One of my fonder teenage memories is of sneaking into Condomania on Bleecker Street in the tenth grade. My friend and I took the train allll the way from the Upper West Side to the Village and SoHo—a real journey for us at the time—so we could go to the Morrison Hotel Gallery to gawk at pictures of Jim Morrison. We thought we were very cool, and after buying a lot of cheap jewelry at Girlprops (RIP), we decided we'd be even cooler if we went to Condomania, where we'd heard tell of a waterfall filled with condoms. We walked in, giggled at the Penis Pasta for a minute, and left. It was a big moment.
Condomania closed in 2007 (as did Girlprops in 2010, tragically). By then, Bleecker Street was already on its way to becoming "the new Rodeo Drive," thanks to the proliferation of high-end retail establishments like Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren, and Juicy Couture. In the aughts, most of Bleecker Street's edgier independent shops got pushed out by the skyrocketing rents, turning the area into a shopping mall exclusively for the rich and famous. But as the Times reported today, those stores are falling on their own swords, finding the area's commercial rents unsustainable with such limited foot traffic.
The Times turned to esteemed local food critic Robert Sietsema, who has lived at the corner of Bleecker and Perry Streets for nearly three decades, to pontificate on the "fashion theme park"-turned-ghost-town that Bleecker Street's become over the last year or so. Sietsema noted that after Sex and the City popularized Magnolia Bakery in 2000, Bleecker filled up with tourists, and when Marc Jacobs opened his first store on Bleecker soon after, the street filled up with fancy retailers. "If I could have 20 stores on Bleecker Street, I would," Jacobs told the Times in 2001.
The problem with expensive stores, of course, is that fewer people shop at them, and over the last year it appears most of those retailers have packed up and left, leaving landlords still addicted to the sky-high rents they once charged. Now, Sietsema says, Bleecker "looks like a Rust Belt city," with empty storefronts replacing all the Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren mannequins.
Bleecker Street's not the only shopping zone affected by this phenomenon—even Fifth Avenue, which has served as the city's high-end shopping district for decades, is losing some of its stalwart tenants. But upper Fifth Avenue isn't the Village, and Bleecker's story epitomizes what can befall neighborhoods whose moment in the sun has drawn some higher end tenants and, therefore, higher rents.
Last week, State Senator Brad Hoylman released a report on the "high-rent blight" in Greenwich Village and in Chelsea, noting that Bleecker Street now boasts an 18.4 percent vacancy rate. In his report, Hoylman suggested, among other things, introducing legislation that would limit formula retail stores, eliminating the commercial rent tax, improving state resources for small independent businesses, and promoting "shop local" campaigns. Hoylman also suggested phasing out tax deductions for landlords with persistent vacancies, thereby making it less attractive for them to jack up rents.
"Bleecker Street is a cautionary tale of how high rents in the Village and Chelsea are pushing out longtime independent business. We can’t simply allow market forces to run roughshod over our community any longer," Hoylman said in a statement. Looking at you, Williamsburg.