Keeping Up Appearances: How the Design of Storefronts Define Place and Value
What do small businesses in New York City communicate via their designed storefronts? What narrative are they telling and howdo storefronts affect a neighborhood’s identity? What types of storefronts clarify or confuse the city’s social, cultural, and economic complexion? Who has agency within their social and production networks, and in what ways does design allow for agency?
Design (of urban space, city blocks, and storefronts) allows for agency (of a vast network of actors that are both material and semiotic in nature). New York’s social, cultural, and economic boundaries—the forever oscillating values of which create spatial differentiation—are typically quantified in hard terms by numbers (of home sales, rent, net worth, and income). Yet, there are many ways to understand and convey value.
This research challenges the critical bounding assumptions associated with how value is perceived and evaluated and offers a new vantage point: from the perspective of design.
New York is a city of neighborhoods. Each has its own distinctive identity, which is formed slowly and cumulatively over time, in turn giving the city its heterogeneity. A neighborhood’s identity comprises a complex sum of social, cultural, and economic counterparts, defined by its location, population, and material composition. The street grid, buildings, stores, signs, sidewalks, benches, and greenery telegraph a locale’s unique character. In a treatise issued by the Bloomberg administration, Façade: Guide to Storefront Design, Robert W. Walsh, the former Commissioner of Small Business Services, wrote that neighborhoods are in large part “defined by the character and quality of their individual storefronts.”1Walsh underscored that the design of small business storefronts create not just aesthetic value for a neighborhood, but social and economic value as well.2
And these unique small businesses, with their neighborhood-defining storefronts, are at risk.3 Rising rents are making it nearly impossible for them to stick around, opening the door to big brand chain stores, who can afford the rents. This is not simply a nostalgic or sentimental viewpoint, and these establishments aren’t just window dressing. They are the amenities that make neighborhoods attractive and valuable, touted by real-estate agents looking to close the condo sale or make the high-end apartment rental. They are a big part of the reason that living in the city feels different and exciting, and “provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange,” as urban theorist Jane Jacobs put it.4
This research does not attempt to examine or explain the full spectrum of circumstances that contribute to the formation, understanding, and perception a neighborhood’s identity. It aims to investigate, interpret, and critique one facet of a neighborhood’s identity—the design of small business storefronts—and consider their contribution to the larger whole of the neighborhood and the city.
Today, several types of stores and, consequently, several types of storefronts coexist. Chain stores—like Rite Aid, McDonald’s, and Citibank—exist in multiple locations and are not unique to a neighborhood. They transmit their own pre-defined brand values and identity and aim for universal appeal more so than local appeal.
Local businesses—like book stores, restaurants, and clothing boutiques—cater to people in their direct and indirect proximity, attracting visitors from other neighborhoods. Local businesses create cross pollination between residents and visitors.
Hyper-local businesses—like beauty salons, laundromats, and dry cleaners—primarily cater to people in their immediate proximity. More so than book stores, restaurants, and clothing boutiques, laundromats and dry cleaners are localized, service-oriented businesses which exist primarily to serve surrounding residents. More so than local businesses, laundromats and dry cleaners—through the design of their storefronts—communicate directly to neighborhood residents. A laundromat in a low income neighborhood deploys a different visual rhetoric than a dry cleaner in a high income neighborhood. This discovery is central to my primary research, the methodologies of which are inherently comparative in their nature.
To focus my research, I selected two neighborhoods in New York City: Mott Haven, Bronx, and Lenox Hill, Manhattan. Mott Haven, with 12,061 occupied households, a population of 37,351 people, a median household income of $31,532, and a median home sale price of $274,000, represents a low social and economic standing. Lenox Hill, with 17,697 occupied households comprising a population of 28,924 people, a median household income of $184,118 and a median home sale price of $1,256,975, represents a high social and economic standing.5
The Tactics of Consumption: How the Customers and Community Members Read Signs and Use Storefront Spaces and Why
1 Stop Bronx Laundromat, in Mott Haven, Bronx is one of at least 12 laundromats and five dry cleaners in the neighborhood.6 Located north of the Mott Haven Houses, a housing project with some 2,521 inhabitants, and across the street from Furniture Depot, the large laundromat can be seen from blocks away.7 The 6,000-square-foot facility has its own 22-space parking lot, and the Mx15 bus stops at its doorstep. It is a neighborhood destination.
