once) thriving neighbourhood commercial hubs. Little groups of shops supplying most of the goods and services most people needed most days.
Churchfield Road is a great example of this sort of parade, but there are dozens of others throughout Acton, Ealing, Shepherds Bush and Hammersmith. You probably have one less than 100 years from your own front door.
With just a few small New York-style changes these parades could be reborn, becoming the smaller shopping jewels in the local crown, offering neighbourhoods more choice and more diversity. I see parades full of small independent businesses sitting side by side and complementing the big boy chains on the high streets nearby.
What needs to change?
- Councils need to stop allowing change of use orders that allow property owners to turn shops into homes.
- Councils need to deny planning applications that allow property owners to cut shops down to 4m x 4m boxes as they convert the rest of the building into flats.
- Councils need to draw up New York-style zoning rules that keeps residential streets for homes and parades for small independent local businesses (but I’m not so naïve to think that we’re ever going to get commercial rent controls).
- Economic Development teams in local authorities need to own and drive forward these changes within the council and the community and concentrate their efforts on supporting local commercial parades.
- The rest of us need to take our own superhero pledge to actively use and support those local business that deliver something good/special/useful/unique to their neighbourhood and encourage those businesses we really want to see thrive.
In the great scheme of things, these aren’t major changes, but I do think that it could be a blueprint for getting the kind of balance back into our neighbourhoods.
Over the last ten years Brooklyn has seen massive changes. Even the grubbiest, meanest streets across this – the most densely populated of the five New York boroughs – have seen a wave of gentrification.
Even though New York’s hipsters have moved in (and are now moving out and on to other hinterland districts, but that’s another story), the strict zoning laws remain.
Those rules continue to ensure that the cafes and car washes, florists and pharmacies, barbers and bars remain small independent outfits that only survive by having a proposition that appeals to locals and by delivering great goods and services that those locals are willing – and happy – to pay for.
Brooklyn, I salute you.
Mike Taylor is a former journalist, lifelong optimist and deputy director of dusting at Park+Bridge