By Robert Ragaini
From the Summer 2018 newsletter of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation
“The transformation of and vacancies on Bleecker Street have been a particular concern to GVSHP. We have worked with local merchants on […] walking tours to bring patrons to the street and to see if disincentives for keeping storefronts empty can be implemented.”
Talk about too little, too late.
Bleecker Street was a major influence in my decision to move in 1986 into a new apartment in the not-yet-chic West Village. The one-way street took off in a direction all its own. To me it represented a rejection of the uniformity of Manhattan above 14th. I’d spent two decades there, but often visited below, where it seemed that all sorts of people were welcome, free to be who they were. When I finally moved, it felt like home.
Shops and restaurants on Bleecker occupied the street level of old tenements, townhouses and warehouses a couple of blocks from my apartment. Storefronts varied from one to the next, depending on age and architecture. Window displays could be prosaic; the local hardware store exotic; gorgeous kimonos to be worn or displayed as art, quirky; the copy shop that sold wonderful hand-carved wooden puppets that hung in its window, elegant; the French antiques of Pierre Deux. If you were in a hurry, Bleecker was not the street to take.
I often passed an elderly, distinguished-looking man with a white beard sitting outside the store that sold carpets from Afghanistan. I imagined he had opened it many years before and was not quite retired from the business his offspring were now running. Like his, most businesses were owned and operated by the people who created them.
If that store had a sense of mystery, so did the Paris Commune. It was a small, tucked-away restaurant, very popular. The chef was a member of the same writing workshop I belonged to, until her memoir was praised in the Times Book Review section. She went on to host a very successful series of readings in a Soho gallery.
Bleecker Street changed as it headed south and then veered east. A close friend grew up there in a tenement where Italian immigrants had settled. Her mother was an artist, her father a musician. She became both. Her neighborhood still has an Italian aura, dominated by the impressive Our Lady of Pompeii Church. Lines still form outside Joe’s Original Pizza. Murray’s, considerably expanded, still sells incredible cheeses and breads. But Zito’s is gone. Walking by Zito’s early in the morning was to be stopped short by the aroma of fresh-baked bread rising from the ovens in the cellar. They said that Sinatra would come by when he was in town. So did I, more often than Frank. Usually my favorite whole-wheat baguette was still warm when I bit into it on the way home.
Then it happened. It had to, I suppose. It’s the old story. Soho, Chelsea, Tribeca, the East Village, even the Bowery. All were “discovered” by “starving artists” who transformed them into something “wonderful.” At which point the developers moved in, built expensive apartments, and the artists moved on. One day an anomaly occurred on Bleecker Street. Gone was the previous storefront, replaced by a sheet of plate glass. On it was printed a man’s name, unknown to me but presumably that of the owner/fashion designer. Behind it were displays of men’s clothing in an unadorned, overly lit room. It stuck out like a sore thumb, but it persisted and lasted until not long ago.
The real invasion, however, began with Marc Jacobs. Somehow he got approval to tear out the corner of a brick apartment building for his own plate glass window and brightly lit boutique. Soon his women’s fashions appeared in creative displays and were sold by hip young sales people. Amazingly, a small sign also appeared in the window exhorting residents to protect “our” West Village neighborhood. It was soon removed.
I wish I’d chronicled in photos the domino effect Marc Jacobs initiated. One by one, as leases expired, the old displays that brimmed with personality were replaced by identical swaths of glass, fronting name-brands whose all-too-common personality seemed to be no personality at all. Soon the names won the day. West Village Bleecker Street became a carbon copy of similar neighborhoods all over the world, with boutiques bearing the very same names. There was no longer any need to travel. The world came to us. Apparently guide-books were recommending “my” Bleecker Street as a prime shopping destination. Soon an influx of tourists were trying to navigate our skinny sidewalks.
As for the new restaurants that welcomed them, few were superior to the ones they replaced. Their menus suggested otherwise, however, often assuming an air of French and Italian. And prices that were new indeed.
Though the transformation appalled me, I fault no one. Being a landlord is not an easy occupation. When the opportunity presented itself, they took full advantage. The fashion mavens also saw a new and promising market. Presenting their high-priced apparel in minimalist boxes worked in other major cities. Why not here? And it did.
Soon tour busses joined the ranks. Their focus was on Magnolia Bakery, famous for its appearance in Sex and the City. A line of fans would spill over from Bleecker to half way down Eleventh Street, people waiting to purchase and carry the strictly allotted number of pastries to the park benches across the street. Ironically, pint-size but colorful Magnolia was one of the few new businesses that would have fit right in with the old. I tried their famous cupcakes only once. They were too reminiscent of packaged mixes for me. Super sweet and topped with frosting of bilious green and pink.
So everyone was happy. Even the locals, because they had changed, too. Over the years the West Village warehouses had been converted into condos. Multi-family brownstones now often housed an upwardly mobile young family and a single rental apartment, if any. The spicy stew had lost its flavor. If you closed your eyes and listened to the voices, you couldn’t identify the education or income level, ethnicity, religion or race. They all sounded the same. The neighborhood they moved into and loved had already become something very unlike the one I moved into and loved. And when they move out, perhaps decades older, they too will regret how their neighborhood has changed.
So everyone was happy, until…
Recently I took an early morning walk on Bleecker Street. The stores had not yet opened. The crowds hadn’t arrived. I had the street to myself, as much as that’s possible in New York. It was a wonderful feeling. But it was true that many of the boutiques were empty and had “For Rent” signs on their windows. Even the Paris Commune that had upgraded and moved a couple of blocks west eventually folded. I thought I knew why, and it had nothing to do with a faltering economy. A July 31st New York Times headline declared, “New York City Is Thriving.” No, the reason lay elsewhere. Everyone was happy until Amazon.
The GVSHP is mistaken in thinking that prohibitive regulations and walking tours will bring shoppers back to Bleecker Street. It’s as if they hadn’t heard the news about sales at Christmas and Black Friday. Shoppers were buying online. The street was a testimony to that fact. Why go to the clothes when the clothes will come to you? And at better prices and cost-free returns!
One of the former West Village residents had certainly gotten the message. A new occupant has moved into Marc Jacobs’ signature store. Not long before, his new townhouse on Bethune Street had been featured in Architectural Digest. What a fortuitous coincidence should he decide to sell.
The question now is, how long will landlords hold onto empty stores until they can rent them at the numbers to which they have become accustomed? Six months? A year? Two? At some point it makes more sense to lower the rent and to seek tenants who are on-site operators, purveyors of unique merchandise, suppliers of recurring needs, and not only making a living doing what they love but being a part of the community. Sound familiar?
I know this is unlikely, but stranger things have happened, if only in movies, right?
“Back to the Future?” Lead on!
Bring Back Bleecker
By Robert Ragaini