Gentrification And Retailing

August 31, 2016

Gentrification and Retailing

Benny Gold, founder and designer behind the eponymous cult streetwear brand, recently penned an interesting piece at Hypebeast. He talks about what it’s been like running a retail shop in the midst of San Francisco’s real estate boom (where his company is based). For those unfamiliar, the entire Bay Area has seen real estate prices soar in the last twenty years, but things have gone into hyperdrive in the last five. As Gold notes, he was able to secure a retail space in the Mission District (a historically low-income neighborhood) for about $1,500/ a month just six years ago. Now, just a block away at his new location, he’s paying six times more.

All this is fueled by the region’s tech boom. As tech companies bring in new employees – backed with big salaries and even bigger stock options – those new residents are competing for the Bay’s very limited housing. Demand strips supply, wealthier people win out, and those outside of the tech sector are slowly being pushed out of their neighborhoods.

You might think that having wealthier residents in the city means more business, but Gold says shopping is all online now – making brick-and-mortar business hard to sustain. He writes: “Sales are down in physical retail stores all over America due to online shopping options offering highly competitive prices and free expedited shipping. It is very difficult for an independent to compete with that.”

It makes me sad to see the city that I so love being slowly striped of all the things that made it great in the first place. Diverse neighborhoods being gentrified into luxury apartments for tech-bros (and, at times, tech-gals). A withering cultural scene because artists, musicians, and writers can’t afford rent. Affordable eateries giving way to $100/ plate BBQ pop-ups (I think these are called “concepts” now?). And interesting retailers who can no longer justify the cost of physical space in an e-commerce world.




Andrew Chen of 3sixteen tweeted this Monday: “I cannot remember the last time an e-commerce website left me with a sense of awe or inspiration.” I couldn’t agree more. Although most of my menswear shopping is admittedly done online now, the experience pales in comparison to actually going to a shop. It’s not just about the ability to try things on, appreciate unique sihlouettes, and feel fabrics in-person (although, there’s that). It’s about having a conversation with a local retailer about things you love, stumbling upon something you might have never given a second look to, and just the general experience a physical space can bring (e.g. the music, decor, and ability to have special events).

Online retail, on the other hand, is all about product and product alone. At it’s best, it’s about a smooth and seamless shopping experience with free shipping and returns, dependable measurements, and good photos. Outside of maybe a bit of editorial, there’s very little outside the thing you’re receiving.

There is a bit of seemingly unaware irony in Gold’s post. He writes: “We’ve built something special here that I feel contributes to the community and a part of me felt entitled to some leniency. If only there was some sort of commercial rent control to keep the business in the neighborhood that has helped to popularize it in the first place, but there’s nothing like that.” Gold and his ilk, to some degree, are also part of the problem – creating the sort of retail districts that brought wealthier residents in the first place. There’s very little in this story about the Latino families in the Mission District who just wanted affordable rent – not cool menswear shops, farm-to-table restaurants, and trendy bars. Many of those families are now being kicked out because of the first wave of gentrifiers have helped create a much larger second wave.

Anyway, if you have a good menswear shop in your area: support it. Stop by, check out some of the stuff, and don’t use it as a showroom to find cheaper prices online. There’s something wonderful about browsing new things at a local shop, then spending the day in the area. Online retail is a great way to get something you might not have access to locally, but you’d be surprised how many great things are also local. If you’re in San Francisco, here’s a map I put together for great menswear shops (today, I would add Standard & Strange in Oakland). Jesse also listed some of his favorites a few years ago.

(photos via Hypebeast)