Monday, May 13, 2019

Wholesale District


For the past decade, ever since the Ace Hotel took over the Breslin SRO hotel on Broadway and 29th Street, I've been watching the Wholesale District vanish. It is not dying. It is being murdered, shop by shop, building by building, all to create the fake "neighborhood" known as NoMad.

Hanging by a thread, it recently took a turn for the worse.

A major center of wholesalers on Broadway has just been wiped out in one fell swoop. Along the west side of Broadway in the upper 20s, the sudden mass erasure of so many small businesses is staggering.

1165 Broadway Before (taken in 2016)

1165 Broadway Today, 2019

Between 27th and 28th Streets, 1165 Broadway housed several small wholesale businesses, selling perfume, jewelry, handbags, African-American hair products, clothing, and more. For years, I have walked by it every week, lingering to admire what I cannot fully participate in, but appreciate nonetheless.

The small businesses attracted a diversity of people, many of them immigrants from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. With them came gray-market dealers, ice-cream trucks, sidewalk vendors, and lots of Halal food carts. It was a lively, colorful block that always felt like the real New York, unruly, surprising, and rough around the edges.

But this is not allowed in the new New York.

Today, 1165 is scaffolded and shrouded. All of the shops have been shuttered and sealed behind green plywood. The building will be scrubbed clean, disemboweled and sanitized for white capitalist triumphalism, reamed with a luxury glass tower.

1165 Broadway Tomorrow (toasting colonialism's triumph on the rooftop)

It's not just this building. We're in the midst of a mass extinction event.

One block up Broadway, across 28th Street, low-rise buildings full of small businesses were wiped out for another tower. The site sat demolished and empty for a few years. I watched tomato plants grow lush, red fruit along the edge of the lot, presumably from people at the nearby food cart tossing tomatoes and accidentally seeding a wild garden.

Construction has now begun.

Northwest corner of 28th & Broadway, 2015

Northwest corner of 28th & Broadway, 2019

Heading up to 29th Street, the remaining building on that same block, also once full of small businesses, has also been emptied and plywooded.

The sidewalk is now dead.

Southwest corner of 29th & Broadway, Before (Google Maps, 2017)

Southwest corner of 29th & Broadway, Today

Step right across the street at 29th and you'll find the future--another block wiped out, another glass monstrosity like all the other glass monstrosities, soulless and banal, inspiring nothing, inhumane.

Northwest corner of 29th and Broadway, today

When all of this evicting and destroying is done, all we will have are glass towers into which no small businesses will go. A thriving cultural ecosystem is being eradicated, and it's by design.

What we are losing has gone largely uncelebrated in the mainstream conversation. The Wholesale District caters mostly to black and brown working-class people, many of them immigrants. It is scruffy and unfashionable. That makes it easy to kill. And then easy to forget.

But we must remember what happened here. The Wholesale District's death is not a natural one.


When the neighborhood's destruction began about a decade ago, the name "NoMad" was invented by the CEO of GFI Development, the company that took over the Breslin Hotel. That's where it started.

For many years, the Breslin served as a rent-stabilized haven for artists--along with writers, transgender women, glove makers, people with AIDS, anyone who might not easily find a comfortable and affordable home elsewhere in the city. When it was taken over, tenants reported harassment, got organized, and posted signs on their doors that read: “We will not move.” They went to court and lost. In 2008 the Breslin became Ace Hotel New York. The fights went on. Soon, all of the old ground-floor businesses vanished. That year, I walked around the block and counted 17 small businesses gone from the building. Part of the Wholesale District's hubbub, they were replaced by upscale hipster mini-chains like Portland’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Seattle-born Rudy’s Barber Shop, along with an oyster bar and gastro-pub that took the Breslin name.

The virus spread. Over the years, I've watched the eastern side of Broadway become evermore hip, expensive, and white. A wig shop became a matcha bar. In went places like Want Apothecary, Dig Inn, Black Seed, Opening Ceremony, and Sweetgreen. All cater to a higher class. Many don't take cash.

Often, when I made my weekly visit, I would stand on the median in the middle of Broadway and watch the tale of two cities unfold around me.

On the east side, in the crowd streaming past, almost everyone was white and middle to upper class, many of them tourists. On the west side, the crowd was mixed, with many black and brown people, immigrants, and members of the working class.

You could see it was only a matter of time before the whole corridor was whitewashed. It's hard to deny the colonization here, and not just as metaphor.

East side of Broadway at 29th

West side of Broadway at 29th

In her book Harlem Is Nowhere, writing about gentrification, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts refers to the “exuberant myopia common to colonists,” people who speak of usually black and brown, working-class neighborhoods as if nothing and no one was there before the upper-class white people came. We hear it all the time when gentrification happens. It appeared in a 2010 story about the birth of NoMad from New York magazine.

"Close your eyes and picture Broadway between 23rd and 30th Streets," it begins. "There’s a good chance you’re either drawing a blank or you’re envisioning a long strip of wholesale perfume retailers, luggage liquidators, and stores that specialize in human-hair wigs. This is not the most picturesque area in the city, nor the most easily romanticized." The area is called nameless, "a nondescript no-man’s-land" dubbed "the Brown Zone" by one critic because it showed up as a brown rectangle on maps. But it also was, and is, brown in its people.

