Electronic Design

CEA Gives Downtown Manhattan A Digital Boost

In the first installment of what promises to be a yearly commitment to New York City’s downtown area, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) kicked off Digital Downtown for press and analysts. Digital Downtown was conceived as a three-day showcase of consumer technology, open and free to the general public.

The first day of the event, June 12, was warm and sunny. I took a subway to the general area and then had to walk quite a few blocks. As I continued to my destination, all seemed otherwise normal until I got to Church Street, which borders historic St. Paul’s Chapel in downtown Manhattan.

I had to make a right onto Church since going straight would have brought me to the barrier erected around the periphery of Ground Zero. It’s amazing that almost seven years later, there is still a gaping hole where the Twin Towers used to be.

I turned left onto a street named Vesey and headed to the hotel, but the walk was different than the usual stroll down a city block. At the end of the street I encountered a pedestrian bridge over the West Side ( Joe DiMaggio) Drive. The view from the bridge was sobering, with multiple cranes hard at work in the cavern where the Twin Towers once stood.

The building I was heading for, the World Financial Center, was in front of me as I got off the bridge. I went through revolving doors and in short order encountered security. I might just as well have been going through security at an airport, except I didn’t have to take off my shoes. A dutiful officer waved a wand all over the guy in front of me, but I was allowed to pass by without this further check.

I found it interesting later in the day that not only was it difficult to get into the building, security wise, but also difficult to get out. I had to produce a card that had been given to me and punched with a hole when I first walked in. Someday, hopefully, technology will keep us safe without the rigmarole of checking out every bag with an x-ray machine and waving a magic wand over random individuals.

The keynote speaker at the conference was Rachelle Friedman, president and founder (and the R) of J&R Music & Computer World, a megastore that encompasses an entire city block in the downtown area. She gave a rousing account through words, videos, and photos of her experience on Sept. 11, 2001, and the days immediately following, since her store is just two blocks from the World Trade Center site.

Founded in 1971 to sell vinyl records, the store barely survived the attack. The storefront was demolished, merchandise was ruined, and customers were afraid to come back. Some business owners would have packed it in, but not Friedman and her husband, Joe. The store, which is considered the anchor of lower Manhattan, reopened just six weeks later.

When asked if she considered moving to another location, possibly midtown, she answered, “No, never, absolutely not. We love lower Manhattan. We’ve been through down cycles before, through the crash and other things, and we’ve always done well. We have terrific customers, sophisticated ones that really know electronics and want the new gadgets.”

Commenting on Digital Downtown, Friedman said, “Now that you know something about me and about our business, you can understand how excited I am to inaugurate this show.” She noted that in 1971, J&R was a mom and pop business encompassing all of 300 square feet. Now the store barely fits into 300,000 square feet. Always the businesswoman, she emphasized, “Midtown may be the heart of New York, but downtown is New York’s soul and brain and pocketbook.”

Entrepreneurs and artists alike have always gravitated to where New York began and where it is expected to grow the fastest in the next few years. “We will all be transformed by the renewal of Ground Zero and the creation of a transportation hub for downtown that will bring thousands here directly,” Friedman said. “The renewal is the symbol of a New York that will never quit nor be intimidated by those who would harm us.”

She also noted that on some days with so many tourists, it seems like the United Nations is convening a session on Park Row, where the store is located. “We want more than anything to see that Freedom Tower built. It will give us the lift we need to heal the wounds inflicted on New York and on America and restore the vitality that was downtown,” she said.

“We embrace change and don’t try to fight it; iPod sales may mean lower CD sales, but if we anticipate and embrace change, we will all benefit in the long run,” she said. “The dream of having all media available to all people at all times and in all places will make us all richer, and businesses will find their niche.”

If you haven’t had a chance to visit J&R Music & Computer World, you may want to check it out the next time you’re in New York. And if you visit at the right time, you can also take in a free concert at the yearly J&R Summer Fest & Tech Expo, which ran in conjunction with Digital Downtown this year.

Led by president and CEO Gary Shapiro, the CEA comprises 2300 consumer electronics companies. “Our mission is a simple one—to grow the industry. That’s why we’re happy to partner in this inaugural downtown technology showcase,” he said. He also said that despite the challenging economy, the CEA still expects consumer electronics to grow by 6% percent— and the industry can be proud of that number.

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