POSITIVELY 4TH STREET
This week in the studio we’re talking about Anthony Haden-Guest. While we sometimes look outside for stories and ideas, he has us reflecting on the blacktop streets and empty shops of our own backyard here in NYC. The essay got us discussing all the different factors that cause a neighborhood to change.
There seems to be a universal pattern within cities: a neighborhood becomes cool because the bohemians take over, big brands start to notice the trend and move in, and eventually what was once a letter press shop is now a designer retail space. The issue is, if those brands can’t keep up with the times and stay hip and current, the designer-retail-gentrification-bubble runs the risk of bursting, which leaves storefronts closed and takes once bustling neighborhoods from happening to 100% NOT happening.
When Haden-Guest moved from the Upper East Side to the West Village six years ago, it was not the same eclectic West Village his dad had found in the 1950’s. It was a neighborhood known for Sex and the City tours and high-end designer boutiques.
Now in the present day, he finds himself surrounded by random blocks of barren store fronts, whose vibrant and quirky glass doors now wear depressing, makeshift cardboard “for rent” signs. Even neighborhood lifestyle staples, like Le Pain Quotidien, haven’t been able to survive. Haden-Guest spoke with the manager of his local, newly-closed independent stationery store, Helen Ann Lally, who chalked the issue up to lack of foot traffic rather than high rent prices. Read more here.
It makes sense that people think the current diminishing state of retail is due to the escalating price of rents, the convenience and instant satisfaction of e-commerce, and gentrification, but we believe these are only mitigating factors of the larger equation to the West Village problem. Helen Ann Lally’s comment about foot traffic struck a chord with us, and we dug through our archives until we found just who we needed to consult - renowned retail expert Robin Lewis. Lewis has 40 plus years of consulting in the retail and apparel industry. In our interview with him we spoke about the grim state of brands and retail today. We talked about the downfall of brands like Gap and what happens when they are no longer deemed cool. Lewis said, “If a brand misses a few seasons in terms of style, what’s trending, and what isn’t trending, it goes from being a product problem to a brand problem. And once it’s a brand problem and that consumer leaves, they aren’t going to come back to the brand. Ever.” Read more here.
Reading Lewis’s comment about “product problem” vs “brand problem” was a eureka! moment for us. Maybe that’s just it. Maybe the West Village itself has a brand problem. In his essay, Haden-Guest refers to a New York Times piece by Steve Kurutz on the rise of Bleecker Street. Kurutz partially attributes the destructive commercialization to Magnolia Bakery’s small cameo in an episode of Sex and the City. Carrie Bradshaw’s cupcake eating sent camera clad tourists running to the bakery and consequently, designer brands quickly followed suit. Shortly after, you couldn’t stroll through the West Village without walking past one of the six Marc Jacobs stores that seemingly appeared overnight. Soon, Ralph Lauren opened two stores followed by similar commercial designer brands. The West Village’s bohemian legacy, which drew the fashion business down there in the first place, was slowly being stamped out.
In 2018, unfortunately, Marc Jacobs has found itself on the list of empty West Village storefronts. Like Carrie Bradshaw would say in every episode, “we couldn’t help but wonder” if it was Gucci instead of Marc Jacobs in the West Village and lines were around the block for the newest Supreme drop instead of a buttercream cupcake, would the neighborhood still be thriving? The combination of brands that already had issues with a neighborhood whose culture was dwindling left retailers out of business and locals out of favorite community spots. One of the questions we always ask ourselves is “where have all the bohemians gone?” For the West Village, it seems like the next generation will be responsible for bringing that culture back. Robin Lewis alluded to this in our interview when he spoke about the youth of today, he said, “They don’t care about finding a brand, it doesn’t mean anything anymore. What they do is, they’ve got their own individual sense of style and when they see anything that they like, it’s cool.”
Even though he didn’t even live there for very long, it’s hard to discuss the West Village without someone inevitably bringing up Bob Dylan. He lived in the heart of the village on West 4th Street, that of the titular Positively 4th Street. We were thinking of titling this newsletter Positively NOT 4th Street, as a play on words, because we wrongly assumed the song was Dylan’s ode to his beloved home during the prime of folk music’s heyday.
We quickly learned this was not the case. It’s a song full of viscous and spiteful lyrics. The general consensus is this song is a response to the reaction to his performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when he came on stage playing electric guitar. He was booed by the crowd and shunned by the West Village folk community. With lyrics like “You got a lot of nerve/To say you got a helping hand to lend/You just want to be on/The side that’s winning” and “I know the reason/That you talk behind my back/I used to be among the crowd/You’re in with” it’s safe to assume the song title Positively 4th Street is actually Dylan, the expert wordsmith and Pulitzer Prize winner for literature, making a mocking dig at his friends and comrades turned haters. And to that we say, fair play, Bob Dylan, fair play.