Friday, January 15, 2010

When the Gap moved into the East Village



A reader comment from last Friday's post on the St. Marks Cinema:

I remember when the Gap opened — and one of the local street peeps dropped his drawers, backed up and shat directly on the big plate glass window. The East Village was very creative, vocally and fecally, about expressing its opinion on the encroaching gentrification...


Indeed, an article from May 4, 1988, in Women's Wear Daily discussed the neighborhood's reaction to the Gap, which opened at St. Mark's and Second Avenue in March 1988. They paid some $33,000 in monthly rent, which pretty much blew the curve for any other merchant.

Here are some passages from the article, which isn't online:

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The Gap's move onto St. Marks Place here has not engendered neighborly love. Far from it.

The situation is a dramatic example of how sportswear chains, in the fight for market positioning, have come to be seen as harbingers of change in older, deteriorated neighborhoods, bringing with them the threat of escalating rents and a squeeze on smaller retailers.

Reaction to the 4,000-square-foot store, which opened March 16, ranges from quiet discontent to strident opposition. Similarly, when the 700-unit chain opened on the corner of Haight & Ashbury Streets in San Francisco last year, locals picketed the store and threw eggs at the windows for several days.

A frequent response to the glare of The Gap's fluorescent lights has been, "There goes the neighborhood." The store, at the corner of St. Marks Place and Second Avenue, is at the intersection of the East Village's two primary shopping streets.

The East Village is unquestionably on the move; opinions vary on whether the direction of the move is to be applauded. The Gap could be the magnet that attracts other retail chains to the area and changes the face of the neighborhood forever.

Many observers predict the arrival of The Gap will speed gentrification and push out long-time tenants. It is an old story reminiscent of other areas of the city -- the West Village, Columbus Avenue and lower Broadway. Local retailers fear rents will soar and they will be forced to leave. Some stores have already relocated to side streets.

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While landlords cheer the appreciation of their proporety, tenants boo the deterioration of another bohemian mecca.

"The East Village is original. There is nothing like it," said Christine Braun, manager of Trash & Vaudeville, a store known for its funky to contemporary clothes. "But slowly it's changing and the Gap is a sign that there will be more."

According to Braun, there is a new clientele on St. Marks adhering to the norm and rejecting the underground values that once prevailed. "These kids have credit cards. Years ago they never did."

Retailers credit the unique boutiques for improving East Village shopping traffic and doubt The Gap will lure people downtown. They also argue that The Gap's clothing would not compete with their merchandise. Some mentioned that they only thing The Gap might do is assuage those tourists who are intimidated by the neighborhood.

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Pete Mayo, owner of East Village Leather, on St. Marks Place, elaborated: "Anyone who has a lease pending hasn't got a shot in hell." He signed a lease in October 1987 -- "probably the last one on the block before The Gap moved in" -- at a fifth of The Gap's price.

Mayo's partner also owns St. Marks Leather, which until three years ago shared The Gap's space along with Shazaam, a designer boutique, and the St. Marks Theater. He and Mayo opened East Village Leather because the lease at St. Marks Leather will be up for renewal soon and they wanted to insure a spot on the block.

"Who knows what will be happening here with rents then?" said Mayo. "It's getting to the point where the small retailers are having to grab what they can. Many are moving off St. Marks and Second Avenue to the side streets, like Fifth between First and Second Avenues. Only about four businesses have been on this block for over 10 years."

"Mayo, like most of those interviewed, expressed a desire to see the new Gap fail. Residents want to it to close on principle. They say The Gap is ruining the neighborhood.

"There are tour buses coming down the block now," said a 10-year veteran of St. Marks Place. "On Sunday afternoon it's scary with all the blue blazers and gold buttons."

One East Village painter was so angry the night after the store opened that he threw a cinder block at the full length glass windows. They didn't break. "The windows buckled, but after three blows I gave up," he said.

