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July 6th, 2005

UPTOWN-DOWNTOWN

by Alexandra Schwimmer

Uptown is coming back downtown. This move has been clear for quite some time to belongers walking west from the cobblestoned streets of Mercer and Greene towards West Broadway, the only two way street in SoHo. Neighborhood businesses reflect most clearly where the economic support of our area comes from. SoHo invariably thrives on outside support and tourists are a fact of life. I have grown with my neighborhood and am one of the few who can truthfully say they have been a part of SoHo street life from birth. As I grew up I witnessed the openings of such national stores as Ralph Lauren, Dolce and Gabanna, Armani, and Burberry. Belongers, as I refer to people of my neighborhood, are surrounded by businesses mostly marketed towards out of towners. These businesses cater to an uptown and out of town clientele and local residents are unfortunately not depended upon or encouraged to enter. As one of the city’s hottest markets for new retailing, SoHo was devastated by September 11th and it has taken almost four years to make its way back. This renewal is arriving in the form of uptown moving back downtown. SoHo’s recent history can be felt most clearly when heading south on West Broadway. The glare of the sun causes a common squint. There is now direct sunlight that would not have been experienced four years ago on this same strip. The Towers, our skyscraper sunblockers, are gone and with them went economic stability for neighborhood businesses. Only very recently has new money found its way back downtown.

Broome Street Bar’s double set of doors open directly onto Broome Street facing the mad tunnel traffic. The length of the late Nineteenth Century saloon runs down West Broadway, dominating the entire corner. It was in here that I overheard locals discussing the return of uptown. “It’s like a mall now. It used to be all special nice little stores and now it’s just like everywhere else.” The conversation is going on between two women seated along the wall of windows that look out onto West Broadway where an ice sculpture of a lion stands guard. The lion has been carved by a local artist out of a three foot high frozen?Ǭ snow drift. The wall of glass is offset by rectangles of blackboard with chalk drawings and artwork on them. Some list desert menus but even these have creative designs hand drawn among the cursive letters. The artwork changes infrequently, just like the clientele. “When I walk around I feel like I’m uptown,” agrees the second woman. A man seated next to be at the bar breaks in, “It’s just the neighborhood changing, besides it’s ours after dark anyway.” The first speaker pauses while balancing a soup spoon, “It’s not how it used to be,” she concludes decisively.

She is correct in that regard. SoHo, like the rest of the city, is in a constant state of forward motion. Our unique downtown neighborhood is something tourists wish to experience and we are dependent on their business. The ebb and flow of the commercial life of New York City is inevitable and in the most recent citywide shift uptown is moving back downtown. Like the man at the bar, this move neither surprises nor dismays me. History is repeating itself in a flip move to return some of what downtown helped to create. I say moving back because much of what uptown has become originated from downtown in the first place.

In 1846 Stewart’s Department Store opened on Broadway between Chambers and Reade streets. It was opened by Alexander T. Stewart and was the city’s first department store. The building was five stories high and was located on the east side of Broadway, backing onto the notoriously dangerous Five Points area. The wealthy had for the large part left downtown behind in search of safer terrain and skeptics soon labeled the store Stewart’s Folly. It was thought that fine ladies would not risk visiting such an impoverished and dangerous area of the city. In fact, they soon returned to shop. When other merchants witnessed the success of Stewart’s, they too decided to open stores on Broadway. Names such as Tiffany’s, Hearn Brothers, Lord and Taylor, and Brooks Brothers were first seen downtown. A commercial push to relocate further north eventually caused businesses to leave lower Manhattan. In 1862, sixteen years after daring to open, Stewart’s Department Store moved further north as well. Perhaps taking chances on previously untried ventures is in the tap water. When SoHo was created and finally recognized as a neighborhood in the early Sixties it was decided by Governor Nelson Rockefeller that the historic buildings of the area would be preserved. Original SoHo businesses such as Paracelso’s (the first clothing store in SoHo), Barone’s Cosmetics, Finelli’s, What Comes Around Goes Around, Milady’s, and Arturo’s could not have survived on the demographics of 1970’s SoHo. The same goes for the highly esteemed and established art galleries which continue to maintain SoHo’s valued spot in the international art world. People were curious about what was going on in the self-contained artists’ colony and came to investigate. These were SoHo’s first tourists.

