How a Sex and the City cupcake destroyed a Greenwich Village street

After Carrie Bradshaw ate cupcake in the local Magnolia Bakery big brands rushed to take shops there. Now they’ve moved on

The now-empty former location of a Ralph Lauren store on Bleecker Street in New York, May 24, 2017. More than a dozen retail spaces sit empty after the rents grew too much for even the luxury stores that pushed out the area’s local merchants. (Chris Mottalini/The New York Times)

The now-empty former location of a Ralph Lauren store on Bleecker Street in New York, May 24, 2017. More than a dozen retail spaces sit empty after the rents grew too much for even the luxury stores that pushed out the area’s local merchants. (Chris Mottalini/The New York Times)

 

Someday urban planners and retail executives may want to debrief Robert Sietsema. As someone who has lived at the corner of Bleecker and Perry streets for 27 years, he has witnessed the rise and fall of a luxury shopping district that grew out of workaday surroundings in the 1990s and has left empty storefronts in its wake.

Bleecker Street, as Sietsema wryly noted, became “the epicenter of the designer-store revolution, whereby many of the old, functioning stores, like bodegas, laundromats and video stores, were replaced by shops selling $400 T-shirts.”

During its incarnation as a fashion theme park, Bleecker Street hosted no fewer than six Marc Jacobs boutiques on a four-block stretch, including a women’s store, a men’s store and a Little Marc for high-end children’s clothing. Ralph Lauren operated three stores in this leafy, charming area, and Coach had stores at 370 and 372-374 Bleecker. Joining those brands, at various points, were Comptoir des Cotonniers (345 Bleecker St.), Brooks Brothers Black Fleece (351), MM6 by Maison Margiela (363), Juicy Couture (368), Mulberry (387) and Lulu Guinness (394).

Today, every one of those clothing and accessories shops is closed.

Indeed, over the past year, Sietsema, the senior critic at Eater NY, has watched with mild schadenfreude but greater alarm as his neighborhood has undergone yet another transformation from a famed retail corridor whose commercial rents and exclusivity rivaled Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, California, to a street that “looks like a Rust Belt city,” with all these empty storefronts, as a friend of Sietsema’s put it to him recently.

In the heart of the former shoppers’ paradise — the five-block stretch running from Christopher Street to Bank Street — more than a dozen retail spaces sit empty. Where textured-leather totes and cashmere scarves once beckoned to passers-by, the windows are now covered with brown construction paper, with “For Lease” signs and directives to “Please visit us at our other locations.”

“There’s graffiti, trash inside,” Sietsema said. “It’s horrible.”

Of the Marc Jacobs mini-empire on Bleecker Street, the only survivor is Bookmarc, at 400 Bleecker, which sells art books along with items like $80 smartphone cases. This used to be the site of the Biography Bookshop, where bookworms crowded into one another as they reached for volumes by James Boswell or Robert Caro on the overstuffed shelves.

If many of the high-end stores along Bleecker didn’t prosper as businesses, “they succeeded in transforming the area into a luxury retail neighborhood that feeds on itself,” said Jeremiah Moss, who has tracked the city’s ever-changing streetscape on his blog, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, since 2007.

Bleecker Street, Moss said, is a prime example of high-rent blight, a symptom of late-stage gentrification. “These stores open as billboards for the brand,” he said. “Then they leave because the rents become untenable. Landlords hold out. And you’re left with storefronts that will sit vacant for a year, two years, three years.”

How Bleecker went from quintessential Greenwich Village street, with shops like Condomania and Rebel Rebel Records, to a destination for Black Card-wielding 1-percenters, to its current iteration as a luxury blightscape is a classic New York story. It involves a visionary businessman, a hit HBO show, an Afghan immigrant, a star architect, European tourists, aggressive landlords and, above all, the relentless commercial churn of Manhattan.

And it began with gourmet cupcakes.

A “for lease” sign on Bleecker Street in New York. (Chris Mottalini/The New York Times)
A “for lease” sign on Bleecker Street in New York. (Chris Mottalini/The New York Times)

———

In 1987, after learning about a store for rent from the owner of a Bleecker Street nail salon, Arleen Bowman opened a women’s clothing boutique under her own name at 353 Bleecker, between West 10th and Perry streets. The space was around 300 square feet; she paid $1,500 in monthly rent.

“It was a time when everybody wanted stuff with fringe on it,” Bowman recalled. “And I was like the queen of fringe.”

