Bye Bye Bleecker Street
written and photographed by Anthony Haden-Guest
Over the course of his career, author, cartoonist, art critic, and “man-about-town” Anthony Haden-Guest has amassed an impressive and varied body of work. Along with being a frequent contributor to countless major publications, Anthony has also authored three books: The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of The Night, True Colors: The Real Life of the Art World, and Bad Dreams. Additionally, he won an Emmy for his work writing and narrating the PBS documentary The Affluent Immigrants. While Anthony has lived in New York City for many decades, his recent move to the West Village has led him to muse on the causes of the retail apocalypse and what might be in store for the future.
Six years ago, I moved to the West Village after many years on the Upper East Side of New York City. I was now on Grove Street, on the corner of Hudson, within strolling distance of Waverley Place. My father had lived here while he was working at the UN, so I felt a connection to the neighbourhood. But this was no longer my father’s West Village. Cities change, and New York has been doing so with accelerating speed. Downtown Manhattan particularly so.
When this subject enters a conversation – which is with some regularity - gentrification and steeply rising rents are usually fingered as the cause. Which made it a bit surprising that inconvenient local disappearances after my arrival on Grove included the outlets of two presumably well-heeled operations, Citibank and AT&T. The Citibank space has since been swallowed by a CVS, but the AT&T storefront remains empty, memorialized by ghostly signage on the glass door.
On May 31 2017, a piece in the New York Times focused on the rise and fall of Bleecker Street. Steve Kurutz, the writer, proposed that the heady rise of Bleecker Street began on July 9, 2000, when the Magnolia Bakery was allotted thirty seconds in the third series of Sex and the City and tourist traffic started surging in. He quoted locals to the effect that the real upsurge began when a Marc Jacobs store opened. Shortly after, there were six Marc Jacobs outlets on Bleecker Street, along with two Ralph Laurens and reps of just about every name in high end retail, from Cynthia Rowley and Tommy Hilfiger to Coach. But rents quickly rose, ultimately five-fold, causing even the fanciest names to begin pulling out. Kurutz quoted Jeremiah Moss, creator of the fine blog, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, to the effect that Bleecker Street was “a prime example of high-rent blight, a symptom of late-stage gentrification.”
Nowadays, indeed whole chunks of Bleecker Street can seem at once expectant and dead, bringing to mind the movie version of Tombstone, Arizona, just before the climactic scene in Gunfight at the O.K Corral. But much of the West Village can seem like that. And much of Manhattan. And entire cities, towns, villages and urban acreage just about everywhere. Can this really be attributed just too high-rent blight, late-stage gentrification, or the financial maneuvers of another occasionally blamed actor; private equity? No, there is an elephant in this room because what we are plainly seeing is the rapid shrinkage of brick-and-mortar retail in a world that is increasingly doing its business online, a culture in which bookstores are shrinking and specialty outlets such as art supply stores are supplanted by chains who get their materials cheap from China.
So why is it that I have found the process particularly poignant in the West Village? It is partly, of course, because many of the closures are of spaces I had come to know, and indeed depend upon. Le Pain Quotidien on Hudson and Perry was a favorite meeting place and Your Neighbourhood Office, run with unfailing good nature by Helen Ann Lally, truly was my neighbourhood office. It seemed that they were shuttered within days of each other - Lally was specific that it was the dwindling foot traffic rather than the rent - and both played a part in motivating my desire to understand what was happening to a neighbourhood that was once thriving and that I now call home. Tourists once flocked the streets of the West Village in an attempt to visits the stores that they saw on Sex in The City. Now, more common sight is kitchen equipment being hauled out of LPQ or Helen Ann, giving goodbye presents to her longtime patrons. Mine was a bottle of John Jameson. Most welcome.
There is a further reason, beyond such personal stuff, that closures hereabouts have a peculiarly doleful character, which is that the neighbourhood truly does have something of a villagey character, produced by such factors as the street life, the numerous trees and the relatively pokey dimensions of the street level spaces, as you can tell from their wrecked, littered or naked interiors or guess from their sheafed or shuttered windows. Empty spaces in other neighbourhoods, say the Upper East Side, tend to look formal, dignified, indeed spruce, ready for their next gig. In the West Village, they look like scraggy nests from which all possible life has flown.
So just who will be moving into abandoned retail premises too pricey for Marc Jacobs or Tommy Hilfiger, to say nothing of AT&T and Citibank? In the West Village at least might not some of those street level spaces be re-purposed for human habitation? The proportions lend themselves to that and the process may already be well underway. But not for me, I will shortly be moving on.