I have never been a pioneer. By that, I mean I’ve never been the type to move somewhere “up and coming”. I’d gladly forego a remodeled kitchen to live in a pristine neighborhood. I’m not the girl in the loft on the wrong side of the tracks. And though I see the promise and fiscal ease of living somewhere on the verge, the thought of said lifestyle makes me on edge.
Call me a chicken, call me a princess, and call me a spoiled brat. I may indeed be all of those things, but what I’m not is a pioneer. And though I am a great admirer of the pioneer lifestyle (you pay how much in Crown Heights?), I know myself well enough to know that if there is not a decent nail salon, grocery store, or a decent place for toro tartare, I’m not interested. Posh? Perhaps. I’m
just not a nowheresville kind of girl and freely admit it.
But one thing I can’t abide by is a sort of mass marketing of life. This week’s announcement of J. Crew arriving on my corner, my sweet little block of happiness in Brooklyn, had me down. What’s currently at this location is a lovely little grocery store, which I frequent 3-4 times a week- to have my favorite brand of coconut water and that Love Crunch granola I so love steps from my apartment is very important to me. A preppy version of life is not.
As someone who has made a career in marketing, I have always admired J. Crew’s moxie- Mickey Drexler is a retail savant and Jena Lyon’s vision of quirky and well bred New Yorkish/Americana is undeniably charming. It’s true I have not bought something in J. Crew in years- it’s not my style at all and am much more at home in the Gap, Rag and Bone, Madewell, and more independent stores with less well known names. And if Jena and co have done a ton in terms of exporting their brand to the masses, well good for them. It’s just that my neighborhood does not need anything of the kind, at least in my mind. If you read the tweets of this week (some admitting some guilt for being excited about the ability to not leave the neighborhood for a polka dot bikini, while others are mourning
the loss of a favorite grocer), you know that Brooklyn is now becoming a borough divided, and the J. Crew addition is the official jump the shark moment we all knew would come.
And with all New York real estate, retail is all about location. J. Crew’s decision to be in Cobble Hill is not at all shocking- it’s an affluent neighborhood of white young families who love wearing stripes and boyfriend jeans. But what stings the most is that they should have looked for a spot on Atlantic Avenue, an artery running through the neighborhood where mass chains like Urban Outfitters and Barneys and PetSmart coexist with old school favorites like the excellent Middle Eastern food emporium Sahadi’s with newer yet less mass additions like Steven Alan and Jonathan Adler, who still enjoy multiple locations but are more or less well loved New York brands that are still small enough to feel “authentic”. (Jonathan Adler less so…) Instead, the Crew is coming to Court Street, and though we have a Trader Joe’s on the corner of Atlantic and Court, the intrusion of such a huge retailer moving one block deeper into Cobble Hill just feels wrong (there’s also a lot of big market retail in downtown Brooklyn, but for some reason that feels well placed and in service of the bustling neighborhood where many people come to work each day in the courthouses and municipal buildings).
If you are not familiar, Court Street and Smith Street are the two major drags of my neighborhood, and though there are Starbucks and chain drugstores on both of them, there are not national retailers of the fashion variety on those streets, and I wish it would stay that way. I’ve often thought it would be lovely to have an Organic Avenue or Juice Press in the neighborhood, and although that’s bourgeois as hell, they are still local New York businesses that would fit in perfectly with the health conscious and wealthy denizens of the neighborhood. Even a Rag and Bone would be cooler- sure their $300 denim jackets are beyond the reach of most of us, but they produce in America and are one of those brands that though getting bigger,still have some indie cred.
What’s funny to me is how much I wanted big retail when I lived in Miami. If you told me that a J. Crew was opening up in Coconut Grove or Coral Gables, I’d be pretty excited. Because that would mean I lived somewhere on the map, where a brand such as that would feel we were worthy of their Italian ballet flats. Instead, I watched as big stores like Ann Taylor and Bath and Body Works would shut the doors, as well as Banana Republic. This was shocking to me- in NYC you never see big stores like that shut their doors, unless they are consolidating. And having worked in Coconut Grove for 7 years, I craved a decent shopping experience when I needed a break or felt like taking a lunchtime stroll.