Her neighbors included antiques stores like Pierre Deux, Treasure & Trifles and Susan Parrish; a pet store called the Bird Jungle; the Biography Bookshop; and Nusraty Afghan Imports, where an immigrant named Abdul Nusraty had been selling rugs, jewelry and antiquities since 1979.

“Each store was unique,” Bowman said. “Susan Parrish — she had the best vintage quilts and linens ever. It took me a half-hour to walk home because I stopped and chatted with everybody.”

After five years, Bowman moved to a slightly larger storefront next door, signing a 10-year lease for $2,500 a month, but all around her not much else changed throughout the 1990s. The tourist crowds, proliferation of fashion chains and sharply escalating rents in SoHo felt far removed from west Bleecker, with its tiny shops and close-knit vibe.

Bowman and her neighbors hardly noticed when, in 1996, Magnolia Bakery opened at 401 Bleecker, where the bird store had been. It was just another local business, like the bodega operated by Turks or theGreek diner Manatus.

But on July 9, 2000, Magnolia was featured on “Sex and the City,” in Season 3. The 30 seconds of Carrie Bradshaw and her friend Miranda eating cupcakes outside the bakery were all it took to turn the street. Soon, Magnolia was written up in British Vogue, and what Sietsema described as a “cupcake bouncer” was stationed on Bleecker to corral the tourist hordes who waited in lines that bottlenecked the block.

The Magnolia crowd in part convinced Robert Duffy, then the president and vice chairman of Marc Jacobs, that the company should open a store nearby. When a space became available on Bleecker and 11th streets, Duffy, who lived in the neighborhood and dined regularly at the Paris Commune, outbid five other prospective tenants.

As Duffy told The New York Times back in December 2001, “If I could have 20 stores on Bleecker Street, I would.”

Like many people, Bowman believes the arrival of the first Marc Jacobs store, with its trendsetting clothes and clientele of fashion editors and celebrities like Sofia Coppola, was the tipping point. “Once Marc opened up, all the dolls wanted to be on Bleecker Street,” Bowman said.

Lulu Guinness, the British handbag designer, flew to New York to secure retail space in what had been an incense emporium. Fresh, the cosmetics brand owned by LVMH, took over a former beauty parlor. Ralph Lauren opened a men’s shop in 2003, a women’s store in 2004 and a Double RL outpost in 2005. Intermix, Cynthia Rowley, James Perse, Brunello Cucinelli, Coach, Mulberry, Tommy Hilfiger, Robert Marc, Olive and Bette’s, Jimmy Choo, Burberry, Gant and Nars all followed.

If that sounds like too many fashion brands to squeeze into a five-block stretch, consider that landlords converted ground-floor apartments into storefronts to meet the demand for space.

The gentrification of the meatpacking district, where Jeffrey New York opened in 1999, spilled into the far West Village, turning the area into a shopping and dining playground. When Richard Meier’s first glass residential towers on Perry Street were completed, in 2002, it hastened the continuing change of the Village from Joe Gould’s scruffy bohemia to a prestige address for bankers and movie stars.

It was around this time that Janet Russo, a clothing designer, and her husband, Bill Jacklin, an artist, both longtime Village residents, sold their townhouse on Bank Street to Duffy. She felt the Village had changed, she said, “to the point where I wouldn’t want to live there.”

But, she added, she didn’t foresee the effects on Bleecker Street, where she used to scour the antiques stores for inspiration and household items like curtains.

“I’m not so sure Marc and Robert knew, either, that what they started was this crazy thing,” said Russo, who lives in Connecticut with her husband. “I don’t think anybody really anticipated what happened.”

If some of the residents had trouble adjusting, everything was great for the landlords and the luxury brands, at least for a while. Busloads of potential shoppers were deposited on the street during “Sex and the City” fan tours. Each Christmas, Santa Claus made an appearance at the Marc by Marc Jacobs boutique, posing for Polaroids with the well-groomed children of these new Villagers.

Who knew whom you might spot shopping on Bleecker Street — Sofia or Scarlett or Mary-Kate and Ashley? Or even Carrie Bradshaw herself, since the actress Sarah Jessica Parker lived in the neighborhood.

Bleecker Street, said Faith Hope Consolo, the chairwoman of the retail group for the real estate firm Douglas Elliman, “had a real European panache. People associated it with something special, something different.” Consolo, who has negotiated several deals on the street, added: “We had visitors from all over that said, ‘We’ve got to get to Bleecker Street.’ It became a must-see, a must-go.”

