Research Project

In 2009, while I was writing a book about how New York had changed in recent years, I wondered if the changes I saw in the streets of that city—mainly connected to globalization and gentrification–might be repeated in cities all over the world.

First, chain stores are “invading” shopping streets in all neighborhoods, taking the place of small, individually owned, mom-and-pop stores, and casting the long shadow of sameness over many shopping streets.  Although some people call this the “suburbanization” of New York, I think it’s a sign of homogenization of commerce and also of the urban streetscape.  With this kind of change, you could be walking down a street in New York—or almost anywhere else in the world.

Second, despite this standardization, new art galleries, boutiques, and cafés are opening, not only in neighborhoods that had been recognized as artists’ districts, but in other areas of the city that until very recently experienced capital disinvestment and high rates of crime.  This could be called “gentrification by hipster,” and also has parallels in London, Berlin, and elsewhere.

Third, many more immigrants from all regions of the world are opening retail stores and restaurants in many more neighborhoods.  They spread out from traditional ethnic enclaves into once-homogenous neighborhoods and create a more complicated mix of identities and lifestyles.  This could be called “super-diversity,” and it also reshapes neighborhoods in other cities.

I thought:  Wouldn’t it be interesting to see if these three processes—the spread of chain stores, gentrification by hipster, and super-diversity—are re-creating local shopping streets in many global cities?  Even more than smaller cities, global cities stand at the center of an interesting contradiction: they are made up of distinctive neighborhoods with very specific local identities, but they are also targeted by global flows of capital investment in real estate and commerce, and host major flows of transnational migration.

If we take a form of urban space that looks very much alike in most modern cities—a local shopping street—how much of it is “local,” and how much is “global?”

Historically, local shops in big cities are practically always owned by migrants. First the shopkeepers come from rural areas and small towns, and open shops that do not require big sums of capital.  But for many years, new shopkeepers have come from across national borders and from overseas.  This is as true in New York as in other global cities and in smaller cities as well.

How exactly does it work, the replacement of one group of shopkeepers by another?  How does one kind of store change into another?  Do these changes only reflect changing demographics in local markets?  Or does government take a hand in shaping local shops?

These questions require a multi-sited research project, which would be beyond the reach of a single researcher.  I was lucky to recruit two “local” research partners who would share the tasks of coordinating a large-scale project, and in turn we recruited local teams of research partners in six cities large enough to be called “global”: two in North America, New York and Toronto; two in Europe, Amsterdam and Berlin; and two in East Asia, Tokyo and Shanghai.  These cities offer a similar level of economic development, but differ significantly in political system and size of immigrant population, with Tokyo and Shanghai having far fewer transnational migrants than the other cities.  Shanghai, however, has a very large population of internal migrants, who turn out to own many of the shops in local shopping streets.

All the research partners met for the first time face to face for a two-day workshop in New York.  We showed Powerpoint presentations of local shopping streets that we thought suggest interesting processes of change connected with immigration and gentrification.  Each local team chose two local shopping streets where they carried out interviews with store owners and made ethnographic observations of who was on the street, how people shopped, and where people interacted.  We also did a “walking census” of the kinds of stores on the streets, and most of us found out through archival research what kinds of stores had been there in the past.

We met again a year later at a workshop in Shanghai, and the following year at a final workshop in Amsterdam.  When we met in these cities, we walked on the research sites to get a feel for the spaces.  We have tried to suggest how each street feels in the book, but we also rely on this website to present a multi-dimensional impression of how the “local” and the “global” join to produce the specific identity of each shopping street.

When you watch the short videos of Orchard Street in New York and Tianzifang in Shanghai that are posted on this website, under the tabs for New York and Shanghai, you will get a feeling for the sights and sounds of the streetscape.  You will also see interviews with store owners who talk about their history on the street, how they came there, their hopes and their problems.

Sharon Zukin