Why is it not picturesque or easily romanticized? Why is it thought of as nondescript, blank, a no-man's land? There was so much here. African women walking down the street in brightly colored dresses and head wraps. Shoppers striding through with armfuls of flowers from the (also vanishing) Flower District. The sidewalks lively with tables full of wares. Windows bright with bottles of body oils with names like Lick Me All Over. In summer, women selling ices in mango and coconut. Men calling out the bargains, barking their deals to passersby.

You could feel the aliveness, the giddy chaos of a street that was not engineered and designed by hyper-capitalists in remote offices. We need places like the Wholesale District. They are good for the soul--and for the city.

Now so much is gone. The shutters are down, the police are on guard. More dead towers are rising. There is more to save--but who with the power is willing?


archibaldjleach said...

So sorry for the loss. My guess is that much of the product is now available via internet sales, and the need for the middleman has lessened. I used to love window shopping there, wondering what I could do with dozens and dozens of sunglasses etc. My family shopped at a wholesale leather store near 27th that sold bags and briefcases of good quality, mostly imported from South America. When I got married 25 years ago, I shopped for wedding favors along the side streets. In fact, I shopped in almost every one of NYC's districts during my life, and their loss has been the most profound disappointment in how much the city has changed.

Michael Penn Photography said...

"It was a lively, colorful block that always felt like the real New York, unruly, surprising, and rough around the edges."

In less than a decade blocks like this across all major cities will be gone. Gone will be the diversity as we now live in an age where everything and everyone needs to be branded and meant to impress.

Unknown said...

Great article about the demise of the city many of us know and love. NY used to be made up of so many lively,but different, bustling "districts" and thats what made NY the great city it was. The flower district, the wholesale district,the shoe district (8th st), the theatre district etc. So sad to see this very vibrant part of the city slowly being killed. I lived around the corner for years in the 80's and built my business with the help and offerings of many of those shops. Why does it seem like you (and a few of us REAL New Yorkers)are the only ones that care?

Joe Mamma said...

New York City is being murdered by Michael Bloomberg rezoning scam.

JQ LLC said...

You know Speaker Corey Johnson had his bacchanalia birthday party at the opening of the "Breslin". So the plague killing those small businesses is not a shock.

He is owned by the hospitality industry. Other lux hotels have opened there too in the past few years.

Here's Park Slope said...

I mean, I can't say I'm pleased with this (I lived on 27th between 6th and Broadway about 10 years ago), but I've always been shocked that Broadway between Madison Square and Herald Square -- one of the most prime stretches of road in the city -- was able to hold onto this character for so long, especially considering you needed a special license just to be allowed to set foot in those shops. It's disheartening that it's becoming just another strip for the rich, but in a way its returning to how it was 100 or so years ago, when it was upscale.

Charleston Tell said...

A couple of weeks ago I did something I'd dreamed of for years and rode in the forty mile 5 BOROS Bike Tour. I have been visiting NYC since the 1970s and exploring the city on foot, bicycle, MTA, tour buses, and the good ol' Circle Line, but that ride was something else. I'd just read "The Power Broker" over the winter, and it made the ride even more interesting. It was an extremely well run event, with all kinds of people, and even though it rained all day there was nothing but smiles on the ferry back to Manhattan at its conclusion.
Manhattan is definitely being taken over by the large chain stores, which are more efficient for a large dense population than Bodegas. I was staying by the Target on 14th St. near the LES, and I'll be doggoned if half the people walking on Ave. A didn't have a red and white Target bag in their hand. There are a lot of fancy new eateries and drinkeries on the LES, and they were jammed on Saturday night. While riding through the the outer boroughs one can see that there are many, many small mom & pop business concerns of all kinds, and old timey New York neighborhoods. Local residents were out in the rain cheering on the riders, and that was very sweet. Maybe it was just because it was early spring with flowering trees, but I don't think that I have ever seen the Big Apple look so beautiful. You have a fine city up there, with a lot of nice people.

Mesilla said...

It really is so sad that the soul of New York is disappearing. I just went by and noticed that the entire southeast corner of 3rd and 34th is gone. Rubble waiting for another hideous glass structure to be erected as I fondly remember the soup sipped at the Cinema diner.

Looks like the northeast corner of 3rd and 34th will soon be rubble too.

Amy Charles said...

I’m so confused. Who are all the imaginary luxury people who’re supposed to be living in the glass houses? I mean the capacity’s enormous now. You could tip all of the fancy parts of the tri-state area in and not find enough renters for all those units. Is it all just for money laundering? A matter of “if we build it, they’ll be spawned and grow up with CB2 furniture and make their way zombielike to the aquaria in the drowning city”?

Maybe it’s just a way of getting the interesting people to move on before the whole place floods and becomes uninhabitable. I’m just very confused about the strategy here.

Rodin said...

looking at your photos I'm reminded of the look of Sixth Avenue's 4 and 5 story buildings along what is now Tombstone Alley. At that time the only glass tower was the Time and Life building across from Radio City. Time and Life actually had a free science and math exhibit on the ground floor that was fun for kids. My mother would take me either to the Automat or Maisel's for a burger. there were no McDonald's or Burger Kings.