With JP Morgan Chase’s announcement that it will shutter dozens of Washington Mutual bank branches around the city, we mourn the passing of a perennial trend piece: the story about all those bank branches around the city. (The Observer wasn’t immune.)
The bank-branch-explosion trend piece was as reliable as a Yankees post-season the last few years, and that’s stopped, too. Why was the piece a perennial? Well, because the explosion was real.
But, more importantly, because it encapsulated so well two realities about New York since 2001.
First, the cost of real estate has gone way up. Apartment rents, office rents, retail rents, building prices–all increased significantly over the past seven years, and ordinary New Yorkers felt it every day. The average Manhattan apartment sales price, for instance, eclipsed $1 million in 2004, and thereafter we became inured to read or to hear about $53 million condo sales at the Plaza or $48 million co-op deals on Fifth Avenue.
Retail rents increased, too. The last Real Estate Board of New York retail report, in the spring, declared that ground-floor retail rents in different parts of Manhattan had increased as much as 50 percent annually. Retail rents could run shopkeeps big and small well over $1,000 a square foot annually.
Second, these cost jumps for New Yorkers accompanied or, in some cases, presaged gentrification. Say you lived in what the media sometimes dubs “an emerging neighborhood,” and one day you bounded out the door and saw a “Washington Mutual” or a “Chase Bank” sign on a corner storefront that until a few days ago was a beer-by-the-can bodega or a dirt-cheap dry cleaner. You knew things were changing. There went the neighborhood, perhaps irreversibly.
Bank branches were such harbingers of gentrification that it almost became an insult or worse if a bank did not deign to open in some parts of New York. Representative Anthony Weiner issued a report in early 2006 lamenting that many banks weren’t opening branches in poorer neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville even as they opened several hundred in more affluent areas.
Maybe these neighborhoods will catch the next bank-branch wave. If there is one.
In the meantime, somewhere in the city a reporter puts fingers to keyboard and types a variation of this line: “___ are the New Bank Branches! They’re opening all over town!”