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New York City's New Downtown

Lower Manhattan at dusk, as seen from the New Museum, on the Bowery.

Photo: Andrea Fazzari

No one can agree precisely when it started, let alone where it starts.

South of Houston Street? 14th? 23rd? Does it include the farther-flung galleries of Chelsea? The Financial District? Do the leafier blocks of the West Village still count, or are check-cashing joints and graffiti a prerequisite? Some say Downtown New York is less a place than an idea, more about sensibility than geography. (For the purposes of our discussion, let’s call it the swath between 14th and Chambers Streets, from the Hudson to the East River.).

The one thing New Yorkers can agree on is that Downtown just feels different. You sense it the minute you cross that disputed border. Few cityscapes have such recognizable iconography—the cast-iron façades of SoHo, the Belgian block–paved lanes of TriBeCa, the water towers punctuating rooflines like squat wooden rocket ships, the hoardings plastered with dance-mix ads, the congee joints and Puerto Rican bodegas, the bodega that last Tuesday became a bistro.

Funky. Gritty. Hip. Eccentric. Indie. Irreverent. Cool. The prefix Downtown has come to connote all sorts of things, not all of them endemic to Lower Manhattan. Downtown’s attitude and aesthetic have been codified, commodified, and sold in a million pieces, such that any clued-in kid visiting from the mainland can dress the part and pass as a local. And while it’s still the de facto hub, Downtown no longer corners the countercultural market in New York. Artists, designers, and musicians—and the galleries, shops, and clubs that support them—are increasingly drawn to the cheaper reaches of way-Uptown and the outer boroughs. It’s a sign of the times that most of New York’s top rock acts (MGMT; TV on the Radio; the National; the Yeah Yeah Yeahs; Santigold; the Hold Steady) are based in Brooklyn.

You might conclude that the bohemian culture Downtown nurtured as its own has up and moved elsewhere. No question, this isn’t the Lower Manhattan of your uncle’s hard-core band. Money, both corporate and private, plays more of a role here than ever: the median price of a two-bedroom condo is $1.37 million, compared with $315,000 in 1993. Not even 9/11 could knock Downtown off its gentrifying trajectory. Today, the area has far fewer art galleries, far fewer poetry clubs, and six American Apparel stores. It is markedly easier to buy eye shadow than a New York Dolls record.

Yet underneath the spit-shine gloss—in the cracks between La Perla and L’Occitane—that churning, inventive, pioneering spirit improbably surges on. You can see it in the young provocateurs of fashion, art, and design who followed their muse to Lower Manhattan, in spite of the costs. You can hear it at experimental music venues like (Le) Poisson Rouge and the Stone (run by avant-garde hero and longtime Downtowner John Zorn). You can knock it back in the innovative new breed of cocktail bars—including PDT, Pegu Club, Mayahuel, and Death & Co.—that are transforming New York nightlife. Downtown has become the anchor of the city’s restaurant scene, as well as the preferred location for new hotels. And after decades in the doldrums, New York is finally back to creating bold new architecture, much of it below 14th Street: Witness the fabulous New Museum, opened in 2007 on the Bowery, and, nearby, the soon-to-rise headquarters for the Sperone Westwater gallery, designed by Norman Foster. Even those interloping luxury brands and national chains are copping a Downtown edge: consider Derek Lam’s striking new SoHo store, by Japanese firm sanaa (who also designed the New Museum), or J.Crew’s actually-quite-hip men’s emporium in TriBeCa, the Liquor Store (co-conceived by Andy Spade).

“If one reads anything about the history of New York, one sees that it’s a whole different city every ten years,” says Sean MacPherson, who, with the Bowery Hotel, has done plenty to define the current phase. I’d say his timetable is off by about, oh, 10 years. These days, Downtown changes itself every other week.

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