If Everybody Looked The Same: Small Businesses In Increasingly Boring Cities

Last evening I was listening to Episode #389 of “Catholic In A Small Town”, the long-running podcast by my friends Mac and Katherine Barron – which you should subscribe to even if you’re not Catholic, as they are terrific, and hilariously funny. During the show, they discussed the travails of trying to cancel their account with a national service chain, in order to sign up with a local business providing the same service. They talked about how supporting local businesses was important to them, and that they had made the choice to do so in other areas of their purchasing lives as well.

Then this morning I learned with sadness that the venerable Embassy café, bakery, and restaurant in Madrid will be closing its doors after 86 years. An institution with a storied history, which you can read a bit about in this article, Embassy is a casually elegant holdover from a more civilized time. It is also very conveniently located in the same block as “my” neighborhood parish in Madrid. I was at Embassy last a couple of months ago, but unfortunately it will be closed before I return to visit Madrid in June. Despite the fact that it has plenty of business, the business it does have cannot compensate for the increasing rents for their property, which includes a lovely terrace under the trees on the Paseo de la Castellana, a wonderful place to meet friends for a meal or a drink.

Embassy is succumbing to the increasing homogenization of city life, which has led to the centers of many cities becoming more same-y, even as they come back from the dead thanks to a greater interest in urban living. Previously, when you traveled to another city, you might expect to see some chains, but these were counterbalanced by an equal number of one-offs – the kind of mom-and-pop businesses that locals or travel books would tell you, “If you’re looking for X, you really need to go visit this unique place.” Now, when you go to almost any city nationally or internationally, you will see the same businesses over and over again, with little in the way of local flavor.

When I first moved to Georgetown in 1991 for example, the main commercial thoroughfares of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue had a number of well-known names: Ralph Lauren, The Gap, Burger King, etc. Existing alongside these big-brand businesses were smaller, local businesses, who only existed in the village: Au Pied du Cochon, Little Caledonia, Café Northwest, and many others. People find it unbelievable when I tell them that back then, tiny Georgetown had four movie theatres, showing a variety of films from major release to art house to old movies. Today there is only a multiplex chain venue – and a very nice one it is, too, but the selection is almost entirely of the mainstream variety, that you could see in any suburban shopping mall cinema.

For most cities, neighborhood holdovers from 20, 30, 40 years ago or more are falling under an increasingly shortened list called “still there”. There is some inevitability to this, as business owners retire or needs change. Yet in many cases, these businesses are being driven out not because they lack customers, but by higher ground rent. The end result is that the chains that replace small businesses seem to last for a few years at most, and are themselves quickly replaced by another chain with outlets in every major city and airport.

Admittedly this post is more of a whinging lament, rather than a prescription for how to solve the problem. I’m not in a position to recommend solutions, or suggest that economies of scale are always bad. In fact they can be quite beneficial, when they bring in goods or services to an area that would otherwise be unable to support them. A diversity of choice creates options that improve our lives as consumers.

That being said, perhaps we have gone too far in the effort to expand perceived choice at the expense of uniqueness and individuality. The stereotype of seeing a Starbucks on every corner exists for a reason. When a local business pits quality and customer service against mass production, it can only succeed if it can keep up with its larger competitor on price, and that effort is seriously undermined when commercial landlords value rents first and foremost.

Now, I would never argue that a landlord must take a hit in the wallet in order to keep a local business in bricks and mortar. A property owner is not running a charity, after all. They have to pay their taxes, account for inflation, and turn a profit, just as any other business owner does. But perhaps what is lacking is an ingrained appreciation for the intangible value of having something unique. If the business is doing fine, then shouldn’t there be a greater effort to keep that uniqueness intact if at all possible? Easy for me to question, I grant you, but if you’re bored when you travel, and settle for shopping or dining at some place that you could just as easily visit back home, then it’s a question worth asking.

