April 4, 2007
On the third day after Whole Foods opened on Houston Street, its first Saturday, a Pashmina Silk stand appeared on the sidewalk in front. The new foot traffic justified it. Quite a three day transformation for a block which used to be an extended no-man’s-land.
Not really part of any neighborhood, this block of Houston between Bowery and Chrystie was an inexplicably enormous empty lot for years. If you’re curious, it still appears as an empty lot, with a few cars parked on it, in Google Maps’ satellite imagery. The wrangling about what to do with the site, and other sites in the area, goes back to at least 1970–all this time caught up in the vying interests of the city, neighborhood groups, and development companies. These are the sort of battles that can render some of the most valuable real estate in the world useless.
Lower Manhattan is full of strangely weed grown lots, abutting one thousand dollar a square foot homes and offices. For example, the block my overpriced tenement apartment sits on has no less than three empty lots and an abandoned building. The tides seem to be shifting though. Lately a startling number of these lots have sprouted new construction. Whole Foods and its building seems to have lead the way.
In actual fact, it took a Virginia based real estate trust, with over five billion dollars in assets, to cut through the red tape. The story of how it all worked out has been recounted by austere publications like The New York Times and by the city as a happy (enough) settling of differences between the parties concerned. I find myself wondering how much it was money that talked.
Many of the even newer buildings going up now are twenty story behemoths, dwarfing the historical six story tenements that define the neighborhood. These giants feel more like Uptown Manhattan, than the Lower East Side. I’ve seen fliers in the neighborhood calling on long time residents to organize against the battalions of concrete and glass. But given the rate of construction, the battle would appear to be over before the alarm was sounded.
Which gives us the Pashmina stand, on Houston Street, near the corner of Bowery, in front of the new Whole Foods. Even after the building was completed and occupied by residents, the store front remained empty for a long time, leaving the block cold, windy, and lifeless. So the coming of the Pashmina stand in no less than three days shows how fast Whole Foods can change the tenor of the street.
Indeed, in über-fashionable Nolita, it took years before sidewalk stands ventured from Soho, across Broadway, and began to line the brick wall surrounding St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Standing there, then, locking up my bike, I looked at the Pashmina stand with a disheartened feeling. A long time ago these type of stands would have been peopled by hippies selling ceramics or puppets, which they’d made themselves. It was the scrappy bastion of artisans. Now the stands are much more likely to offer knock off sun glasses, slightly flawed Nikes, or mass produced socks. Where there was once the chance to get something hand made and that you didn’t expect (albeit often crappy in its own way, but certainly not always), now you get the absolute commercialization of every square inch of public space possible. Should there be no limits?
As if responding to my sense of dismay, a phalanx of emergency vehicles began arriving down Houston street going the wrong direction. Then other sirens arrived from other directions.
At Houston and Mulberry, more than twenty emergency vehicles crowded around a three story building, on the corner, which had collapsed. Fifteen minutes prior, I’d biked by that intersection on my way up to Astor Place. It was as quiet as a New York intersection can proverbially be. Now half the building had tumbled into the vacant lot next door (another one of those inexplicable empty lots). No one was inside.
The corner deli in that building closed about six months earlier and was boarded up. They had good prices on fresh squeezed juice. It was your run of the mill, time-standing-still, New York corner deli, plopped down in the heart of an “it” neighborhood and right across the street from the venerable Puck building. It seemed like more than a sign of the times when the deli closed and amazing that it held on as long as it did. It was everything that Whole Foods is not: unkempt, small, on-brand, resisting change, signifying nothing.
Perhaps the building finally gave way in the face of the gusts of perfectly air-conditioned produce blowing down from Whole Foods’ corner. As Walter Benjamin wrote, in an oft quoted passage from his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”:
This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.