By Steve Tiszenkel
There’s a store across the street from my apartment building on Queens Boulevard—or, more accurately, there used to be a store across the street. It was a RadioShack, certainly not my favorite chain electronics store—I prefer not to be pressured into signing up for a pricey cell-phone plan when I buy a pack of AA batteries—but a respectable business nonetheless. I’ve long since lost track of how long RadioShack has been gone, but it’s definitely been more than a year, possibly approaching two. The empty storefront casts a foreboding metaphorical shadow over my building, somehow even uglier than most empty store-fronts, for-rent signs posted haphazardly in the windows and hanging limply over the door, mocking the idea espoused by some that the economy is doing better than advertised.
The former RadioShack used to be the only empty storefront in my neighborhood, if you define “neighborhood” as “area I can see out my window.” But in the past couple of months, a real-estate agency went under, too. Just a little farther down the road, there's a guitar store that's been closed even longer than RadioShack. And on the other side of the street, a coffee shop that served the area for decades sits vacant, a desperate-looking plea for renters in the window, its awning roughly ripped off, not looking like it's likely to be replaced anytime soon. And then there's the old Ethan Allen, its last piece of luxurious oak furniture sold months ago, its distinctive architecture making it clear that this building is unlikely ever to be anything but another Ethan Allen.
This is Forest Hills in 2008. Of course, it's not a local problem. In case you didn't get the memo, the economy has seen better days. We're mired in what most economists consider a recession. Times are tough for individuals, and they're tough for small businesses. But even so, Forest Hills seems particularly badly plagued by empty storefronts. And worse yet, our empty store- fronts—especially the ones a little off the beaten path—never seem to fill up again.
Why is the problem so acute here? Maybe, say, Queens Boulevard and 77th Road just isn't a terribly sexy place to open a new business. Maybe the few entrepreneurs left would rather try something less risky. And maybe our local officials just aren't doing so good of a job as they could in spurring local investment. But I think the plague of for-rent signs boils down to one of the primary causes of a recession: a lack of confidence.
I have faith in Queens, and I don't doubt that a little boutique or a nice coffee shop would do great on the barren north side of the Queens Boulevard. But then, it's easy for me to say that when I'm not pouring my heart, soul and life savings into a business. No, in this economy, maybe I wouldn't take a gamble on occupying one of those storefronts, either. But aren't economic downturns supposed to be the times that make millionaires? Moving into the RadioShack space might not buy any enterprising businessman— or even an executive vice president at some soulless chain—a condo in Miami Beach. It might, however, be a surprising success. And seeing success like that would foster a little confidence that all of us could use right about now.
The writer, Steve Tiszenkel is the host of the website Queens Central. Log on to queenscentral.com to read more about Forest Hills and surrounding neighborhoods.