But perhaps the most important factor distilling Bleecker’s boom is the “border” streets. To the north, Bleecker ends with the ferocious car traffic of Bank and Hudson. To the south, the barrier is cultural: Christopher Street and its sex shops. This is a microneighborhood of its own, the last vestige of the gay stores that used to define much of the Village. Luxury retailers have so far kept their distance. As Cordano puts it delicately, “There’s a distinct feeling of crossing the tracks.”
These two bookends create a super-compressed sense of exclusivity that feeds on itself: The harder it is to get onto the strip, the more everyone wants to be there. To get in, you pretty much have to buy someone out. When Ralph Lauren got wind of the miracle on Bleecker, his people called Sheri Falk, a longtime Village resident who ran Basiques, a store near Perry Street that specialized in French-style linens and clothes, and whose enormous white bulldog famously slept on the shop floor all day long. Falk opened the store a month before 9/11, and the ensuing lull in shopping hurt her. So she made a deal with Lauren. “I said no three times, and they kept calling. The fourth time, I said, ‘How much?’ ” She relocated to Christopher Street, and the following year Lauren opened the first of his two stores.
Real-estate agents now field daily calls from retailers begging to get in. “If I had the space down there, I could do a dozen deals today,” says Consolo, the agent. A Marc Jacobs clerk remembers when the Four Paws pet store next door shut down. Businesspeople rushed in to get the scoop. “They were all like, ‘Do you know who the landlord is?’ Like I’d know. But they were all, ‘We must have it. We must have that store.’ ” Pretty soon, the victor was announced. The new tenant would be a cowboy-hat store by Stetson.
“Stetson?” asks Scott Brush, the owner of Hudson Street Papers, a card shop one block over. “Why would they want to be here?” He’s leaning over the cashier counter, his cat perched nearby, as customers browse through the artist-made cards. Brush is an example of the retailers who have been caught in the undertow on Bleecker, because his ten-year-long lease expires in less than a year. The landlord has warned him that the rent will increase drastically. “I get the sense that it’s going to be so high I’ll have to leave,” he admits.
A young woman in orange-tinted aviator sunglasses and with long blonde hair buys a card and sympathizes. “I’m not so happy about the Guccis and the Polos coming in here,” she says. “It seems like we’re losing our neighborhood feel.”
Brush sighs. “Ralph Lauren needs two stores here like he needs a hole in the head.”
Such is the resentment that accompanies the emergence of a microneighborhood. Rebranding a couple of blocks can seem awfully contrived to the long-term residents, and sometimes it utterly fails. “Remember BeBoMo? That lasted about fifteen minutes,” remarks Seth Kamil, referring to an ill-fated attempt by Lower East Side merchants to give a name to the recent shopping boom on Elizabeth, Bowery, and Mott streets. Even the name “Nolita” has never seriously caught on, says Kent Barwick. A few years ago, Community Board 2 began calling for people to stop using Nolita as a word, arguing that it existed solely to hype property values.
Barwick thinks a microneighborhood succeeds only if it actually reflects people’s emotional connection to their surroundings. He did his own research a few years back, when the city’s Landmarks Commission was trying to figure out whether Vanderbilt Avenue in Brooklyn ought to be called part of Fort Greene or part of Clinton Hill. Barwick went down to Vanderbilt and interviewed people on their way to work, asking them, “What’s the name of the neighborhood you live in?” Not one of them cited any of the commission’s official names. “They said, ‘Atlantic Terminal,’ because they thought of themselves as living near the terminal, north of the market,” he says with a laugh. Another example is Silicon Alley; back when it was the hot way to sell real estate, agents bickered over where, precisely, it was; some desperately redrew boundaries to extend it all the way from Wall Street to midtown in hopes of cashing in on the boom.
For residents, the other risk associated with microneighborhoods is that they can devolve into their opposite: microslums. If the market forces that originally attracted the new stores suddenly decline, those retailers can all vanish in an instant, leaving behind a tiny, blocklong stretch of urban blight. Soho is already experiencing this. Parts of Wooster and Greene are sprinkled with shuttered doors. Longtime residents on Bleecker Street say the danger is even higher there, because the new stores are so similar. If the appetite for $800 handbags were to suddenly dry up, it would decimate that strip the way a single disease can wipe out an Iowa cornfield.
“When the young, hip people suddenly decide there’s a new area, what’s going to happen to all these new stores?” wonders Susanna Aaron, who grew up on Bleecker Street and still lives in the area.
But the phenomenon itself seems unlikely to taper off. For retailers, it’s become a sport to spot the next “It” area and zoom in before someone else gets there first. When he was scouting a location in Nolita for one of his Fresh cosmetics stores, CEO Lev Glazman fell in love with a location on Spring Street so dilapidated that even his real-estate agent had reservations. “It was a former brewery, and when we walked in, there was this big hole to the basement,” says Glazman. “And [the agent] is laughing at me, but I’m saying, ‘Let’s sign a lease right now.’ It’s the same feeling I had about Bleecker. We do everything by our guts.”
If you want to see the next microneighborhood about to pop, walk just a few blocks farther down Bleecker. Between Cornelia and Carmine streets, a crop of luxury-food stores have recently blossomed, clustering around Murray’s Cheese store. In the past few months, the elite seafood retailer Wild Edibles has opened next to Murray’s, proffering $18.99-a-pound Corsican swordfish and caviar-tasting parties; next door, a new Amy’s Bread bakery is set to open. “There’s been so much action here lately,” says Murray’s owner Rob Kaufelt. The local retailers have even discussed luring a vegetable-and-fresh-fruit store to the block, to round out the offerings.
What set it off? Maybe it was Kaufelt’s recent decision to move Murray’s to the other side of the street, a splashy renovation that includes glass-walled cheese caves. Whatever it is, the tiny strip is coalescing, in that peculiar alchemy of the microneighborhood.