But in Brooklyn, it’s a little different. I lived in Cobble Hill many years ago, after a rather terrible breakup that left me devastated and looking for change. I moved into an apartment on Bergen Street between Smith and Hoyt, right down the street from my (still) beloved Brooklyn Inn, a lovely old local haunt with deliciously substantive bloody marys and a great jukebox. I had a roommate, a working fireplace, and a view of a gorgeous courtyard from a beautiful bedroom I painted blue. My share of the rent? $550. In the late 1990s, Cobble Hill was about to become what it is today, but back then there were only two decent restaurants, not a ton of boutiques, and the simple yet ominous refrain of “whatever you do, don’t mistake the G train for the F” and “never eat sushi in Brooklyn”. But as I recuperated from my failed relationship, I grew to love the neighborhood- it’s outdoor book vendors, its leafy beauty, and low buildings that allowed me to breath and see the sky. But when my roommate decided she wanted her boyfriend to move in, I moved out. And took his apartment in Manhattan, a little studio on the Upper East Side which cost me more than double the rent of what I was paying in Brooklyn. Cut to now.
It’s 2013 and I’m back in New York after (too) many years away, and now Brooklyn is a brand and not a neighborhood. It’s true I live in what Hannah on “Girls” calls “grown up Brooklyn”- my husband and I don’t have children but apparently everybody else in our neighborhood does. I left what many deem paradise (sandy beaches, palm trees, warm weather) in Miami to come to my own version of Bali Hai in Brooklyn (charming old brownstones, fruit and flower vendors, a great bookstore, and lots and lots of trees).
When we were moving back, we flirted with living in Manhattan but quickly realized at this stage in the game, we were nothing if not Brooklyn bound, and with our ten pound terrier in tow we got our piece of the brand, complete with a yard (a yard!), a spiral staircase leading to our bedroom, and hardwood floors. We are beyond happy in the neighborhood- sure we are paying an insane amount of rent but walking Khan down Clinton or Henry Street on a sunny afternoon and enjoying the solitude is worth it.
I’m glad I don’t live in Williamsburg or somewhere cooler than cool- I have always enjoyed going out in a neighborhood like that, and then coming home to my not so cool but pristine piece of paradise, thus my former obsession with the Upper East Side and its proximity to Central Park, and our little rent controlled apartment on Sixth Avenue and Spring, on the right side of West Broadway where Italian coffee shops could coexist with trendy shops and restaurants. Most of those are gone in Soho now- crushing.
What I love most about New York is the small stores that thrive because they offer a great product, service, or latte. Sure the Barnes and Noble up the street has a huge selection of books, but browsing through the racks and tables at Book Court is just so much more enjoyable. And yes the multiplex on Court may have every new release, but the Cobble Hill Theater has better popcorn and is way more charming on date night than a big box movieopolis. And though struggling neighborhoods love the influx of a big retailer to service the neighborhood and create jobs and opportunities to buy better goods, we don’t need that in our spot. To me, it’s way more important to support small business and the Main Street vibe I have come to love. Because sometimes more means a whole lot less.
I guess my point is you don’t really move to Brooklyn to shop at J. Crew. Although you just knew stores like that would inevitably come- I think we knew it as early as when “Sex and the City” was still on the air and Miranda hitched up her white collar pants and moved the whole brood to a townhouse in Brooklyn. The writing was on the wall then, and it’s definitely on the wall now. It’s no secret my neighborhood is more West Village than around the way, and if any brand of mass can come into the neighborhood and somehow manage to fit in, it’s J. Crew. I love what they did with their men’s store in Tribeca, it’s small and bespoke and clubby and fits in with the neighborhood. But what I never want to happen is what happened in Soho- once a favorite enclave of artists, it’s now a gigantic mall. If that happened to my neighborhood, I’d have to leave, and perhaps consider a career as a pioneer. Or just move to Crown Heights; it’ll probably be ready for me by then. XO.