With a substantial footprint comes plenty of signage: the panoramic vinyl plane of a blue awning spans 11 parking spaces and rounds the corner of the building to continue for a similar length, so that the full extends spans approximately 170 feet.8 Part of the business’ name (set in a font called Boca Raton) has been horizontally stretched 190% to cover additional ground.9 A billboard hangs directly above the awning, offering a second serving of 1 Stop Bronx Laundromat’s logo.
1 Stop Bronx Laundromat exhibits qualities that are typical of Mott Haven laundromats. In addition to the expressive design elements of the storefront, the facility offers many ways to kill time (or spend that time more productively). On a recent trip to do his laundry at 1 Stop Bronx Laundromat, I witnessed (and exercised) a few of these “tactics of consumption,” in Michel de Certeau’s sense of the term which is “the ingenious ways in which the weak make use of the strong, thus lend a political dimension to everyday practices.”10
Before entering the space, several boundaries are laid out for visitors on the front doors. To enter is to accept the terms and conditions of the establishment. A large blue and red neon sign proclaims, “Welcome.” But not so fast. Visitors should know that the premises are under 24-hour video surveillance. The laundromat is open 24 hours but the staff closes the doors from 2:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. for safety reasons. The chosen time frame may indicate peak hours of crime in the area (there are 155 registered offenders living within one mile of 447 Willis Ave, where 1 Stop Bronx Laundromat is located).11 The bathroom is for customers doing their wash only. (After a conversation with the laundry attendant, I learned that the staff had to qualify their definition of a customer because too many people would come in, buy a 25¢ gumball, and feel entitled to use the bathroom.) The placement of a stylized Star of David sticker aside the door nearly suggests a mezuzah. A mezuzah is a small parchment scroll inscribed with Deuteronomy 6:4–9 and 11:13–21 and the name Shaddai and placed in a case fixed to the doorpost by some Jewish families as a sign and reminder of their faith. Through conversations with the staff, I learned that the owners are Jewish.12 The hierarchy of the dual language “pull” sign (first Spanish, “hale,” then English) may reveal the presiding language spoken inside. A large red sticker with the letters, “ATM,” placed near the door handle may imply to customers: No need to travel elsewhere to withdraw additional spending money, we have you covered. 1 Stop Bronx Laundromat’s storefront contains a horde of objects and messages including neon signs, clothing donation bins, security cameras, and duct-taped windows.
The laundromat offers a place for parents to accomplish chores, while their children can run free with limited supervision. Within 1 Stop Bronx Laundromat, there is ample space to explore, play video games, and watch television. Children “often use the laundry carts like they’re race cars,” wrote Raymond W. in a recent Yelp review of the business.13 Parents and children aren’t the only ones making tactical moves in the laundromat.
From January to April each year, 1 Stop Bronx Laundromat partners with Broadway Professional Services, a financial firm, to offer customers tax filing services while they wait for their laundry.14 Customers of the laundromat quickly noted the benefits of the program, which is especially convenient for those working late or who have multiple jobs. Combining errands, customers said, seemed like a “winning strategy, however bizarre.”15
Some customers use the time to consider important upcoming decisions. José, who wore a royal blue sweatshirt and matching cap that read “Jesus,” watched The View (senator Bernie Sanders was a guest that day) while he contemplated who to vote for. He prefers this laundromat, even though he lives 12 blocks away and has several closer options, even one on his block. “I feel safe here,” said José, indicating the 16 security security cameras in the laudroat interior and the presence of extra people around.16When shown a picture of the building’s exterior and asked what he thought about it, José scratched his cap, shrugged his shoulders, and admitted that he did not recognize it. After some assistance, he remarked, “Really?” and let out a hearty laugh, leaning his head and whole body back in the process. The fact that José regularly visits and even prefers 1 Stop Bronx Laundromat, yet is oblivious to its visual appearance, is a testament to the design of the storefront, which blends in with its environment as it attracts customers. Marshall McLuhan, the influential media theorist, wrote that, “If an ad has become so environmental as to be unperceived, that’s when it’s really doing its work.”17 Storefronts are a form of advertising, they publicly communicate offering in an attempt to win customers. The laundromat’s presence is felt enough that visitors can locate it. In José’s case, 1 Stop Bronx Laundromat represents safety, and an opportunity to socialize with his community.
The real value of the experience is actually what is not being pointed out by the sign. According to Vincent Descombes, a French philosopher, “The character is at home when he is at ease in the rhetoric of the people with whom he shares life.”18 The feeling of “home” is accomplished by the colors, words, materials, objects, and distinctive design gestures that comprise the storefront. Its unique design captures the character of the neighborhood, which would feel alien if placed in a different part of the city.
