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Looking forward to the 2007 ASA Annual Meeting in New York…

Finding New York City’s Culture Through Shopping

by Sharon Zukin, Brooklyn College and City University Graduate Center

Since New York is still a walking city, and New Yorkers are only gradually getting used to buying shoes and groceries on the Internet when so many stores are close at hand, our main culture of consumption remains window shopping. It’s free, it’s convenient, and it enables us to see what is happening to our neighborhoods when they are challenged by chain store invasion, rampant gentrification, and ethnic turnovers. Until recently, many areas of the city were dotted with small mom and pop stores selling goods you could not find anywhere else—and often, at discount prices. Now, however, chains like Barnes & Noble, Starbucks, and H&M colonize the most heavily traf- ficked streets. They create a more standardized shopping experience than New York is known for—repeating nearly the same clusters of stores on Broadway in SoHo, where Prada’s pricey leather handbags face cheap cashmere sweaters down the street at Uniqlo, as on Lower Fifth Avenue near Union Square and 34th Street near Macy’s.

Finding the Newly Hip

To avoid these urban versions of the suburban shopping mall, you have to travel to old neighborhoods that are newly hip, like Williamsburg (in Brooklyn), central Harlem and the Lower East Side in Manhattan. Even here, rising rents are rapidly displacing local shops with designer boutiques and new “luxury” apartment houses lure affluent residents with upscale chain stores like Whole Foods Market.

Williamsburg (subway: take L train across 14th Street to Bedford Ave., first station in Brooklyn) earned a reputation as a hip artists’ district in the 1990s, after SoHo (“South of Houston”) and the East Village became too expensive for young art school graduates. Art galleries and performance spaces for rock bands earned the area media buzz, inexorably followed by “luxury” loft developers, trendy restaurants with ironic names, and a rezoning of the East River waterfront by the city government, which jump-started high-rise residential construction where warehouses and a sugar refinery remain. The blocks around the subway station, at Bedford Ave. and North 6th Street, are the epicenter of cool. At night, music clubs like Northsix and Galapagos draw young people in their 20s, while during the daytime, beginning at noon, stores like Ear Wax (music), Brooklyn Industries (urban wear), Built by Wendy (jeans), Future Perfect and Fresh Kills (furniture), Jumelle (women’s hip designer clothing) and Beacon’s Closet (vintage clothes) are the main attraction. On North 11th Street, Brooklyn Brewery, which brought boutique lager making to the borough, offers hourly tours on Saturday afternoons.

Although some stores still serve the dwindling Polish population, only one or two food shops suggest that Latinos also lived and worked here before the artists. With Williamsburg already gentrified, new stores are opening farther east on the L line, pushing the frontier of “East Williamsburg” as far as Lorimer and Grand Streets, in the black working class neighborhood of Bushwick.

Black America

Central Harlem (subway: take #2 or #3 express train uptown to 116th Street and Lenox Ave.) has been known as “the capital of Black America” since the 1920s. Although it is more spread out than Williamsburg and has had a more difficult time attracting new investment, it is now riding the same wave of luxury housing construction—as well as new restaurants, boutiques and media attention. In contrast to Williamsburg’s hipster haunts, Harlem offers elegant, “fusion” restaurants, Afrocentric art galleries, cosmetics stores and spas. “It seems that everyone who has come from out of town to see The Color Purple [on Broadway] makes a trip to our store!,” a manager of Carol’s Daughter, a cosmetics firm with a flagship store on 125th Street between Lenox and Fifth Ave., told one of my graduate students.

Walking north on Lenox Ave. toward 125th Street, through the Mt. Morris Historic District, you can admire 19th century brownstone houses that have been handsomely restored by new owners like Maya Angelou and Kareem Abdul-Jabar, stop for brunch at Settepani’s sidewalk café, or appraise the art at Tribal Spears and browse designer clothing at Xukuma. Most of these businesses have opened in the past few years, helped by rising property values downtown, lower crime rates throughout the city as well as Harlem, and loans from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, an economic development initiative funded by the federal, state, and city governments. They also respond to the desires of Harlem’s new Black middle class—investment bankers, lawyers, actors, and writers—for better shopping opportunities. With new highrise apartments on Lenox Ave. and Central Park North commanding as much as $1 million, and brownstone houses selling for $2 to $3 million, Harlem is at the peak of gentrification.

To see other results of the inflow of investment, turn left on 125th Street and walk west to Frederick Douglass Boulevard, where Harlem USA, a glassenclosed shopping mall, has brought the neighborhood long awaited branches of popular chain stores like Old Navy, as well as Hue-Man Books & Café, a stylish, Afroinflected alternative to Barnes & Noble.

From Boutiques to Cheeses

For many years the Lower East Side (subway: take F or V train to 2nd Ave, stay south of Houston St. and walk east to Orchard St.) seemed to be just as resistant to renewal as Harlem or Williamsburg. But here, too, low-price fabric and clothing stores that drew successive waves of immigrant shoppers for more than a century have gradually yielded to new designer and vintage boutiques (mainly on Orchard, Rivington and Ludlow Sts.), ambitious restaurants (on Clinton St.), and artisanal cheese (in the old Essex Street public market, at Delancey St., closed on Sundays). As in the old days, the area’s new retail entrepreneurs come from all over the world. Orchard Street between Houston and Delancey Sts. offers a rare juxtaposition of historic eras and consumer cultures. Shoppers can peruse Gus’s Pickles, the last remaining pickle maker on the Lower East Side, which sells sours and half-sours from barrels on the sidewalk in front of the Tenement Museum next door to Il Laboratorio del Gelato, home of the $10 pint (but you can buy a small cup of the intense dark chocolate and unusual ricotta flavors). The Tenement Museum also has a “vintage” gift shop nearby on Orchard Street.

Where the Locals Shop

To see New Yorkers shopping in the most local mode, it’s best to go to Union Square Park (subway: #4, 5, 6, R, W, or Q to 14th St.) on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or Saturday, when the Greenmarket is open. Under big umbrellas, farmers from the extended metropolitan region sell fruits, vegetables, breads, cheeses, fish, meats, and wines that they grow, raise, bake, or butcher themselves. The Greenmarket’s goal is to preserve regional agriculture, but New Yorkers shop at this, the first and largest of 50 such farmers’ markets in the city, because the food is quite simply the freshest and the best. Because of the “locally raised” restrictions, the Greenmarket’s produce is not as varied as at Whole Foods across 14th Street. But this is one of the city’s true public spaces—where it is a joy, not a duty, to shop.