The Malls of Flushing
Flushing has always been a commercial center, and various iterations of department stores have defined the economy of the neighborhood through the decades. They come and go corresponding with the shifts of the neighborhood, and even in the fringes of my memory, as far back as I can remember of when I first came to New York, I see Main Street during the last days of the Woolworth’s downtown, at the cusp of another demographic change.
And so the continuing story of Flushing can be traced, as always, through the development of its distinctive commercial institutions. But the way things have changed in these past few years has been especially interesting. Taking a look through the progression of different kinds of retail establishments really makes you think about how each ones leads into the other, and how they depend on the past while hinting at the future.
Before Anthony Bourdain and the food blogosphere, no one really made a big deal of a place like Golden Mall, which sells cheap food and DVDs in classic immigrant enclave conditions. The barebones space is typical of Flushing, but at the same time it flies in the face of conventional wisdom about the importance of things like street level storefronts and marketing. In fact, this everyday, subsistence kind of small business ownership makes the often rarefied image of entrepreneurship seem kind of silly and overblown. It’s hardnosed, monotonous, and occasionally impressive in its drive and tenacity but totally unenviable to outsiders.
On the other end of downtown, there’s Flushing Mall, which is now known primarily for being an eerie ghost town in an otherwise teeming neighborhood. It evokes the dead malls scattered across the country, and with its antique furniture in the hallways and empty shops there’s the sort of beautiful quietness that reminds you of the ephemeral nature of commerce and retail. It represents where the market was at the time that it was built, but apparently Flushing has moved on. There are ping pong tables that are still used, a food court that basically has only one stand remaining, and lots of specialized services like wedding photographers, chess schools, and dance studios. It’s also a place in transition, as there is constant talk that it will be razed and rebuilt for something else as Flushing changes.
Later on, the same developer gave us Queens Crossing, a Singaporean-style office building that probably more than anything symbolizes the geopolitical ascendancy of Asia and its concurrent effects here in Flushing. The development has some of the first true Class A office space in Flushing, foreign tenants from Europe to Asia, and even the beginning of luxury. It was the first conspicuous sign of diversification and specialization and international connections, and it showed that the immigrant base was growing to something more than its barebones retail self.
New World Mall
New World Mall, the latest import from Asia, pushes this international commercial influence to its logical conclusion. It has a celebrated food court that’s busy and exciting though maybe not that amazing in terms of quality. It has the multitude of stores and offering that evoke the hidden malls of Flushing, and the word of mouth and immersion that is required of this neighborhood. But it's also anchored by a large supermarket and contains a huge dim sum and banquet style restaurant on top with enormous chandeliers. It’s a big mix of all the retail types that have come to define Flushing.
And finally, of course, we have Skyview Mall, a legit billion dollar project that broke ground during the recession, toughed out the downturn, and now plays home to big box stores and a more mixed clientele (though still with an Asian supermarket, bakery and bubble tea place). It even has a Mall Santa during the Christmas Season.
It's been a pretty remarkable transformation from tightly packed subsistence entrepreneurship to more diversified services and offices. This place of noodle shops and bootleg foreign DVD stores has become a neighborhood with the foot traffic and buying power to support some of the most profitable chain stores in the city. How did we get from Golden Mall to Skyview? And what does it say about our neighborhoods when food stalls lead to sleek, big box stores? It’s not an outrageous claim of causality.
The functions and the characters of neighborhoods are complex things and they can be tough to talk about. But if you want to hold on to something concrete then Golden Mall is as good a case study as any. What does it take for something like that to maintain itself in a neighborhood? What kind of person does it take to run these businesses? What kind of troubles are there, and what kinds of interventions are possible? The potential and pitfalls of your neighborhood are right there in the everyday drudgery of these storefronts.