Lenox Hill, Manhattan, is 5.5 miles south of Mott Haven, Bronx.19 It’s about a 26-minute ride on the Lexington Avenue subway line.20 Emerging in Lenox Hill, Manhattan, after a 26-minute ride on the Lexington Avenue subway line reveals a different neighborhood and another storefront to consider.
Madame Paulette, one of the neighborhood’s 22 dry cleaners, occupies part of the ground floor of the Manhattan House, an iconic modernist building designed in 1950 by architect Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore Owings and Merrill.21 Madame Paulette has five large, department store-like window displays that showcase a collection of fashionable, summery outfits worn by high gloss black mannequins, who pose with floppy-brimmed straw hats, sunglasses, and tote bags filled with hydrangeas and oversized pink daisies. The collection, and the design of the current storefront display, is by Just Drew, a contemporary clothing line by the New York-based fashion designer Andrew Warren. Madame Paulette, a family-owned business now in its 55th year of operation, has a long-standing practice of using their windows to showcase the work of fashion designers.22 “Most of the designers we showcase in our windows use our services too,” said Shanida, an employee who has been with the cleaner for seven years. According to Shanida, Madame Paulette counts Vera Wang, Hermes, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s costume collection as customers.23 A neutral brown fabric awning hangs above the windows, spanning the width of the façade. The company’s logo, a delicately extruded and backlit script type treatment, is subtly raised from the building’s fascia and centered above the entrance.
Entering Madame Paulette, three extravagant gold light fixtures hang from within a tray ceiling in the center of the room. Four cash registers with gold-painted covers, adorned with the company’s monogram, sit atop a long, marble countertop, where small dishes of hard candies are intermittently placed. Framed portraits of fashionable models of the 1960s hang on the wall behind the counter, celebrating fashion from the era when the company started.
The most brilliant display of strategy by Madame Paulette is their purposeful move to break tradition with common dry cleaner vernacular, which tends to be a mixture of vinyl awnings, neon signs, and large typographic and illustrative posters describing their offerings. “Many people walk in thinking we’re a clothing store,” said Shanida.24 The upscale design of their storefront accentuates the sophisticated sensibilities of the neighborhood and confirms that residents are less comfortable bringing their clothes to a cleaner with a neon sign or a vinyl awning. The storefront, with its seasonal rotation of self produced fashion exhibitions, creates confidence among customers because it speaks in their language. According to the business’s website, the fashion designer Vera Wang has said, “The only establishment I can trust to maintain, renew and preserve my bridal collection is Madame Paulette.”25 Shanida admitted that not all of the neighborhood’s residents “want to spend $125 on a coat,” and that “there are a lot of successful mom and pop dry cleaners around here too.”26 Looking at the distribution of cleaners within Lenox Hill, it comes as no surprise that the largest concentration is scattered along First Avenue, a far cry from the manicured streets of Park Avenue. “It’s like it’s infested,” said Sarah, a Lenox Hill resident, describing the high frequency of cleaners along First Avenue.27
Mott Haven, Bronx, and Lenox Hill, Manhattan, offer two vastly different perspectives on the ways in which the design of storefronts defines place and value within their respective zip codes. Each storefront contains a rich, yet different, collection of objects that speak to the unique qualities of their neighborhoods. 1 Stop Bronx Laundromat in Mott Haven presents a place of round-the-clock security in a highly accommodating venue where customers can make efficient use of their downtime to offset their busy schedules. Madame Paulette of Lenox Hill presents a place of luxury, craft, and wondrous leisure, where customers bring high stakes garments. The cleaner could pass for a high fashion clothier and customers use the business to boost their own identity.
Material semiotic analysis is fundamental to understanding our urban environment and its socioeconomic complexion. I look at my city differently now, through the lens of design.