Early on, Consolo said, rents on the street were around $75 per square foot. By the mid-to-late 2000s, they had risen to $300. Those rates were unaffordable for many shop owners like Nusraty, who was forced out in 2008 when, he said, his lease was up and his monthly rent skyrocketed to $45,000, from $7,000. Brooks Brothers Black Fleece took over his space at the corner of Bleecker and Christopher streets. Other exiled businesses included Toons Thai restaurant, Leo Design and the beloved Biography Bookshop, which secured a new space east of Seventh Avenue and renamed itself Bookbook.

By 2012, only a few old-timers remained, including Bowman, who, through a lucky break, had renewed her 10-year lease in 2002, just before the street took off. But when she called her landlord to renegotiate, his quote — $35,000 a month — all but ended the discussion. She closed, too.

“My space was taken over by the Organic Pharmacy,” she said. “It has nothing to do with being a pharmacist. They sell high-end creams, and they give facials.”

And then? Blowback. While quirky independent stores couldn’t afford the new Bleecker, it became apparent over time that neither could the corporate brands that had remade the street. An open secret among retailers had it that Bleecker Street was a fancy Potemkin village , empty of customers. Celebrities shopped there because they wouldn’t be bothered. The “Sex and the City” fans lining up at Magnolia and snapping photos of Carrie’s stoop weren’t willing or able to fork over $2,000 for designer heels.

“Jimmy Choo — I never saw anybody in the shop,” Bowman said. “I don’t get it. Who’s buying this stuff?”

Robert Burke, the founder of a namesake luxury consulting firm, said Bleecker Street was “a vanity location — meaning it’s more about the image than about retail sales or foot traffic.”

At a time when shoppers are buying online and fashion brands across the industry are hurting, “the challenging business environment makes it less interesting to do vanity locations,” Burke said. Especially when the cost to operate them keeps rising, with landlords on Bleecker Street demanding as much as $800 per square foot in recent years, according to Consolo.

“What happened in the last year is the retailers started to push back,” she said. “They weren’t getting the foot traffic. They stopped renewing, and the vacancies started to roll.”

Now that many of the big fashion brands have pulled out, what will become of the west end of Bleecker Street? Is it possible for shop owners like Bowman and Nusraty, who is practically waiting in the wings around the corner on Christopher Street, to lease affordable space there again? It’s unlikely. As indicated by the languishing storefronts, landlords are willing to hold out.

Consolo, the real estate agent, noted the number of newish beauty boutiques on Bleecker, including Sisley and Aesop, as well as long-term tenants like the perfumer Bond No. 9 and the beauty brand Fresh. The future of the street, she said, may be as “beauty and lipstick alley.”

Other companies have swooped in to fill some of the vacant storefronts, opening pop-up shops, signing short-term leases or risking a longer stay. Many are foreign brands looking to raise their profile in America, like Orla Kiely, an Irish designer, and Enfold, a Japanese line that opened on the street last fall.

Elad Yifrach, the founder and creative director of L’Objet, an upscale décor brand that opened its first New York store last fall in one of the former Coach outposts, believes the area still has retail magic, despite the recent hard times.

“Bleecker is quintessential West Village,” he said. “The most beautiful townhouses are around there. The street needs to go back to bringing a cool factor, things that will inspire the audience.”

For many longtime Village residents, what the street is missing is not a cool factor but the essential mix of businesses that makes a neighborhood function. On a recent afternoon, Marjorie Reitman, who has lived in the Village for 43 years and who was out on Bleecker Street walking her neighbor’s dog, Walter, reflected on the street’s mercantile past.

“I remember when I first moved down here,” she said. “There was a hardware store owned by an elderly couple, a grocery store, a newspaper store.”

She was standing in front of ATM Anthony Thomas Melillo, a clothing boutique that opened in February to sell $115 “destroyed wash” T-shirts and other garments. The store had no customers, and the front door was open, allowing the air-conditioning to pump out into the street, something Reitman lectured the young sales associates about.

“That’s the attitude: ‘I have money, I can pay the fine, I don’t care,’” Reitman said.

The original Marc Jacobs store on Bleecker that started the boom was next door with its windows blacked out. Reitman had an idea for that space and the other empty stores that dot Bleecker Street like missing teeth in a very expensive mouth.

“They should all be pot shops,” she said. “Seriously. I’m not kidding. I can’t imagine what else could go in and pay the rent.”

© 2017 New York Times News Service

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