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The Rise of the Microneighborhood

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Clockwise from top left: Ralph Lauren Women's, September 2003; Ralph Lauren Men's, April 2004; Intermix, May 2004; Robert Marc, June 2004.  

Bleecker emerged from the same blend of organic growth and canny marketing. Yet what’s unique about it is the almost cartoonish exclusivity of its constituent boutiques. The first seed was planted in 1996, when the Magnolia Bakery opened up at 11th and Bleecker. “It was supposed to be this nice family bakery that closes at 7 P.M.,” says co-founder Allysa Torey. Instead, it attracted the attention of the upscale creative-industry types who had begun to live in the West Village, including the writing staff of Sex and the City, who wrote Magnolia into an episode. The jolt of pop-culture fame brought even more people down, and soon the lines outside lasted until well past midnight.

That’s about when Robert Duffy got interested. The president of Marc Jacobs International, he had lived in the area for twenty years and had fallen in love with the quaint, tree-lined strip. After the first Marc Jacobs store in Soho established itself as a bustling success, he decided he wanted a store next to Magnolia. Given that the nearby blocks were still mostly quiet antiques stores, Duffy knew he’d stand out—a high-end retailer selling $250 sneakers and pimped-out black faux-fur men’s coats—but he didn’t care.

“It was a purely emotional decision. It was not a business decision,” he admits. “But that corner has always been my favorite corner in all of Manhattan. I dined at the Paris Commune, I hung out at the park with my friends. It was what New York meant to me. People thought I was crazy! They thought the neighborhood wouldn’t support it, there wouldn’t be any business.”

They were wrong. The store quickly became a hit with the young locals, and drew fashionistas up from Soho. The first public photo of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, Duffy says, was taken while they shopped in the store. Sex and the City struck again, shooting an episode—Carrie Bradshaw’s book launch—there. “It just had this perfect feel,” jokes Cindy Chupack, one of the show’s writers and executive producers. “The street is already art-directed.”

News travels fast among elite retailers: Lulu Guinness, the British designer of bags and shoes, saw Bleecker Street when Sex and the City aired in Britain, got wind of the Jacobs store, and flew to New York to close her own deal. When it first opened, things were quiet, says Charlotte Guess, the store’s first manager. “No one would come in. I’d be banging my head saying, Please, come shop! Then every once in a while, a limo would pull up and an Upper East Side lady would jump out and rush in, afraid of being mugged.” But by the holiday season of 2002, business was booming, and chic designers were storming into real-estate offices to demand leases on Bleecker: first Fresh (cosmetics), then Ralph Lauren I, Cynthia Rowley, then Ralph Lauren II, Intermix, and Olive & Bette’s.

One risk of microneighborhoods is they can devolve into their opposite: microslums.

Rents soared. Real-estate agents say the early entrants in 2001—like Marc Jacobs and Fresh—were getting leases of about $80 per square foot. But by 2003, when Ralph Lauren was opening the first of his two shops, rent was probably about $140 per square foot; by the time he opened his second in April 2004, some landlords were asking as much as $175, says Faith Hope Consolo, who negotiated the leases for Fresh and several other Bleecker retailers. “In just three years, it’s doubled,” she says. Other agents, such as Halstead’s Cordano, are less bullish: He thinks the top rents average only $140. But even that is a lot higher than most non-boutiques can afford. The laundromat that closed when Robert Marc moved in could survive with rent of $50 to $75 a square foot, says Consolo. A place like the Hudson Street Papers card shop could likely handle $60 to $75, and the antiques stores on the strip might be able to go up to about $100. Beyond that is the sole province of boutiques.

There are no lines in the street that mark the borders of the Bleecker mini-boom, but there might as well be. Walk south of 10th Street, and the $300 sweaters abruptly give way to Condomania, a porn-heavy newsstand, and a clearance store with three-packs of discount socks on folding tables and $9 plastic telephones. Why hasn’t the Bleecker renaissance spread? Why is it so compressed?

The answer lies in a few key architectural features. For example, real-estate agents point out that the three-block stretch of Bleecker is endowed with a large number of rowhouses with storefronts. That sets it apart from the surrounding area, where the blocks are mostly residential. Along Bleecker, says Bruce Sinder, the agent who handled the deals for Marc Jacobs and Olive & Bette’s, “it’s one store after another, which is precisely what you want.” Bleecker was perfectly poised to develop the critical mass of retail that Matthew Bauer talks about: an avenue along which pedestrians could spend two hours slowly meandering and comparison-shopping.

What’s more, Bleecker shops are extremely small, less than 1,000 square feet. That influences who rents. Only an elite retailer with high-end goods—or ones they design themselves, for even larger profit margins—can make money in such a tiny space. The Gap needs much larger spaces in which to sell thousands of $10 T-shirts. Bleecker thus imposes a Darwinian logic on the market in which only the hippest luxury goods can survive.

Bleecker also benefits from plain geography. Realtors looked down on their maps and realized that Bleecker was a sort of natural footpath from Soho to the burgeoning meatpacking area, and would benefit from traffic flowing upward as Soho shoppers headed north for cocktails. It didn’t hurt that the local population near Bleecker and Perry had gone massively upscale. Superluxury building like the nearby towers by Richard Meier have brought an influx of residents with advanced spending habits. “It’s creating a mini Fifth Avenue on Bleecker Street,” says Grant King, a Corcoran agent.

Yet no matter how upscale Bleecker gets, it still seems like an undiscovered secret. Retailers say this sense of privacy is why celebrities have felt so comfortable coming to shop. At Intermix, Keledjian has seen the Olsen twins—now nearby Village residents—and Britney Spears come by, and Minnie Driver recently dropped in to get a wardrobe for the Mercury Awards dinner. (She returned later to thank the salespeople for dressing her.)

“If someone is walking on a major avenue, everyone would be flocking on them,” Keledjian adds, while also noting that the environment is changing. “When I see a Japanese tourist with a magazine tear sheet in their hand, and they’re looking for a bag that they read about three months ago”—he chuckles—“it’s coming.” You could argue that Bleecker’s exposure on Sex and the City created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Though that strip of Bleecker wasn’t nearly as tony when the producers first shot there, the show portrayed it that way, prompting chichi retailers to move in and make the street, well, genuinely tony. Life imitated TV.


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