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Voices Fall-Winter 2007:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Downstate column, “City under Siege—and How Place Dollars Could Save It” by Steve Zeitlin
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Volume 33

City under Siege - and How Place Dollars Could Save It by Steve Zeitlin

Downstate The skeletal remains of CBGB’s famous red awning—just the spokes—still protrude from the birthplace of punk rock on 2nd Avenue. No flowers or memorials are left on the street, as when punk rockers memorialized Joey Ramone outside the club in 2001. There’s no time to mourn for CBGB, because other victims of gentrification and escalating real estate values plead for our attention: Tonic, another venerable Lower East Side rock club, Claremont Stables near Central Park, the only stable in Manhattan open to the public, Copacabana, the great Latin dance hall in midtown, and Astroland, the amusement park that anchored Coney Island, have all closed their doors in just the last few months.

Khadijah Shaheed, who was raised in the Marci Housing Projects, was twelve years old when she took her first trip to the Empire Roller Skating Center, a mecca for skaters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. That’s where she first learned to skate gracefully. “If the Empire shuts down, a lot of skaters will just stop skating,” she once told us. Hang up your skates, Khadijah. The Empire, too, has fallen.

Before the Empire became one of New York City’s best loved roller rinks, it was a parking garage for Ebbets Field. The Swanson family opened the rink in 1941, and it was family-owned through the late 1990s, when the nationwide chain United Skates of America took it over. What made the Empire special? Its giant size, for one: 220 feet long by 60 feet wide, big enough for more than one thousand skaters at a time. The floor was high-quality maple; the sound system was always the best. The skaters made it legendary, too. One was Bill Butler, who in the 1960s and ’70s helped turn roller skating into roller dance. “You can always tell an Empire skater by the way they bounce,” said one longtime deejay. The Empire was the last functioning, purpose-built roller rink in the five boroughs. Its next life? Probably a storage facility.

That means that storing things that people can’t even use is more valuable in terms of dollars per square foot than a place that stores memories and sustains a community. I imagine asking the anonymous storage mogul who purchased the site, “How do you compare the value of a storage facility and a roller rink?”

“Simple,” he answers. “I can make more money on storage than the previous owner could make on skating. That means that a storage facility is more valuable than a roller rink.”

“Is it?” I say. “Well, let’s monetize the situation in ways you might understand. People like Khadijah Shaheed, who grew up skating on those maple floors, value the club. People invest their time and their emotions in the place, and the site accumulates what we might call place dollars. These are backed not by gold bullion, as dollars once were, but by human values and associations—a currency that should have provided the Empire with the resources to negotiate for its survival.

“But,” he says, “these so-called place dollars represent the value of the Empire as it once was. What are people willing to pay this year and next year to skate—and how many of them? I can make more money renting raw space any day.”

But those place dollars pay a dividend that can’t be ignored. The accumulated place dollars derived from personal time and experience can be drawn upon because new experiences have layers of memory attached to them. Roller skaters like Khadijah get a tremendous amount out of the experience, more than they can pay for it—and far more than the practical market value of the storage facility.

In our current world, human emotions, values, and associations are considered the “soft stuff.” Community activists standing up for places that matter figuratively wheel wheelbarrows filled with place dollars into hearings, but these units of value are deemed worthless. Even though these place dollars are not likely to be printed and adopted as an alternate currency, they illustrate how the loss of cultural value is tangible and that we need to find a method of measuring public attachments in our collective decision making about the value of a place. We need forms of cultural capital that are as quantifiable and real as money, which—after all—has only an agreed-upon value.

“Those place dollars are as worthless as the paper they’re not printed on,” the storage mogul says.

So much for Folkonomics 101.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter if we are able to calculate the place-dollar value of a given place so precisely. These are cultural assets. Cherished establishments and local landmarks need support, just like parks, historic battlefields, or history museums, which receive government subsidies. We need to find ways, such as rent control for local landmarks. We need to expand preservation guidelines to include, for instance, the “use” of a property, not just protection for the facade. We need to consider the time span of the tradition in living memory, not just the age of a building, as landmarking regulations stipulate. We can’t afford to trade the enormous cultural value of a grand roller rink for mini-storage.

Khadijah Shaheed recalls the night at the Empire when her friend Moochie told her she “skated ugly.” Moochie took her aside and showed her how to cross the leg over as she moved. I still can’t dance,” Khadijah told us, “but when I cross the leg, it looks a lot more graceful.” New York City may have more places to store its stuff and house its richest residents, but it has lost some of its grace.


Photo of Steve Zeitlin
Photo: Martha Cooper
Steve Zeitlin is the founding director of City Lore in New York City.

Cherished establishments and local landmarks need support, just like parks, historic battlefields, or history museums, which receive government subsidies.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 33, Fall-Winter 2007. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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