Thursday, August 6, 2009

Raising the Bar in Forest Hills: New Shops Signal Economic Recover

By Steve Tiszenkel

It’s all over! You can start making irresponsible purchasing decisions again — this economic downturn, the Great Recession, is nearing an end. We know this because Barack Obama tells us so.

“In the last few months,” the president said in a much-anticipated speech last week, “the economy has done measurably better than we thought—better than expected.” A lofty statement, this “better than expected,” and according to President Obama, the credit belongs to President Obama’s controversial economic stimulus package, which “put the brakes on the recession.”

Break out the overpriced champagne. Not only are things not entirely so bad as you might imagine they could be, but for the next three-and-a-half years, we’ve got a president who promises to keep things going in a sensible, non-backwards direction.

Now, skeptics — if, indeed, there are any skeptics left after such an encouraging report — might question whether a lack of backsliding really constitutes forward motion, if the fact that not quite as many people have been losing their jobs in the past couple of months is truly good news. But I respectfully disagree. There’s solid evidence that things are getting better. I refer not to the Gross Domestic Product report that spurred President Obama’s announcement, of which I can make neither heads nor tails — after all, I got a C in Macroeconomics during my freshman year of college, not exactly one the finer moments of my four years of secondary education. But I got A after big fat A in sociology, so sociology is what I’ll have to use.

Back in school, Professor Gary Alan Fine instructed our entire 300-level class to leave the leafy confines of our suburban campus, park ourselves on a city street of our choice for a couple of hours and observe. Only then, he instructed us, would we really be able to get a sense of the neighborhood we’d picked, of its economic status, where it had been and where it was headed. With Professor Fine in mind, I give you Exhibit A for the recovery: 71st Road in Forest Hills. By now, Forest Hills’ recent retail struggles have been exhaustively documented. Storefronts continue to stand vacant months or even years after their previous tenants closed up shop. Worse, when new businesses do move in, they’re almost invariably more downscale than their forerunners. My favorite example, which I cannot cite enough in this space, remains when Value Depot closed, lay dormant for about a year, and reopened as Value Depot.

But on 71st Road, there are suddenly signs of life. It’s not that new businesses have replaced old — that happens all the time, in good times and bad. It’s what kind of businesses have moved in. Dollar stores, cheap hair salons and chintzy prom-dress boutiques are now a thing of the past on this modest little block—in the past few months, the street has sprouted a gleaming Italian bakery that’s been winning raves, an immaculate pet groomer, and most recently the coup de grace: an adorable organic market. This isn’t your older brother’s Forest Hills. No, these are the kinds of businesses that work themselves into the fabric of Park Slope — but Park Slope in the more innocent age of 2006, not Park Slope last week.

And it’s not just 71st Road. The new restaurant on 70th Road whose smart exterior and terminating punctuation I’ve long admired even as it spent months sitting empty — this would be the eatery known as aged, period — is now open and looks to be phenomenally popular despite mixed reviews. A new toss-your-own-salad shop, clean and sophisticated, is farther east on another side street. And somehow we now boast not one but two hookah bars, both filled with Sprite-drinking, flavored-tobacco smoking young men and women who look exactly old enough to smoke but exactly not old enough to drink.

Until the former Radio Shack on Queens Boulevard gets a new tenant, until the depressing string of vacant stores on the east end of the Austin Street strip fills up, until Continental Avenue’s Twin Donut finally opens and then closes and then opens again as a tapas bar—only then can we say we’ve made it through this unfortunate moment in history. But for now, we can settle for better than expected.

"This morning, the GDP revealed that the recession we faced when I took office was even deeper than anyone thought at the time. It told us how close we were to the edge," Obama said. "But the GDP also revealed that in the last few months, the economy has done measurably better that we had thought - better than expected."

The stimulus and recovery bill, along with other measures taken by the administration, Obama said, "have helped us put the brakes on the recession," pointing to efforts to help homeowners, spur lending for families and small businesses, tax cuts and extensions to unemployment benefits.

The writer, Steve Tiszenkel is the host of the Website, Queens Central. Log on to to read more about Forest Hills and surrounding neighborhoods.

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