The Mollification of Manhattan: What Does the Proliferation of Bank Branches Mean for Manhattan?
There were many reasons I enjoyed the alienating architecture of Sixth Avenue after the evening rush. One of them was the feeling of control that the environment telegraphed. And then there was the sense it gave of being the last person in the world.
But you don’t want to feel like the last person in the world when you are walking down a major avenue of a residential neighborhood. All these banks taking over the cityscape feel like a form of municipal neurosis: the buildings and apartments rising above the avenues are now worth so much money that the landscape itself is taking on the very shape and character of money.
One of the upsetting things about Urban Blight 2.0 is the sense that the physics of money suddenly feels inadequate and outdated. I used to think that retail space was rented out by stores that sold things—if they sold enough of that thing they could pay the rent and even have something left over. Yes, a flagship store can be a loss leader, but some rudimentary law of supply and demand seemed to order its existence. Yet with the bank branches, it is impossible to imagine that the fees of retail banking are making the rent. They are, in a sense, a brick-and-mortar manifestation of the zeitgeist—the financialization of retail.
It turns out the explanation is quite simple: they appear to be banks but they are actually billboards, obliged to put on the show of being functioning institutions. A bit like the gambling den in “The Sting,” or the Old West town in “Blazing Saddles”—two movies I saw at the movie theatre on Broadway between Eight-third and Eighty-fourth.
But “financialization” isn’t a sufficient word—it’s the nationalization of Broadway; Manhattan as a high-profile arena where national brands marshal a divide-and-conquer strategy to drive out all local competition and then split the market amongst themselves, as Sears and Wal-Mart once endeavored to do with the rest of the country.