Volume 79, Number 33 | January 20 - 26, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Talking Point

More Jane Jacobs, Less Marc Jacobs: My new mantra

By Kate Walter

I dread to think what the commercial streets of the West Village will look like at the end of this new decade. Three years ago I wrote in this column about the designer takeover of the north end of Bleecker St. I railed against Marc Jacobs and his three or four stores, how he opened the floodgates, turning this stretch into a high-end shopping mall for tourists, driving out veteran shops. 

It was ironic to recently reread my earlier piece (from Feb. 21, 2007) where I noted my relief that the Biography Bookshop was still in business. Obviously, I spoke too soon since they are leaving their location of 20 years and moving south on Bleecker St. at the beginning of 2010. Guess who is taking over their space?

As if six stores on Bleecker St. isn’t bad enough, Jacobs bought a new $10 million town house across the street from me on Bethune St. Isn’t there any escape from this tattooed gym bunny? Actually, it might be great fun to spy on Marc and Lorenzo, but I’m sure their yearlong interior renovation will include fabulous window treatments. 

While the uber-gentrification continues on Bleecker St., one block over on Hudson St., storefronts keep emptying out as lease after lease expires and a new generation squabbles over the former Gottlieb real estate empire (more than 150 buildings.) Every block on Hudson from W. 10th to Bank Sts. has at least two empty storefronts. Some have been dark for months, even years. 

It is hard to imagine restaurants filling in those spaces — many were eateries — unless their entrees are expensive. For sure, it won’t be neighborhood bistros or cheap pizza places. I find it depressing to walk along our main business corridor and speculate how this stretch will evolve over the next 10 years.

I never thought I’d see Baby Buddha going out of business. Its location on Washington and Bethune Sts. was off the beaten track. But its days are numbered. I don’t even like Chinese food, but this news was disturbing, a harbinger of the new decade. Locals were so upset that petitions sprung up, indicating to the real estate company that the undersigned would not patronize whoever opens up there. I even signed one, although I realize it was silly to agree to boycott an unknown entity. I heard people even plan to demonstrate. 

Can’t say I was surprised that the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop had to shutter its door. The independents can’t compete against the chains and the Net.

But that closing party was a sad night. Owner Kim Brinster kept stepping out onto Christopher St. to cry. And while it’s true we no longer need a gay and lesbian store to buy queer books, those employees knew their stock. I can’t go onto Amazon and get a personal recommendation for a juicy lesbian beach book.

Oscar Wilde was the oldest gay bookstore in the country and a tourist attraction. 

Just recently, as I walked past the former location, I saw two gay men with a guidebook checking the address and looking for the missing store. “It closed,” I told them.

As for other gay institutions, Rubyfruit on Hudson St. shut down and reopened after major renovations. Sporting a new high-tech design, the place was renamed Real Friends. I’m glad it is still a women’s space, but I liked the old name better. Of course, young dykes who grew up watching “The L Word” might not even know of Rita Mae Brown’s classic coming-out novel “Rubyfruit Jungle.” 

I realize that change is inevitable, but this is not the classic gentrification story where a scruffy nabe gets a facelift. This was already a quaint historic district with cute shops before it became an upscale shopping area. The designers drawn to this neighborhood’s charm have ruined it for those of us who live here — and now, God help us, they plan to live here too. On my block, no less! 

But as much as I despise Jacobs and his ilk, the culprits are the building owners in cahoots with greedy real estate companies who refuse to offer the existing commercial tenants an affordable rent increase. And the real victims are the businesses, especially those who cannot relocate here. My life will go on without Baby Buddha, but what happens to the nice family who ran that business for over a decade?

There is no solution other than commercial rent control and I doubt that will ever happen. Some of my nabes scoffed at the boycott petition, but I suspect there will be a de facto boycott of many of the new businesses. Will it matter? Will this never end?

Ironically, some first-wave designer shops are moving; I gather they were priced out.

I keep thinking of that great sign I saw on someone’s window: “More Jane Jacobs. Less Marc Jacobs.” That will be my mantra for the next decade. I want to put that on a banner and drape it from my building. I may be powerless to stop this over-the-top gentrification, but at least I have an opportunity to hang out my in-your-face version of the unwelcome wagon. 

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