Notions to Dismiss: A New York Strip Mistake
Well, it’s been a while since I’ve put together a column. I had planned to write a really great piece just before exams, but, in the true spirit of procrastination, I decided to put it off until now and spit out something utterly mediocre instead.
I took a little walk down Fulton Street the other day. I used to find myself there all the time – that’ll happen with three doctors, my gym, my bank, and my favorite pizza place (may she rest in peace) all being there – but this was the first time I had been there in a few months. To be honest, I was pretty shocked by what I saw. I’ve always known that big changes were coming to these streets; I just had no idea how big the changes would be or how soon they would come. But first a little background about the area.
Fulton Street, or the Fulton Mall as it’s often called, is a pretty interesting place. A vibrant commercial strip with bustling sidewalks; dotted with historic multi-level storefronts; an economically viable retail mecca that manages to get by just fine without catering to the proclivities and tastes of white folks; the seven-block stretch in Downtown Brooklyn stands out in a lot of ways.
The first stores opened up over a century ago, and the burgeoning mall became a model for urban retail, housing some of the most famous department stores of the era. Through the passage of time and the grind of economic downturn, the character of Fulton Mall has changed quite a bit, but the strength of its commercial draw has always endured. To this day, it boasts the city’s third-busiest retail strip, beating out even Madison Ave. I’ve often marveled at how you can walk down Fulton Street one day and see a business that’s recently been boarded up, but walk by that same spot two weeks later and you can bet on seeing a Grand Opening sign in the same storefront.
These days, it exists as a veritable oasis of black commercial culture, surrounded on three sides by the encroaching spread of some of Brooklyn’s bougiest neighborhoods. However, its ability to hold out seems to be at a tipping point, and my recent stroll through the colorful streetscape made it quite clear that a whirlwind of change is on the horizon.
Check it out for yourself and what you’ll find is a neighborhood in the midst of a revolutionary transformation. On the same streets as my $10/month gym (which I may or may not have been to in the last six months) and the fried chicken place that used to happily remind me of my time in Baltimore, a flood of high-rise, luxury condos and boutique hotels have taken shape. I could swear those weren’t there a few months ago.
This time, the new kids on the block are neither a short term fad nor a passing nightmare; they’re the new norm and they’re here to stay. Soon, the entire stretch will consist of high-end, designer retail and upscale wine bars. People will just have to go elsewhere to satisfy their itch for independent cell phone stores, pawn shops, and sneaker stores. In a way, I suppose this has always been inevitable: The unique characteristics and vast potential of Fulton Street make it an undeniable target for urban gentrification.
Of course, the argument goes that this is all done in the name of progress. But I’ve also often heard the Fulton Mall described as ghetto, sketchy, dangerous, etc. The first argument I admit I have some degree of sympathy for; the latter I do not.
The Fulton Mall is a unique and interesting place, well worth exploring and getting a feel for before it’s too late. If you think it’s ghetto, that’s probably because you grew up in the bubble of sheltered suburbia and were trained from a young age to treat as a threat anything that’s brown and not your housekeeper. I know what that feels like; it used to be me, but it’s still no excuse.
The fact of the matter is, a pretty cool place – and one that happens to be right across the street from our collective door step – is about to lose all of its character and a lot of its color. And when it’s all said and done, it might not be whitewashed physically, but it certainly will be from a cultural standpoint. What’s left will likely be a sterile, generic, and massively profitable retail strip in which the whole of New Brooklyn will no doubt rejoice. But ought we to join in that revelry?
I’m not saying these changes should be stopped – what good would it do anyway? – or that anyone who supports them is immoral, but let’s at least acknowledge what the real intentions are here, if not for ourselves, then for the thousands of people who will soon be losing their favorite stores to the tidal force of progress. Is there anyone who will just be honest about what’s happening on Fulton Street?
Apparently not: Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz claims that fears like mine are overblown and that there are no plans to strip the Fulton Mall of its unique character and dynamism. I think the enduring words of another famous Brooklynite should serve as an ample retort: “Up ya nose wit a rubber hose!”
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