When the Emperor Charles V came to the city of Granada in order to see the Alhambra Palace, where his architects were preparing a new residence for him to live in when he visited the city, he was horrified to see that part of the Moorish fortress had been demolished to build a fairly unremarkable Italian Renaissance-style building. “What you have built here can be seen in many places,” he is reported to have said, “but what you have destroyed was unique in all the world.” Perhaps the same could be said, on a smaller scale, for those unique local businesses that deserve our support.

[Correction: a smart reader has reminded me that Charles V said this about the alterations to the Mezquita (former mosque, now a cathedral) in Cordoba, not the alterations to the Alhambra Palace. Mea culpa.]

The author (l) at Embassy last summer


>Time for Walkies

>Those of my readers who happen to live in larger cities are well-aware of the infinite number of opportunities available to get out and about and meet people after work. Here in Washington, for example, there are lectures, receptions, discussion panels, exhibitions, screenings, and so on, on a daily basis; one could easily have somewhere to go every night of the week, if so inclined. I attended such an event last evening, and will be attending another this evening.

Usually these events are somewhat disappointing apart from seeing old friends and making one or two new ones. We mill about at the cocktail hour before the talk, and exchange pleasantries or are introduced to people via mutual acquaintances, an exercise which is sometimes rather painful. As the unnamed, older preppy gentleman at the bar of JG Melon’s explains in Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan”, “The acid test is whether you take any pleasure in responding to the question ‘What do you do?’ I can’t bear it.”

At first I had declined the invitation to last evening’s talk on Islam, since I was somewhat suspicious of the speaker’s thesis. Although I eventually agreed to attend, due to my friendship with the organizers, I should otherwise have followed my first instinct given some of the content that was aired. (Let it never be assumed that bad manners are to be expected solely from those on the Left.) Yet that being said, such events are often a source of joy for the flâneur, for we find ourselves dropping in on a bit of conversation and then dropping out again, with no requirement that the conversation later be continued.

The flâneur of course, for my readers not familiar with the term, is not someone who particularly loves the Spanish custard known as “flan”, or has a preference for flannel trousers (though this particular flâneur enjoys both.) Rather, he is an educated man who enjoys being out and about in his city, observing what is taking place, and commenting on it. While it is predominantly thought of as a 19th century concept, epitomized by figures such as Charles Baudelaire and others who went about in Paris strolling the boulevards and popping in here and there, I have always seen it as a more universal concept with respect to city life, even if not strictly adhering to either Baudelaire’s (or later Walter Benjamin’s) theories on the subject.

To that end, one can make the passing observation – which you are welcome to reject, of course – that in London both Samuel Peyps in the 17th century and the great Dr. Johnson in the 18th century were of this type, though of course neither was particularly interested in issues such as fashion or personal vanity. And Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist, with his ever-ready camera and keen eye as he wanders the streets of whatever city he happens to be in, is clearly one of the 21st century. None of these gentlemen would be caught dead taking a turtle for a walk, of course, but their pleasure in city life, in observing the people and places and how things change over time – sometimes in a matter of days or weeks – is something that urbanism encourages, at its best, in direct contrast to the kind of fortress mentality which characterizes suburbia.

We know from things such as census results and population studies that, in American cities like Washington which have experienced a renaissance of their downtown core, there has been a correlated resurgence in the number of people moving into town, rather than out of it. These people tend to be educated professionals in their 20’s and 30’s, most of whom actually grew up in the suburbs, who are turning their backs on lawn mowing and cul-de-sac hockey matches in order to benefit from the many amenities which urban centers have always offered, including events such as those I attend. They are willing to forgo square footage and acreage in order to live in a community where one cannot help but run into one’s neighbors and interact with passersby on a daily basis, in order the reap the rewards of city life.

Of course, these people are comparatively young, in the scheme of things. A good percentage of them will probably find themselves constrained by their circumstances and the arrival of children to leave the city when they must choose between being a parent and being a hipster. Yet not all of them will leave, I wager, and it will be interesting to see what the net effect of Generations X and Y living the majority of their adult lives in urban centers will have on the appearance and functionality of cities in the future.

