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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

Today even Uptown girls stray as far south as (gasp!) Howard Street, on the grungy fringes of Chinatown, to peruse the racks at Opening Ceremony. Carol Lim and Humberto Leon—U.C. Berkeley grads who’d worked for Bally and Burberry—cofounded the boutique in 2002, selling their own line of clothing alongside a mix of labels from Europe, Asia, and South America. A branch in Los Angeles followed. In August the duo opened an eight-story department store in Tokyo. But their hearts remain in Lower Manhattan, specifically the “alternate universe” of Howard Street.

“This is a tiny pocket of Old New York,” Lim tells me. “Even when we opened in 2002, it was deserted after 7 p.m.” Yet they found plenty of kindred spirits. “Up the block is E. Vogel, the 120-year-old custom shoe place; Ted Muehling, who’s made jewelry around here since the 90’s; and newer stores like De Vera and BDDW—it’s this incredible little street.”

The culinary landscape, too, has exploded. In contrast to a decade ago, most of New York’s restaurants-of-the-moment—those that aren’t in Brooklyn—are below 14th Street: the Spotted Pig, Locanda Verde, the Waverly Inn & Garden, Elettaria, and the genre-defying, destination-defining restaurants of Keith McNally (including Balthazar, in SoHo; Pastis, in the Meatpacking District; Schiller’s Liquor Bar, on the Lower East Side; and the new Minetta Tavern, in Greenwich Village). And then there are the Lower East Side’s WD-50, where relentlessly innovative Wylie Dufresne conjures his metaphysical cuisine, and David Chang’s border-jumping Momofuku empire in the East Village. It’s hard to imagine these latter restaurants—defiantly casual, offbeat, often quite affordable—existing anywhere but Downtown. And its appeal—for both diners and restaurateurs—remains undiminished (if not enhanced) by the area’s gentrification. As Graydon Carter, co-owner of the Waverly Inn, says, “In any other city, downtown connotes a raffish, unbathed, countercultural sensibility—what Republicans would call ‘edgy.’ In New York it’s all of that, plus it’s geographically accurate.”

Even Uptown chefs are migrating south. Daniel Boulud, whose namesake French restaurant sets the standard for Upper East Side fine dining, has arrived on the Bowery, of all places, with a resolutely informal, resoundingly loud boîte called DBGB Kitchen & Bar. (Yes, the name is a pun on CBGB, whose former quarters are just up the block; the legendary rock club closed in 2006.) Hearing the Replacements blasting while sampling Boulud’s note-perfect charcuterie is quite the novelty. But if there’s a disconnect between his name and the neighborhood, Boulud doesn’t see it. “I’ve been a New Yorker for twenty-five years, and just happened to drop my suitcase Uptown,” he says. “I’ve been coming down here just as long—partying, visiting friends. So opening a restaurant here seemed natural.”

But Boulud might not have chosen this quirky strip were it not for the futuristic edifice looming down the street. The New Museum recalls a seven-story stack of gift boxes (an allusion to SoHo’s retail transformation?). The setting is incongruous: two blocks north of a shop with a sign proffering cash registers, slicers, scales, bandsaws and two doors up from the Bowery Mission homeless shelter. Yet the museum embraces its context with an exuberant hell, yes! (so reads the rainbow-colored sign on the façade, an installation by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone). The purview is global, yet the curators are dedicated to exhibiting artists who still live and work in Downtown, such as the up-and-coming Corsican-born multimedia artist Agathe Snow and established artists like Laurie Simmons.

“We were keen to bring a great work of architecture to the city, and to this street specifically,” Phillips says. “The hope is that the Bowery will become a sort of laboratory for experimentation in architecture and design.” It’s certainly become a bona-fide tourist destination. And the museum has spurred an unexpected revival of the Bowery: besides DBGB and the Bowery Hotel, recent openings include Double Crown, a restaurant-lounge from design collective AvroKO; the clothing emporium Blue & Cream; Bowery Electric, a bar and rock club co-owned by musician Jesse Malin; a soon-to-debut pizzeria from McNally; and, in the former CBGB space, a splashy John Varvatos store.

Hold on, you say—the birthplace of punk rock is now a fashion boutique? Well, as Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction put it recently, “Better this than a Pinkberry.” To Varvatos’s credit, rock and roll has always been part of his brand’s aesthetic; he even hosts a monthly music show on Sirius XM. The Detroit native vividly recalls his first trip to New York in 1977—a pilgrimage to see the Ramones at CBGB. Now, in CB’s old digs, Varvatos embraces his inner rock geek: selling vintage vinyl, displaying punk memorabilia, staging free concerts, and treating the room less like a clothing store than, well, a club. “We see it as a cultural space,” he says. “No way are we trying to emulate what was here before, but we wanted to keep to the history, and to keep music alive in the Bowery. We have a stage and a P.A., so on any given day, people show up and play—the guys from Cheap Trick, Ringo Starr, the New York Dolls.” And plenty of curious young rock fans who aren’t remotely interested in fashion drop in to the store just to see where CBGB once was.

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