- Robert W. Walsh, Michael R. Bloomberg, and Robert Lieber, Facade: Guide to Storefront Design (New York: Department of Small Business Services, 2014), 3. ↩
- Ibid, 30. ↩
- Tim Wu, “Why Are There So Many Shuttered Storefronts in the West Village?,” The New Yorker (May 24, 2015), accessed April 13, 2016, http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/why-are-there-so-many-shuttered-storefronts-in-the-west-village. ↩
- Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Random House, 1961; reprint, New York: Vintage 1992), 238. ↩
- “11104,” Point 2 Homes, accessed December 22, 2015, http://www.point2homes.com/US/Neighborhood/NY/New-York-City/10454-Demographics.html. “10065,” Point 2 Homes, accessed December 22, 2015, http://www.point2homes.com/US/Neighborhood/NY/New-York-City/10065-Demographics.html. ↩
- Based on the author’s visits to the neighborhood, as of March 2016, the laundromats and dry cleaners of Mott Haven include: 1 Stop Bronx Laundromat, Arthorp Cleaners, Blue & White Laundromat, Broadway Minerva Cleaners, Brooke Laundry, C & M Cleaners, Carnegie Linen Services, Champion Cleaners, Clean4UService, E Z Spin Laundromat, Express Laundromat, Galaxy Cleaners, Glory Cleaners, Go Laundry World, I am No Slob, Jessie Laundry, Keep it Clean Laundromat, Laundry, M & D Double Bubble Laundromat, Meyo’s Cleaners, Personal Touch Valet, Premium Laundry, Pro Cleaning Maintenance, Shirts Kim Dry Cleaning & Laundry, Super Laundromat, Zuri Soko Services. ↩
- “NYCHA Housing Developments: Mott Haven Houses,” New York City Housing Authority, accessed April 8, 2016, http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycha/html/developments/bronxmotthavenhouses.shtml. ↩
- Meenakshi Srinivasan, “Standard Notes for Drawings,” NYC Board of Standards and Appeals, accessed April 8, 2016, http://www.nyc.gov/html/bsa/downloads/pdf/forms/memostandardnotesv6.pdf. ↩
- Boca Raton is a decorative font designed by Grant Hutchinson, who is based in Calgary, Canada, and released in 1993 by Image Club Graphics. “Boca Raton,” Fonts.com, accessed April 10, 2016, http://www.fonts.com/font/image-club/boca-raton. ↩
- Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), xvii. ↩
- “Crime near 447 Willis Ave,” Home Facts, accessed April 8, 2016, http://www.homefacts.com/address/New-York/Bronx-County/Bronx/10455/447-Willis-Ave/168591360.html. ↩
- “Mezuzah,” Meriam-Webster, accessed April 8, 2016, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mezuzah. ↩
- Raymond W., April 6, 2016, comment on “Hry Laundry Mat,” Yelp, accessed April 8, 2016, hhttps://www.yelp.com/biz/hry-laundry-mat-bronx. ↩
- Alice Speri, “Bronx Laundromat Offers Tax Filing Services During Wash Cycles,” DNAinfo (January 23, 2014), accessed March 16, 2015, https://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20140123/mott-haven/bronx-laundromat-offers-tax-filing-services-during-wash-cycles. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- José (a customer), in discussion with the author, 1 Stop Bronx Laundromat, April 8, 2016. ↩
- Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (New York: Bantam Books, 1967), 25. ↩
- Vincent Descombes, quoted by Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London: Verso, 1995), 108. ↩
- “Mott Haven, Bronx, NY to Lenox Hill, New York, NY,” Google Maps, accessed April 17, 2016, https://www.google.com/maps/dir/Mott+Haven,+Bronx,+NY/Lenox+Hill,+New+York,+NYfirstname.lastname@example.org,-73.9771545,13z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m13!4m12!1m5!1m1!1s0x89c2f5d03bde0ec9:0x6e47149cc249e48!2m2!1d-73.9228881!2d40.8091068!1m5!1m1!1s0x89c258c22817f429:0xfcbc13daafb82d31!2m2!1d-73.967557!2d40.7675915. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Based on the author’s visits to the neighborhood, as of March 2016, the laundromats and dry cleaners of Mott Haven include: Craft Cleaners, Dry Clean with Personal Care, E-Wonderful Cleaning, EDA Cleaners, EFI Cleaners, Excellente Services, Expert Cleaners, Frank’s Cleaner & Tailor of New York, Hallak Cleaners, J’s Cleaners, JC Cleaners, Jim Lee Cleaners, Lee’s Cleaners, Jeeves New York, Jeffery Cleaners, Madame Paulette, Ming’s Clean & Fresh, Nick Laundromat, Oxford Cleaners, Royal Sutton Cleaners, Top Quality Cleaners. ↩
- Shanida (employee), in conversation with the author, April 13, 2016. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Vera Wang, “What Our Customers Think,” Madame Paulette, accessed April 13, 2016, http://madamepaulette.com. ↩
- Shanida, in conversation with the author, April 13, 2016. ↩
- Sarah (Lenox Hill resident), in conversation with the author, January 22, 2016. ↩