Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Varvatos Reimagined

After my night outside the grand opening of Varvatos' new Bowery store, I went into the shop for the first time. Walking in, I got a confusing mix of emotions. It feels almost authentic. The vinyl, the scabby walls, the ragged clothing. I found myself feeling "not bad" about it. But then you look closer: The records are preciously pricey, the walls are preserved under Plexiglas, and the clothing is beyond pricey--a used Cheap Trick t-shirt goes for $250.

photo: hardcore shutterbug

While I expect many pro-Vongerichtifiers to support Varvatos' move into the CBGB space, I keep thinking about the surprising pro-Varvatos outcry from punks and other neighborhood people. That night, and in the media, they kept saying, "It's better than a Starbucks or a bank."

This sentiment echoes throughout the debate. From the Times' report, Jesse Malin of D Generation said, “I’d rather see this than a Dunkin’ Donuts or a Starbucks,” and Blondie's Clem Burke said, “It’s better than if it was a Starbucks or a bank." Bobby Steele repeats it in his account of the evening on his myspace page, "this was gonna become either a Starbucks or a Chase bank."

photo: semi-automatic gwen

In an interview with MTV, Varvatos says, "it won't become a bank or a Starbucks or whatever." New York points out that Varvatos believed he rescued the space from becoming a bank, saying "You’re not going to put a bank in here."

The repetition of "It's better than a bank" is hypnotic and serves to distract us from reality. It's a false dichotomy. George Bush uses this tactic--make terrorism the enemy and Bush the hero, so if you're against Bush then you must support terrorism. In this case, if you're against Varvatos, you must be on the side of Starbanks.

photo: bill shatto

I don't disagree that it could have become a bank, but let's think more critically. Are these really our only choices? Why can we not imagine anything other than a bank, a chain, or a super-luxury store for our city?

What if we used more creativity? What if, instead of a high-end shop that caters to the very wealthy few, Varvatos had preserved the space as beautifully as he did, then installed his wares in one section of the space, leasing the rest at reasonable rents to local small businesspeople? He could have a real thrift store, record store, and others represented. He could make a deal with BRC and have homeless men and women working the shop.

This would have created a democratic mix of high, low, and middle range experiences, all in support of each other. The rich could still choose to buy Varvatos' $250 Cheap Trick shirts while others could buy the same items for far less money. This is what New York City used to be. A mixture. A variety.

photo: Victoria Will/NY Post

Luxury shops don't save our city. Let's not be fooled by the rhetoric. We do have other alternatives.

More coverage of Varvatos' opening night:


Anonymous said...

A very thought-provoking essay, Jeremiah. I've fallen into the "at least it's not a bank branch" mentality once too often, though not in relation to CBGB. Mostly a product of being lazy and settling for a cliche. (Anyway, there's already that huge Chase about 50 feet from the JV store...) Your suggestion to lease some of the space to local business folks is a good one. JV can certainly afford to offer a discounted rent to people in the neighborhood.

NewYorkDave said...

Jeremiah, you nailed it.


Anonymous said...

5 star post brotha

"Why can we not imagine anything other than a bank, a chain, or a super-luxury store for our city?"

In an interview from 4 or 5 years ago, Saul Williams spoke really eloquently about how our imaginations have been stolen from us, and how it plays into a narrow, conservative agenda that leaves us all unhappy. That's exactly what we are afflicted by: an inability to expect anything beyond a sterlized, homogenized reality loaded with commerce-laden lies, just like on TV.

Heres what NYC product Danny Hoch had to say about gentrification and how we all play into it.

NewYorkDave said...


Anonymous said...

Is Mandy Burden aware that our enemy has been redefined? The new Axus of Evul is STARBANKS!!

Gene said...

I agree with ev grieve...Thanks for challenging my lazy-brain. I too thought the "at least it's better than..." A mixed use art space would have been better. Even if there was a Starbucks truck attached to it!

Anonymous said...

J, since STARBANKS has been identified as the axus of evul, is there any way of knowing how many bank branches and Starbux venues are in Manhattan? In Homeland Security parlance, they would be terror cells.

NewYorkDave said...

If your brother stabs you in the arm with his pocket knife, and the wound becomes infected, do you get angry at the bacteria?

Starbucks, banks, wine bars, boutiques, yuppies, hipsters: they're the bacteria. Bloomberg and company are the asshole brother... But wait, maybe they're actually the pocket knife, just an implement in the hands of greedy developers and landlords? Yeah, that's it! Bloomberg is a tool!

Anonymous said...

newyorkdave, that's it. the real estate families control; the pols might as well be puppets on a PBS kiddie show. the pols come to them asking for money, promising favors.

Anonymous said...

This has nothing to do with saving music. It is and always was about the money. I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for Varvatos to implement anything like what you suggest.

I believe you challenged the owner of Spotted Pig or Bourgeoisie Pig or whatever pig-related bar that was, to try to help save Sucelt. Forgive my cynicism, but I doubt there was ever any follow-up from him about that one.

Apart from that, I like your ideas. NYC is in need of these unique and creative business models. It seems the "market forces" would otherwise dictate the closing of a candy store for kids in favor of a wine bar for dip-shits.

Anonymous said...

Homeless people have told me they are grateful to Starbucks for feeding them.

The homeless residence of the Lower East Side, East Village have told me so...there are plenty so go ask them your selves. They prefer Starbucks to elitist stores and attitudes that pretend to be one of us...as in real or worse our savior.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately , for most of you, this is stil the UNITED STAES OF AMERICA - a country where even the rich have rights.

You can go and co-op a space, and turn it into a flea Market, if you CHOOSE. John's CHOICE- something I thought the 'very open minded' anti-Bush Moore-ons - supported (oh, that's fredom to choose what you want, right ?) was to do this.

Why can't you see that the people who made this scene are giving John a chance - so who are you to tell the founders of Punk, what is and what is not punk. It's the typical Leftist propaganda machine.

You're so quick to pass judgement on others.

I can sum up all of your rhetoric in one word - ENVY.

Anonymous said...

Ha! Arturo Vega is that you?

I may have missed the part where someone took issue with the freedom to make choices. My choice is to call it like I see it and I can sum it up with one word - SELLOUTS.

P.S. Nobody in attendance "founded" punk.

P.P.S. Bush's approval rating is in the ballpark of 31%. I guess 69% just really ENVY him.

Anonymous said...

E. Village, LES, Chelsea, etc. -- all these neighborhoods are dead or dying. No one can do anything about this. Move on. Sell-out, don't sell out; either way this is/will be a new city. All these bickering is futile. One might as well the movement of time.