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Garrick Aug Associates, one of the largest commercial store leasing companies here, arranged the deal for The Gap in the East Village. According to Faith Consolo, vice president of Garrick Aug, The Gap pays $100 per square foot annually. Rent on the 4,000-square-foot-store is therefore $33,333 per month. It is "absolutely" the most money paid in the block's history, according to Consolo.

"The Gap has broken the barrier of what that area is all about," said Consolo. "It will be the anchor. The Gap will have the same impact as Tower Records did the same impact as Tower Records did on lower Broadway. And the East Village will eventually like lower Broadway or Columbus Avenue. There will be less color and more sophistication."

Consolo predicted the East Village would have fewer galleries, restaurants, and family-run shops. "Chain stores are interested in the East Village now, sophisticated merchants, both national and local."

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Charles FitzGerald, landlord, store owner and resident of the East Village, elaborated on The Gap's appearance and influence on the area: "The Gap could have used the corner space to experiment with new merchandising techniques that would appeal more to the local customer rather than just putting up the formula store."

FitzGerald sees The Gap's effects from two perspectives -- as a landlord and as a long-time resident. He arrived on St. Marks Place in 1959. Seven years later, he purchased 9 St. Marks -- where he lives and also operates Bowl & Board, a home goods store -- and, a year after, 12 St. Marks. In 1984, FitzGerlad bought 33 St. Marks Place, adjacent to the site of the new Gap.

"As a real estate owner, it is obviously positive," declared FitzGerald. "Property goes up in value and there is an inferred stability with The Gap's presence."

"Now I can get the money to renovate the building. I wasn't able to before The Gap or something like it came in and stepped up the area to a new retailing plateau." FitzGerald has been losing money on the building from the start.

As a longtime resident, FitzGerald would like to see the area go back to the way it was in the Sixties but realizes it just won't happen. "Because of the low rents -- when I moved here I paid $20 per month with a bunch of people -- there was opportunity for the individual's creativity. Everything was new and that's what made the East Village a vital place.

"Slowly our neighborhood has undergone the transformation from being a caldron of creativity to a standard business operation. You used to have to do something very individual to get people here."

He doubts whether The Gap will last in its new locale, noting that people go to the East Village to get away from the mid-America image The Gap projects. He said the same merchandise with a different name carrying a less negative connotation might go over fine.

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Many interviewed ... said The Gap is always empty. "No one has been flocking there so far," said Bellomo. Among the few customers on a Friday afternoon were a couple of Dutch tourists. "I was surprised to see it here," said one. "I heard people outside complaining, but I heard they had cheap jeans."

Jean Martinez, another Gap customer, also found The Gap on St. Marks an odd sight. "It sticks out like a sore thumb. I didn't want to come in but my husband needed jeans really badly," she said. "I said to him I hope no one I know sees me in here."

Corporate executives of The Gap, based in San Bruno, Calif., declined to be interviewed for this article, but Greg Odem, assistant manager of the East Village store, took issue with those who said things were dull inside: "We are busy at night and on the weekends. The adult store (a Gap Kids shares the space) is above corporate projections. We didn't expect the store to be doing as well so soon."

Odem said the store generated more than $1,000 a day and added that it was already evident the store would make it on Second Avenue. Although the store has entrances on St. Marks Place and Second Avenue, the chain opted to go with the 133 Second Avenue address.

"They think we are destroying the East Village image, but like everywhere else, they will accept it," said Odem. "It's just going to take some getting used to one both our parts. Besides, developers were already planning to revamp the area. We just happened to be the first to move in."

He admitted, though, that there was resistance: "We get stickers on our window asking, 'Why are you here?' or saying 'Go away' and so forth every morning."

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Postscript.

The St. Mark's location closed in 2001, one of the eight Gap stores that were shuttered in 2001 and 2002.

The corner today....

14 comments:

john penley said...

When the Gap first opened on St. Mark's a friend of mine Chris Karma threw a brick at the window.Unfortunately for Karma there were two undercover cops on the block and he was arrested after they chased him down and jumped on him. I sure do miss those good old days.