At the present time, most 20- and 30-somethings do not have either the political power or economic means to exercise serious control over the development of the cities where they live. For now, that power remains in the hands of the Baby Boomers, who turned the modest Levittowns of their parents’ generation into the hideous suburban sprawl of McMansions and other atrocious architectural nightmares adding to the ruination of the countryside. Yet as more and more younger people reject the hypocrisy of the “me” generation which led to the decimation of the inner city, it is very exciting to contemplate what might happen as that older generation begins to slink off to Florida and Arizona, where they can mull over the mess they have made of things in their homes constructed of plastics manufactured in China.

For example: will there be a resurgence of the construction of entertainment venues such as concert halls and theatres? Anyone who has read of or seen images of early 20th century cities, including Washington, is well-aware that there were far more of such venues at the beginning of the last century than there are today, and if city populations continue to increase existing facilities cannot hope to accommodate all of the people who might like to attend a concert, play, or the like. Will trees finally come back to American cities after a many-decades-long absence, often blamed on Dutch Elm disease but in reality more due to inefficient planning designed to favor the automobile and not the human being? Take a look at an image of any major American city in about 1950 and you will see how much more pleasant a time the flâneur had in wandering his town before the attitude that “trees are our enemy” took hold – and it is an attitude which is still holding sway over city governments, no matter how supposedly “green” they are.

In any case, those of us who have the good fortune to live in the reviving American city, I would argue, have a duty not to hole ourselves up in our houses and flats as if we were still in suburbia but merely lacking a lawn. Going out to the numerous events offered of an evening allow us the opportunity to learn something and to meet people, but most of all to contribute to the fabric of a vibrant, urban life. There is nothing like the sense of comfort one feels in walking along a well-lit city street in the evening, looking at the people who are going to and fro on their way to an event, or meeting friends, running errands, and so on, particularly when compared to the almost funereal silence of suburbia – a place generally lacking the friendliness and simplicity of the countryside as well as the intellectual stimulation of the city.

Young women strolling the Gran Vía (1959)
by Francesc Català Roca
Col.legi d’Arquitectes, Barcelona

>The Spoon as Statement

>Yesterday after a day so full I did not even have time to blog, I met with some old and new friends at a certain spot I frequent in Georgetown, whether for a meal or just a perfect coffee. When our cortados were served a young lady in the party commented, as I have previously, that the teaspoons were far too large for properly mixing the ingredients in the demitasse cups. I commented that unfortunately Bodega did not seem to have demitasse spoons available, which was the only thing keeping the coffee experience there from being flawless. To this, she replied that I ought to carry about with me my own sterling silver demitasse spoon in some sort of an appropriate way – like a fitted case or velvet pouch – and produce it when the cortado arrives.

You can imagine that I find this idea, or perhaps this idiosyncrasy, rather appealing, since there is no point in serving very good coffee and not providing the proper instrument with which to enjoy it. One might as well set before a diner in a good restaurant a beautiful rack of lamb accompanied by a plastic fork and knife. The work can be done, but it is difficult and unpleasant, ruining the enjoyment of the dish.

Many of the flâneurs had odd little affectations that were in fact a practical application of their philosophical views. For example, it was fashionable for a time to keep a pet turtle, and take it for walks on a leash. It was the flâneur’s way of calling attention to the fact that life in cities was becoming too fast-paced, and that both the city and the quality of life for human beings living in it were suffering as a result. Taking the turtle’s pace meant that the details of life, from people to buildings, parks and sidewalks, were not ignored.

In my own family there are some elements of personal statement mixed with idiosyncratic behavior. One of my great-grandfathers was so convinced that the automobile was the work of the Devil to try and destroy human society that to the end of his life (well into the 20th century, I might add) he insisted in only traveling by a coach and four. As this seems somewhat impractical in scale, much as I concur to some extent with his views, perhaps for now I will stick to searching for the proper spoon.