Fairway, FreshDirect, and the Importance of Neighborhood Stores

Our core mission here at NYAGS is to advocate on behalf of the city’s hundreds of thousands of Mom and Pop stores who we feel are the lifeblood of New York-creating the commerce and jobs, for sure, but also giving life, vitality and character to the hundreds of diverse neighborhoods that make up this great town. Central to this mission is our support of the local supermarkets that are the crucial traffic builders who feed the smaller shops as the folks come to the neighborhood shopping strip to buy their groceries.

Nothing exemplifies this core belief than what we are witnessing in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. In neighborhood after neighborhood we see how vital the local markets are to their communities, but one example stands out above all others-the situation in Red Hook after sandy has forced Fairway Market to close because of flooding.

“Exhausted home- and business owners who had weathered the storm, fueled by adrenaline, booze and grit, were still coming to terms with the damage: inventory and equipment drowned by the hurricane’s salty surge, no insurance to cover the loss. More ominous to some was the absence of the neighborhood’s 800-pound gorilla: Fairway Market, the 52,000-square-foot waterfront grocery store at the base of Van Brunt, took on five feet of water and will not reopen for months.

“It is the lifeblood of this neighborhood,” said Triciann Botta, who, along with her husband, opened the Italian wine shop, Botta di Vino, on Van Brunt two and a half years ago. “I’m a wine seller. Food goes with wine. When we lost Fairway, we lost a big part of our customer base.”

This brings us directly to the city’s outlandish proposal, along with NY State, to pony up $127 million to subsidize the online grocer FreshDirect’s move from Queens to the Bronx. Think about this for a minute. The city is giving one of the largest subsidies in the history of this administration to a food retailer that advertises to its potential customers that they no longer will have to go to the local store.

For a city that is built on neighborhoods that are given their character by the diverse set of entrepreneurs that have come here to pursue the American Dream this amounts to a treasonous statement. FreshDirect’s goal is the elimination of the neighborhood store-and the city’s tax subsidy is aiding and abetting this assault on neighborhood commerce.

The Times captures the essence of the argument:

“Fairway’s closing reaches beyond the temporary loss of the community grocery store — as inconvenient as it is, local residents are venturing elsewhere, often by car pool. Fairway was a destination. After it opened, over some protests, in a striking, sprawling, brick-and-wrought-iron Civil War-era building six and a half years ago, it drew people “like filings to a magnet,” said Mr. Pfaffman, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1987.”

This destination shopping had a marvelous spillover effect for the entire neighborhood-and the Mom and Pops that sprung up in Fairway’s wake:

“New Yorkers figured out how to thread their way under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and though Red Hook’s mazelike streets, finding themselves enchanted by its cobblestones, low-slung, rickety row houses and unassuming, small-town air. More shops sprang up to greet them, most along Van Brunt. Fort Defiance, a cafe and bar, opened a few blocks from Fairway. So did Botta di Vino and Dry Dock, another wine shop, and the gift shop Foxy & Winston, whose owner, Jane Buck, sells blown glass salt and pepper shakers, pink squirrel figurines, and stationery, onesies and tea towels printed with hedgehogs, piglets and owls.

Now Fairway is closed indefinitely and several area restaurants and bars are, too.

“I’m not sure how many months a little business like this can sustain itself without foot traffic,” said Ms. Buck, whose shop weathered the storm unscathed. “I specialize in things that no one needs.”

The plight of Red Hook and Fairway dramatizes our fight against the city’s move to give away tax money to fund a single food operator whose goal is to siphon off as much commerce as possible from NYC’s neighborhood stores. It is the height of crackpot rationality and raises some serious questions about the motivations of city officials-since good public policy cannot be an explanation for this bonehead move.

Next Wednesday we will join with the good folks from South Bronx Unite to hold a press conference to alert the entire city to this government boondoggle-a move that threatens every single New York City shopping strip. The FreshDirect subsidy should outrage every one-store owners and tax payers alike-and we aim to give this issue a featured role in the upcoming mayoral election.

Good food policy means supporting and nurturing the local supermarkets, green grocers, restaurants and bodegas. It doesn’t mean throwing tax dollars at corporate extortionists whose threat to go to New Jersey should have been greeted by the mayor with a forceful, “Make my day!”-and not a government handout.


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