Just as the natural flow of the city has been vital in the past it is needed now. In order to revive what was lost on September 11th, uptown businesses are being enticed to venture back downtown, where it all began. Today’s downtown Bloomingdale’s, at 504 Broadway, is located on the east side of the street like the Stewart’s of old. This is no longer considered a risky location to have a business, in fact the world of consumerism is in agreement that lower Broadway is prime location for commercial businesses. Bloomie’s was brought in to benefit the area and during negotiations on their lease they requested a tax break from the city.

Eventually the Bloomberg administration gave in and a special tax incentive zone was created by the city to encourage business after September 11th. This tax zone does not benefit SoHo as promised. The zone runs east of Broadway, in the complete opposite direction from the area it had promised to include: SoHo. After having used September 11th as an alibi, the tax zone ends literally at Bloomie’s front door and does not cross Broadway to the SoHo side where it is sorely needed. Downtown local politicians don’t seem to be concerned with the needs of SoHo and have not spoken up against this broken promise.

Aside from the behind the scenes negative politics of the space, the presence of a large department store is a good thing for our neighborhood. The actual building has remained, in the eyes of belongers, a neighborhood structure. Bloomingdale’s is housed in a 124,000 square foot building with a cast iron facade which has been lovingly restored to exact landmark specifications, something affordable only by a major corporation or a wealthy condo developer. In true SoHo fashion, the building is a landmarked 1892 structure. An interesting aspect of the morph of an uptown business into a downtown neighborhood is the inclusion of signature SoHo style in the architecture and layout of Bloomingdale’s. Strong SoHo influences can be felt in Bloomie’s as the cast iron facade dictates the interior design. Natural sunlight combined with floodlights filter down from large skylights above while windows at both facades look out onto the hurried life of Broadway at the front and calmer, narrower Crosby Street at the back. These windows are a comfort to downtowners who are familiar with large open spaces and views which look out over other low buildings, rooftops, and our water towers.

As shoppers descend on smooth new escalators towards the classic Bloomingdale’s black and white tile lobby their attention is drawn towards the exposed antique brickwork they pass. The decorative structural retainers stabilize the building and a ride on the escalator becomes a lesson in SoHo architecture and restoration. Brick arches open up along the walls through which displays of designer shoes are glimpsed. These arches serve a dual purpose, shoppers are drawn towards the merchandise displays and the historic building is kept well intact. The use of a historic cast iron building for something other than office space (as most buildings on lower Broadway tended to be used for before the return of the original mercantile businesses to the area) is positive. No longer do the buildings merely stand as time passes. They are protected under landmark laws and as businesses enter them these cast iron buildings of SoHo once again hold a purpose.

What does this shift from unique small designers to high end department stores mean for SoHo? Michael Gould, Bloomie’s CEO, merely cleared the path for other large businesses and it is logical to expect continued change. A second investment quality retailer is currently planning to join the neighborhood on the same street. This will continue the return of uptown back downtown. Bloomie’s has a forty year lease with an option for another twenty years. This means that Bloomie’s at 504 Broadway is here to stay for a while, even in the terms of a city that is continually reinventing itself.

With the continued cultural and economic flow afforded by outsiders everything about the neighborhood continues to rise in value. It is up to longtime SoHo residents to maintain and rebuild what is ours. In the end it is we who benefit from the upkeep and forward motion of our small?Ǭ yet highly influential neighborhood. After the stores have closed for the day, restaurants remain open. Locals gather at hangouts such as Broome Street Bar, Arturo’s, Finelli’s, and Milady’s where we are comfortable. It is our town after dark. Belongers admire the new local art work which has recently been added to the walls of an old place. Like the man at the bar said, “A big guy like Bloomie’s coming in helps us keep all this. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.”

Filed Under: Articles | Arts & Leisure | New York

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