Wednesday, March 5, 2008

New Yorkers Get Priced Out of Grocery Stores

New Yorkers Get Priced Out of Grocery Stores

By Sam Pizzigati

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In New York City, as TV's widely viewed Without a Trace series regularly reminds us, people disappear all the time. But something new, a headline revealed last week, is now disappearing in New York. Grocery stores.

Over the last six years, researchers report, the number of supermarkets in New York has shrunk by a third. Three of the city's top food chains -- D'Agostino, Gristedes, and Key Food -- "have each closed about a dozen stores since 2000."

Why are New York's supermarkets shutting down? No one needs to call in the FBI to investigate. Analysts already know the answer. New York is simply becoming too unequal -- too economically top-heavy -- to sustain the basics of modern American middle class life.

The enormous wealth now concentrated in New York has sent property prices so high that supermarkets can no longer afford to rent their urban spaces. The city's "soaring real estate values," the Washington Post notes, "are prompting property owners throughout the city to shutter grocery stores and sell to developers."

Those developers are bringing to market condos and businesses that cater to the ever-richer ranks of New York's awesomely affluent. No mystery why. These affluents have congregated in New York at levels seen nowhere else in the United States.

One telling statistic: The average weekly salary in New York County -- Manhattan -- hit $2,821 in 2007's first quarter, the equivalent of $147,000 a year. That figure over tripled, for that time period, the national average weekly take-home.

How could the average take-home be so high in New York? Credit Wall Street. In last year's first quarter, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show, the folks gainfully employed in New York's financial sector averaged an incredible $16,918 a week, a $879,736 per-year rate -- and more than enough to drive Manhattan's overall average take-home up near $150,000.

Not surprisingly, New York County now ranks as the nation's most unequal county jurisdiction. The top fifth of Manhattan's income-earners take home over 50 times the income of Manhattan's bottom fifth. Nationally, according to U.S. Census figures for 2006, top-fifth incomes outpace bottom-fifth incomes by 15 times.

Amid all this inequality, only those at the tippy top of the income ladder can afford to live stress-free and comfortably in Manhattan. The market has priced out most everyone else. If you can't afford to shell out $1 million, you haven't been able, since 2004, to afford the average Manhattan apartment. On the city's Upper East Side, apartments with three or more bedrooms average $6.6 million.

The inevitable result?

"The super rich," observes Queens College sociologist Andrew Beveridge, "are driving out the upper middle class, let alone the middle class."

Those merely "relatively well-off," notes New York-based newspaper columnist Richard Bernstein, experience their city's intense inequality every day, most aggravatingly when they "spend hours of their time trying to park their cars on the street, because a spot in a parking garage costs $6,000 or $7,000 a year."

Meanwhile, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire who made his fortune selling information services to Wall Street, is working hard on solutions to the city's widening supermarket crisis. The Bloomberg administration, according to news reports, is planning "to license 1,500 street vendors to sell fruits and vegetables."

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