Walking down Smith Street last week, I was once again struck by a sight that has become all too common in Brooklyn: between Atlantic Avenue and Union Street, a span of roughly 10 blocks, there are at least two or three empty commercial spaces per block, all with “for rent” signs in the windows. A lot of these spaces have been vacant for well over a year, because the rents being demanded are unsustainable for any small business.
At the same time, my friends in Paris are going crazy over the latest exhibit at the very “à la mode” Bon Marché store and gallery. Their theme this month is, of course, Brooklyn. The exhibit confirms once again what we all know: Our borough is the trendiest destination in the world right now.
How can such a dichotomy happen?
And more importantly, what does it really mean for those living in Brooklyn, and then, for those beyond this microcosm?
And why does it matter to me that much?
Let me talk about what I see happening and the potential consequences, and what I aspire to do in this context.
The increasing number of vacant properties standing on the once-vibrant Smith Street is the result of two things that seem to have come up as a sort of chicken-and-egg situation.
On one hand, most landlords are asking for a ludicrous amount of money for those commercial spaces. It is one thing that individuals are willing to spend $5 million or more for a brownstone in Cobble Hill. But let’s be clear here: that does not transform Smith Street into Fifth Avenue or Les Champs Elysées. To think that any business can sustain a rent of $80 per square feet, per year, for a short term lease (10 years max) is, well, nonsense. There is not the density, the foot traffic, or the history that Manhattan has for a small business to sustain such rent in Brooklyn’s neighborhoods.
Unless, of course, you are a bank, a pharmacy or a chain store. One must wonder if every single landlord on Smith Street is actually expecting to sign one of those. If so, that will morph our borough into, well, a strip mall. (And we thought we could get away from that sort of thing by not living in Manhattan…)
On the other hand, you have the commercial brokers whose goal is to get the highest possible rent on a vacant property. For most of them, a vision of durability and sustainability is absolutely non-existent. Talking to a dozen or so brokers in the past year, I learned quickly that they’re mostly unable to comprehend a realistic business plan, and their math skills are limited to how to calculate their fees.
In this context, it is quite striking to think that the entire world envies our life in Brooklyn right now.
Because in short, we build, we consume, and then we throw it all away and we start again.
What we are projecting and promoting is, in fact, a snowballing succession of unsustainable trends.
From an ecological standpoint, it feels absolutely revolting to me. What is even more distressing is that we are, in essence, responsible for a good chunk of the planet’s disarray, and for promoting its continuing destruction.
The real estate reality, combined with this way of setting up businesses whose very essence is just to jump on trends, promotes short-term decisions aimed to achieve big, fast financial returns. The result is complete oblivion to fundamental ethical human principles: paying employees properly, sourcing goods ethically (would it be food, or other goods), worrying about the consequences of each action on the planet and on other human beings, and building something with a vision that it will last more than a decade, more than a lifetime, sustainable in its fundamental structure for the generations to come.
The other “collateral damage” to such entrepreneurship is the total lack of a sense of respect for the community in which these businesses are being built: they are making Brooklyn “happen” by destroying its very essence: real people, in real communities, with once-real businesses.
That’s a quick overview of the big picture. I could probably talk about 100 more layers of destruction inherent to that dynamic.
For me, every time I read disastrous news (so, pretty much every day), I feel the connection of what we are doing right here in Brooklyn, the vacant commercial spaces serving as a powerful visual, and what is happening all over the globe: the way we do business here helps fuel the pandemics of climate change, of wars triggered by a race to oil, of refugees, of ecological disasters.
Here in Brooklyn, all we are doing is busying ourselves with building the next trendy thing.
Louis XV said, “Et après nous, le deluge”, which essentially means, who cares what happens next.
4 centuries later, it sadly describes our way of life pretty accurately.
This has to stop.
The most basic thing to understand is that we can change the way things are going by seeing the connection that we all have, realizing the impact that our decisions have on others.
Then, we need to decide not if we care, but if we care enough to take action.
I struggled for the past few years to find the right path, going back and forth in my soul-searching between non-for-profit action and ethical entrepreneurship. I came to the conclusion that I could have the most impact by anchoring a certain type of business development.
The business model that I have in mind goes back to our roots, so that more businesses are based on longevity rather than what’s on-trend. (A trend, by definition, comes from an outside source, and tends to be force-fed to a population with a good marketing strategy).
The principles and applications of this business model will be built on a foundation that will carry results beyond the current lifespan, and stay for generations to come as a reference point, an anchor in a neighborhood, and in a community. In essence it will be timeless, not trendy, and selfless, not limited to the success of one entrepreneur, yet profitable.
What it can accomplish then, should have a ripple effect, first reversing some of the destruction. Every decision in that business will be made taking to heart the long-term impact on people and the planet.
The dynamic is meant to heal, rather than deplete.
To build, rather than destroy.
To nurture, rather than oppress.
To invest in the community, rather than sucking its roots dry, so that eventually, it is fostering a community for like-minded individuals who share the same vision for themselves, their community, the town where they live.
Such a place then becomes not only a landmark by its physical presence but by its essence of longevity and integrity, creating a true anchor where one can be inspired, nurtured, and fed.
One way to achieve all of this in our crazy economic situation is to buy real estate with the aim of longevity, past 10 or 20 years. It is to set up a landmark for a lifetime and for the generations to come, both in the structure and its applications (click here for actual applications)
The time is not to decide anymore if you should buy organic versus conventional apples.
The time is to decide where you spend your money and understand how it affects us all.
The time is to decide what you want your borough to look like in 10, 20, 30 years, after our lifetime.
The time is to decide if you want to be part of the reconstruction of our ecosystem.
The time is not to decide if you care, it is the time to decide if you care enough to take the actions that are needed.
You might find yourself a bit less breathless running after something you can never have (everything), but then you finally find just the essentials: integrity, a sense of belonging, a safe and clean environment, and the ability to redirect the fragile future of the borough you love and call it home