… and so should you!
I Buy Elm City is all about buying local, supporting your local, independent businesses. Once you become aware of the true cost of buying local vs. buying from multi-state chain businesses we are sure you will become more present to the true value of supporting your local, independent merchants and vendors. As part of this greater awareness you will also start to see the connection between sustainability, energy independence, economic resilience, and their relationship to the socio-economic fabric of the community.
I just discovered their website (IBuyElmCity.com). It’s a great tool for finding exclusively local businesses in New Haven. If you plan on staying here for a while, I’d recommend using it. Our prosperity may depend on it.
To be fair, though, shopping locally is not the only solution to our success as a city. The layout of the city is also crucial to sustaining a local economy. To help you better understand the correlation, I’ve constructed a brief history of shopping trends in New Haven using photographs from Yale’s Visual Resource Collection.
In the earliest days of trade, New Haven was by nature localized. Business owners were New Haven citizens who lived within blocks of their work, or often on the floors above. Their trades were mostly utilitarian. Competition arose from necessity and citizens were keenly aware of the importance of having a robust local economy. Of course, there wasn’t much choice then. If you didn’t like a certain tradesman or shopkeeper, you’d have kept it to yourself, lest you be without that service or commodity. Eventually merchants graduated to bigger stores with more variety to suit the growing population.
Below is a photo of Edward Malley’s c. 1872. Malley began humbly, as a simple dry goods retailer providing a most basic and essential service to New Haven residents.
The original Malley’s building burned twice with the second blaze completely destroying the structure. As a result, a grand, new 8-story retail space was constructed on the same spot across from the Green, and opened in 1899. At the turn of the century, Malley’s was prospering as a result of his rampant advertising which sought to entice one-stop shoppers. Clearly, people appreciated the convenience of getting everything under one roof as Malley’s profits would show, and the new building stood as a monument to Malley’s business acumen.
Malley’s would continue to grow into the 20th century as convenience and spending became inseparable qualities. With Malley’s example of consolidation, there seemed to be no turning back for the American consumer. Indeed, big retail stores sprouted up elsewhere in the city culminating in the construction of the Chapel Square Mall. In the second half of the 20th Century, New Haven opened Shartenberg’s and Macy’s department stores in addition to Malley’s. One could almost smell the impending death of local businesses as larger and less local stores moved in. (To be clear, though, New Haven was experiencing the very same phenomenon as almost every other city in America). The building pictured above – the structure that set a precedent for large retail stores – was appropriately demolished for the construction of the mall in the early 1960s.
The photo below shows the open lots created for Macy’s, Malley’s and the Chapel Square Mall, south of the green at the edge of the Oak Street neighborhood. What was once a vibrant community, was destroyed to make room for shoppers. Worst of all, the space that was created for retail hardly paid off. All three are now closed for business.
The above photo shows Malley’s after the move south. In the distance is Macy’s. In the span of half a century, New Haven had gone from being a regional economic powerhouse to a decaying city, withering away from loss of manufacturing jobs and the shift from shopping local to shopping big.
By the 1990s, downtown was a shadow of its former self. The character and charm were gone, along with the money. In the photo above, the vast, seemingly endless wall is Macy’s outer facade, with Malley’s behind it. The visual barrier these buildings created was oppressive and hopeless – symbolic of the local economy.
To be clear, Malley’s was local as it was founded in New Haven. But, it seemed to set a precedent for the scale of retail stores operating out of downtown. Dry Goods stores became Department Stores, and the friendly face of the local shopkeeper was lost. The shift in scale caused the inevitable decline of the once prosperous neighborhood entrepreneur. The men and women with niche services and commodities were too often outmatched by bigger companies who, unlike Malley, often had no local affiliation whatsoever.
Naturally, this decline of local business must be viewed in light of transportation. Even before WWII, local leaders noticed the shift in residency toward suburban communities. Almost all of them accommodated the suburban shift in ways that we are still dealing with. Notice the abundance of one-way streets downtown. Also notice the highway-like design of Whalley Avenue, Whitney Avenue, State Street, Ella T. Grasso Boulevard and others as they extend out of downtown. Notice that streetcars were replaced by buses. Simply put, planners made it easier to travel and shop by car. As a result, foot traffic declined, narrow streets were nearly abandoned by merchants, and larger stores with parking lots prospered.
In conclusion, buying local is indeed important. Personally, I feel kind of guilty when I don’t do it. But, the practice must be coupled with smart design and planning. The two practices are not mutually exclusive. Complete streets improve local businesses by making them more accessible; local, small-scale businesses make streets more pleasant to walk and bike on. Simple.