Mykola Dementiuk said...

I once owned a beautiful brown leather vest from St Marks Leather and wore it everywhere. One night in New Orleans took it off as I charged into a fight and got my face bashed in...lost the vest that night too.

Anonymous said...

We all wanted The Gap to fail. We hung out with the punks on the steps of what is now the Chipotle/Grand Sichuan. It was customary to spit on the Gap windows when walking by. And now? Punk rock lives on t-shirts, though the occasional mohawk still gets a nice nod or high five.

esquared said...

ironic, isn't it? the gap did fail, but only to be replaced by a luxe store.

also, when k-mart moved into astor place, that pushed the gentrification/suburbanization knife that the gap had stabbed into the east village's uniqueness.

EV Grieve said...

Does k-mart still have the cafeteria on the second level?

esquared said...

not sure about the cafeteria at k-mart -- used to love the grilled cheese and soda special for like $2.99 or something. however, i do know that the bathroom on 2nd floor has been taken out. and with barnes and noble on astro place vanished, i now actually have to go to starbucks to use the bathroom

EV Grieve said...

I ate at that Kmart Cafe once. I swear they had a sign that said something like.... Today's vegetable: Macaroni and cheese.

Anonymous said...

The cafeteria is long gone. Too bad, it was a great place to sit and eat and people-watch. Re St. Mark's Cinema, I still remember paying 2 bucks to get in, and smoking through the double features, just like everyone else was doing, and afterwards going over to Dojo to grab a bite. Glory days.

Gwin said...

I bought a pair of jeans at that Gap in 1992 (when I was in grad school and was poor). I wrote a check for them. However, the check was never cashed - I'm assuming because the place was robbed. In any case, free jeans!

Anonymous said...

When I moved to St Marks Place in 1977, there was - among other stores -a kosher butcher, a lawyer, a florist, a couple of haircutting places, 2 bookstores, a couple of antique shops and of course Dojo (which used to be like one tiny storefront/ice cream shop - they had a flavor called Panama Red).

My friends Tish and Snooky Bellomo owned Manic Panic at 33 Saint Marks; Syl Sylvain of the NY Dolls used to knit sweaters for them to sell.

The guy who owned Bowl and Board was douchebag and the St. Marks Leather guys weren't the greatest either.

EV Grieve said...

Tish and Snooky have a great Web site with lots of archival photos of their storefront. I should post a few of those.

Anonymous said...

Manic Panic - 33 SMP. Steps from my front door. It was a real hangout, everyone passed through there. Also, Grassroots has been there since I have been here since 1977 at least.

I think Songlines has that address wrong.

Deelite 32 SMP.

The Deadboys 33 SMP (behind).

SMP was at least 20 feet wider all the crap on the street an the outdoor cafes really cut down on the room. It used to be like a really seedy boulevard.

chris flash said...

Chris Karma told me a slightly different story about the GAP window. Seems that try as he might, he could never quite get the damn window to break. One day, he tried a fire hydrant cap. He told me that, holding the cap like a discus, he twirled himself around and around, releasing the cap, which successfully broke the window!!

That place was unwanted by everyone I knew and they never had any customers. It seemed to me that the GAP was just looking for a presence, much like those shitty little fascist (oops, I meant to say fashion) stores along Bleecker Street, between Seventh Avenue and Hudson, all of whom pay exorbitant rents, despite having no customers either.

Before the GAP at St. Marx, I truly enjoyed the St. Marx Theater and the small locally-owned shops that were taken out by the GAP. This was part of what made the neighborhood a special place.

Folks ought to exercise their right to VOTE by boycotting corporate interlopers and supporting their neighborhood businesses. Remember: every dollar is a vote!!

Anonymous said...

What's worse than corporate led gentrification? White hipster gentrification.

I could think of worse things to have in my neighbourhood than a GAP store.