How a Cupcake and “Sex and the City” Remade Bleecker Street
April 5-11, 2006
In its artistic heyday, Bleecker Street was home to smoke-filled cafes packed with cultural heroes of a contemplative bent. It stood for Greenwich Village, the Beats, Dylan, rebellion. Out-of-towners who visit New York still hope to soak up a little of that countercultural spirit.
But nowadays it’s easier to find a $500 outfit than a painter in the park. Vying to capitalize on the street’s renewed popularity, major fashion retailers are elbowing out the old cafes, butcher shops and fusty antique stores.
“Bleecker is becoming the Madison Avenue of downtown,” said John Brod, founding partner of PBS Realty Advisors, an advisory firm for commercial real estate.
Fashion businesses are in search of “branding opportunities” and strong retail performance per square foot, Brod said. Over the last three years average Bleecker rent prices have risen sixfold, from $50 to $ 300 per square foot. Soaring New York real estate prices are a factor, but so is the skyrocketing popularity of a Bleecker address.
TV’s discovery of Bleecker is one big reason. After Sex and the City’s Sarah Jessica Parker ate a creamy retro cupcake at a beloved local landmark, The Magnolia Bakery, the tour buses began circling. The lines outside the tiny bakery swelled into inhuman queues. Soon, upscale clothing retailer Marc Jacobs, salivating over the youthful crowds, rented a shop right across the street.
“Our goal was to take advantage of the huge concentration of young people who flooded into the area, especially with the Sex and the City show,” said Debbie Lee, a Marc Jacobs assistant manager.
Now Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic and Abercrombie and Fitch have glommed on to Bleecker too.
The short, pedestrian-oriented street of 19th century brownstone and tenements still exudes an image of hip, young and free - but not poor. In a parallel explosive demand for downtown apartments, some of the newest residents are well-heeled young people and families, realtors say.
In mid 2005, the average three-bedroom apartment in this area sold for nearly $2.4 million, up 46 percent from the year before, and condo prices, at $1,223 per square foot, were up 47 percent, according to the proprietary database ValuExchange TM, which conducts the largest survey of Manhattan real estate sales.
“The Village has become a very desirable place to live,” said Betul Ekmekci, an agent for the residential brokerage Halstead Property. “Young people feel that they will have freedom of expression here, so they choose to live the Village myth, even if that will cost them more.”
One sees fewer artists around, Ekmeckci noted.
“Now they have moved to Williamsburg and Staten Island because they can’t afford the rent.”
Elaine Abelson, a history professor at the New School, a university located nearby, sees the shift the same way.
“The area is having its face reclaimed for the upper middle class, so it is in the process of gentrification, and that means that you have to satisfy modern, commercial needs,” she said. “It is not Bohemian any more.”
Some independent shops still thrive, especially those selling hand-crafted, vintage or imported merchandise. Lori McLean, whose jewelry shop is located on nearby Grove Street, finds that her delicate charm necklaces and funky bracelets are still desirable for heavy wallets, bridging the old-hippie face of the neighborhood with its wealthy newcomers.
Woe betide any merchant, though, whose wares have been dubbed passé.
For Sani, the 62-year-old Indian owner of “Fabulous,” the new climate is simply a plunge over a cliff.
“There is no tomorrow for me, I can’t make plans for it,” he said melancholically. ” I take this hard road day by day.” The shop has been in his family for 30 years, and the traditional Indian clothing he sells there was once gloriously famous locally. Now his solitary saunter in his empty-of-people store is like that of an old man on a deserted street.
“After 9/11, things got even worse for us. I think people now prefer to shop from the big names and not from me,” he said with finality. “But it’s my home. If I close that will be it. I’m not moving out.”
Toosh, another local clothier, has posted prominent signs offering 50 percent discounts. “My boss says the business is dead right now,” said a worker there, adding that the full time staff had been cut from four to two.
Outside, pedestrians rush along the sidewalks as the sun sets, far more likely to be toting shiny shopping bags with embossed logos than protest placards or poetry books. After all, New York never sleeps. Maybe it’s way too busy reinventing itself.