New Retail Capital and Neighborhood Change: Boutiques and Gentrification in New York City

Sharon Zukin, Peter Frase, Danielle Jackson, Tim Recuber, Valerie Trujillo & Abraham Walker

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Zukin, S. , Frase, P. , Jackson, D. , Recuber, T. , Trujillo, V. & Walker, A. (1). New Retail Capital and Neighborhood Change: Boutiques and Gentrification in New York City. City & Community, 8(1), 47–64.

boutiques , cultural capital , development , entrepreneurs , Gentrification , retail

Since the 1970s, certain types of upscale restaurants, cafés, and stores have emerged as highly visible signs of gentrification in cities all over the world. Taking Harlem and Williamsburg as field sites, we explore the role of these new stores and services (“boutiques”) as agents of change in New York City through data on changing composition of retail and services, interviews with new store owners, and discursive analysis of print media. Since the 1990s, the share of boutiques, including those owned by small local chains, has dramatically increased, while the share of corporate capital (large chain stores) has increased somewhat, and the share of traditional local stores and services has greatly declined. The media, state, and quasi-public organizations all value boutiques, which they see as symbols and agents of revitalization. Meanwhile, new retail investors—many, in Harlem, from the new black middle class—are actively changing the social class and ethnic character of the neighborhoods. Despite owners’ responsiveness to community identity and racial solidarity, “boutiquing” calls attention to displacement of local retail stores and services on which long-term, lower class residents rely and to the state’s failure to take responsibility for their retention, especially in a time of economic crisis.

Main finding
Gentrification in Harlem has been both state encouraged and market driven. Commercial spaces have been used to define public space and to create social and economic opportunities. The pioneers of gentrification are typically local boutiques. Over time, the local population increases as the area becomes more desirable, increasing economic opportunities. Ultimately, many of the pioneers are pushed out by the rising rent. Boutiques are privatized public spaces emblematic of the interests of mobile, affluent people who typically do not represent the original social and economic makeup of the area. They also serve as a signal to outside interests that retail opportunities exist in an area previously ignored by outside capital. Creating public policy to protect local, long standing businesses can help mitigate the influx of new retail development.

Description of method used in the article
In Harlem and Williamsburg, New York City, a discourse analysis of neighborhood change was conducted using newspapers, websites, and magazines published between 1980 and 2006. Changes in commercial occupancy on major shopping streets were also examined in the same time period of study. Interviews with new business managers and owners were conducted in Central Harlem (n = 9) and Northside Williamsburg (n = 15). To supplement the lower number of interviews in Harlem, material from the media was gathered to study six more stores.

Policy implications

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