Thursday, November 1, 2018

Then and Now: Park Row, Manhattan

Park Row Manhattan in the 1970s
Park Row in the 1970s.

I stumbled across the above photograph of Park Row, Manhattan from the 1970s and I was curious what it looks like now. So, I did a comparison of Park Row, Manhattan in the 1970s versus in 2018. I used Google Street View to get a current view of the street, which sits directly across from New York's City Hall (and the former site of the Manhattan Post Office, but that was long ago).

I debated whether to post this entry because there really isn't much to show in the recent photos. However, I think the change in the area from a vibrant row of shops to an area under construction tells a story that needs to be known. Plus, the original photo above really captures a moment beautifully. So, let's examine the strange case of J&R Music World.

In the center of the 1970s picture above, you notice the prominent placement of "Music World." This was a fairly typical small storefront electronics store at 33 Park Row begun by Joseph and Rachelle Friedman in 1971. Such stores were a dime a dozen in Manhattan in the 1970s - you couldn't drive more than a block in midtown without seeing one. They were the places where you bought those fancy Casio calculators and CB radios, merchandise straight off the dock from Yokohama.

Park Row Manhattan in the 1970s
The original J&R, before the rise and fall.

However, Music World was far from typical. It enjoyed tremendous success, growing until it eventually engulfed practically the entire block. It became famous to geeks everywhere as J&R Music World, then just J&R after it branched out into computers and other areas in the 1980s and 1990s. They had good prices on things like cameras and VCRs, and eventually, you could order by mail. To strain a metaphor, it was was the Amazon of the electronics world for about twenty years.

Well, if you are very new to the tech world, you likely haven't even heard of J&R. So what happened?

Well, thanks for asking. That's a very good question. Unfortunately, it doesn't have a very good answer.

Park Row Manhattan in the 1970s
J&R at its height, after it engulfed virtually the entire block.

After enjoying years of unprecedented success, J&R suffered a huge blow from 9/11, as the World Trade Center was nearby and the store basically lost all of its customers for a month or more. After that, the company struggled on, but it wasn't the same. Exactly what happened is murky, but in the 2010s J&R lost its mojo entirely. The store gradually retrenched from 2012 through 2016 and now is gone entirely. Perhaps it, in fact, was a victim of Amazon, who knows. Well, not quite entirely: it still survives on a single web page promising "Stay tuned for exciting updates." However, the page has been up for about two years now without any updates, so who knows if there is any future left for J&R.

Anyway, as you can tell from the photos of the same section of the city above and below, not a trace of J&R or the other shops nearby remeans. A fancy tower, One Beekman, currently is under construction there. No more quirky little shops, no more electronics to browse through, no more little fast-food joints. Now, Park Row is becoming sterile, an urban version of a musty museum. Where crowds of people once strolled and lined up for the latest Windows operating system, now you can wander by a deserted area on your way to somewhere interesting. It's the same old story, a good thing happens, and then it goes away, and all that remains are the echoes. The final "after" picture won't even be worth showing - it will just be another large condo/coop/mixed use whatever building of a type you see everywhere. Everything that made Park Row interesting will be long gone.

Anyway, thanks for visiting this installment in my series on "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

Park Row Manhattan in the 2010s
Park Row facing southwest ca. 2018 (Google Street View).

Park Row Manhattan in the 2010s
Park Row facing southeast ca. 2018 (Google Street View).


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