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The Rise of the Microneighborhood

How do buzz-craving real-estate agents and boutique owners decide where to go now that gentrification has washed over most of Manhattan (not to mention Brooklyn)? By conjuring zones of hipness as small as a single block.

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Clockwise from top left: Magnolia Bakery, opened July 1996; Marc by Marc Jacobs, July 1996; Lulu Guiness, September 2001; Marc Jacobs Accessories, February 2002.   

There’s an old urban phenomenon taking on a new form in and around Manhattan, and you have probably seen it, even if you didn’t know exactly what you were looking at. Consider the now-famous three-block section of Bleecker Street that runs between West 11th Street and West 10th (that may not sound like three blocks, but it is). With its immaculate rowhouses and lush trees, it could be Paris, and it now has the shops to prove it. There’s a Lulu Guinness store, filled with $400 gold suede heels, and a block over there’s Cynthia Rowley’s flagship store, with her pink metallic shoes and diaphanous dresses. NYU students flock to Intermix to buy slinky-hipster fashion on their parents’ credit cards, and there’s a Robert Marc store with chunky architect-style eyeglasses. Ralph Lauren has two stores facing each other—men’s and women’s—and Marc Jacobs has a rather amazing three stores, all within eyeshot of each other.

For years, these blocks were more or less indistinguishable from the long eclectic mess of Bleecker, studded with delis, laundromats, a bricked-up dentist’s office, and a handful of sleepy antiques stores. But four years ago, it began to rapidly transform after Marc Jacobs opened up his first shop. Within a year, the stampede was on, as high-end retailers sensed a Hot New Thing and rushed to grab a piece of it. Now Vanity Fair gushes over how chichi the strip has become (“the new Nolita”), and Upper East Siders wander down with their nanoscale dogs to browse the $800 handbags. Young, hip mothers push Bugaboos and sift through cashmere sweaters after lunch. On the weekends, the tourists and out-of-towners descend in droves. As do the celebrities: Julia Roberts and Scarlett Johansson and Sarah Jessica Parker, a local who is practically a fixture.

Real-estate agents shake their heads in amazement. “Soho took fifteen years,” says Gene Cordano, a Halstead agent. “This only took three.” Cordano says he gets calls every day from retailers begging him to find them space down on Bleecker. To them, merely being in “the Village” isn’t meaningful anymore. They want to be part of those three blocks, and those three blocks only. “It’s so European,” says Khajak Keledjian, the owner of Intermix, who fell in love with it while Rollerblading nearby. “It just feels like a cohesive whole,” says Cynthia Rowley, who’s even moving into an apartment a few blocks away. “It feels like a neighborhood.”

More precisely, it’s a “microneighborhood,” and it is now the defining trend of New York real estate. In the world of Manhattan business, the idea of a big, overarching district like Soho or Chelsea or the West Village has lost distinction. When retailers want to create a zone of hipness these days, they synthesize it from much, much smaller atoms: a couple of blocks. Hell, maybe only a single block. Examine almost any area of Manhattan these days and you’ll find it balkanized into a set of breakaway microneighborhoods, each one proclaiming its unique character. The Village has arguably broken into a cluster of microneighborhoods: the sex-shop strip of Christopher; the restaurant corridor of West 4th Street; “Westbeth,” the early-adopter theater-artist zone on Bethune, “a whole neighborhood named after two blocks,” says Seth Kamil, founder of Big Onion Walking Tours. Meanwhile, down in Soho, Furniture Row has sprung up on Broome Street. In Brooklyn, tiny Dumbo has gone from being a weird acronym to a bona fide brand. The speed at which the microneighborhoods emerge has accelerated so quickly that some have already faded into history—such as Silicon Alley, which briefly occupied a stretch of the Flatiron district.

Soho took fifteen years to become a handbag colony. Bleecker took only three.

In her 1978 book Metropolitan Life, Fran Lebowitz argued that New York was becoming so wildly upscale that individual blocks around it would soon be given their own names, like feudal lands. (She helpfully coined terms like “Bejelfth” for a stretch of West 4th between 12th and Jane.) That isn’t a joke anymore. “It’s unbelievable how fast people slap identities on these tiny strips,” Kamil says. “It’s sort of a philosophical question: When is something ‘discovered’? When does it officially exist? When someone thinks of a name for it?” And indeed, these microzones can seem almost like parodies of Manhattan’s love of exclusivity. James Sanders, an architect and the author of Celluloid Skyline, a book on New York in the movies, remembers scoffing in 1995 when he heard about a friend registering SiliconAlley.com. “I remember at the time thinking, Whatever. But in retrospect”—he laughs—“that would have been a useful thing to have.”

In a very real way, microneighborhoods are an aftereffect of Manhattan’s explosive gentrification in the nineties. It used to be that a real-estate agent or a retailer could “discover” a dowdy neighborhood, clean it up, and give it a fresh new name. By the turn of the millennium, though, pretty much every corner of Manhattan had been colonized. Genuinely “discovering” a full neighborhood is no longer feasible. The only thing left to do? Carve up existing neighborhoods into ever smaller fragments.

Susan Fainstein, a professor of urban planning at Columbia, says what’s happening now is a rediscovery of side streets, because the big avenues of Manhattan—once home to many smaller retailers—have been flooded with chains. “So the little street takes on a new appeal,” she says. Microneighborhoods are also, as observers drily note, very much a creature of real-estate opportunism. “It’s people in real estate creating interest in an area,” says Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society. “It’s like with Nolita—it got that name for no good reason, really. With real estate, a little renaming helps a lot.”

While the trend has obviously been fueled by an overheated market—not to mention today’s rampant cult of branding—it is neither purely artificial nor entirely new. The “neighborhood” that’s only one block long is a Manhattan tradition, a natural artifact of a city so tightly packed that people refer to “good” and “bad” blocks as if they were entirely different worlds, even if they’re next to each other. The city has a history of tightly clustered strips of like-minded shops, like the guitar stores lining West 48th Street, or the chess purveyors on Thompson Street near NYU. You could almost map out New York by its clusters, new and old. There’s a lineup of wedding-gown stores that have bloomed on East 9th Street, near Third Avenue, and a set of hipster nightclubs—complete with velvet ropes—that have sprung up in the previously dilapidated stretch of Ludlow Street south of Houston. A microhood of Korean restaurants line 32nd Street, near Fifth Avenue, and photography stores have long clustered on 17th and 18th streets between Fifth and Sixth avenues. And as Brooklyn has gentrified, it has produced a bumper crop of microneighborhoods, from the high-end kitsch furniture shops lining Fifth Avenue in Park Slope to Smith Street’s dining corridor, to even a blocklong Arabic renaissance on Atlantic Avenue west of Fourth Avenue, where Afghan shops hawk Islamic texts and clothing.

“Many people think that a retailer would like to be the only one of its kind, that you’d like to be the only shoe shop on the block or the only jewelry store on the street, so you don’t have competition. But it’s quite the opposite,” says Matthew Bauer, president of the Madison Avenue Business Improvement District. Retailers flock together precisely because it creates buzz that delivers business; the ability of shoppers to zip from store to store brings in more traffic, which more than compensates for the increased competition. Bauer recently helped bring together a microneighborhood of crystal boutiques on Madison around 58th Street, and is attempting to rebrand it as the “crystal district.” According to Sanders, this phenomenon is “part of the amazing self-organizing ability of Manhattan. It’s a fundamentally anti-suburban idea.”

See map of Bleecker Street: A tour of three microneighborhoods on one street.


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