Volume 75, Number 46 | April 5 - 11 2006

Photo by Christos Gavalas

The Magnolia Bakery, where Sarah Jessica Parker ate a cupcake, triggering a boom of new upscale boutiques on Bleecker St.

How a cupcake and ‘Sex and City’ remade Bleecker St.

By Christos Gavalas

In its artistic heyday, Bleecker St. 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 an outsider artist. Vying to capitalize on the street’s renewed popularity, major fashion retailers are elbowing out the old cafes, butcher shops and antique stores.

“Bleecker is becoming the Madison Ave. 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 St. 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.

But TV’s discovery of Bleecker St. may have been one of the biggest factors. After Sarah Jessica Parker ate a creamy retro cupcake on “Sex and the City” at a beloved local landmark, The Magnolia Bakery, the tour buses began circling. The lines outside the tiny bakery swelled into queues stretching around the corner. 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 & Fitch have glommed onto Bleecker St. too.

The pedestrian-oriented street of 19th-century brownstones 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.”

Though artists were always part of the Village myth, one sees fewer of them around these days, Ekmeckci noted.

“Now they have moved to Williamsburg and Staten Island because they can’t afford the rent.”

Elaine Abelson, a history professor at Greenwich Village’s New School University, 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 anymore.”

Some independent shops still thrive, especially those selling handcrafted, vintage or imported merchandise. Lori McLean, whose jewelry shop is located on nearby Grove St., 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.

“When you come into the city, you have an image of it in the back of your head,” she said. “The residue of artistry is always linked to the Village.”

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 lamented. “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 store empty of people 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.”

Toosh, another local clothier, has posted prominent posted 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 too busy reinventing itself.

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