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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

Downtown is a place of endless collisions and near-misses, where disparate worlds rub up against one another with remarkable familiarity. Here’s Yonah Schimmel’s bakery (opened in 1910) abutting an art-house cinema; there’s the Bowery Hotel sidling up to a methadone clinic. In an East Village basement, the sultry speakeasy PDT hides behind an unmarked door in a hot dog joint, while over on the West Side, a derelict elevated freight railroad is abloom with flowers, transformed into the city’s newest park.

The High Line—the former railroad in question—is an apt symbol for Downtown’s quirky charms, struggles, and (continual) rebirth. Yet were it not for the vision of two ordinary citizens, artist Robert Hammond and writer Joshua David, the High Line might be just a memory. Hammond moved to New York in 1993 and was captivated by the Meatpacking District and West Chelsea—semi-industrial areas “that weren’t traditionally beautiful, that some consider eyesores.” The High Line in particular caught his imagination: a rusted jumble of steel girders, concrete, and shadow that wound through Manhattan’s far west side. Built in the 1930’s, the 1.45-mile-long railway had been unused since 1980 and was marked for demolition. At a community board hearing on the subject in 1999, Hammond met David, and the two founded Friends of the High Line, an advocacy group dedicated to saving the structure. FHL would go on to raise $150 million to recast the railway as a pedestrian park.

“Downtown has more of the juxtapositions I love about New York—the glamorous and the gritty, the hard and the soft, the old and the new,” Hammond says. “That’s why I love the High Line: Who would have imagined a steel structure with wildflowers growing on top?” The first section of the park opened last spring to rave reviews.

“It’s specifically a Downtown thing. It could go anywhere, but it makes more sense here.” Andy Spade—founder of Jack Spade, husband of Kate, and all-around Renaissance man—is discussing his latest venture, Partners & Spade, an ephemera shop/exhibition space/creative consultancy headquartered on Great Jones Street. On any given day P&S’s stock might include riding crops, antique globes, Super Balls, and a vintage photography book titled Brokers with Hands on Their Faces. For a time they also sold vintage guns. Oh, and live birds.

Spade remains dedicated to Downtown, but he admits misgivings. “It doesn’t have as much diversity as it did, just because of how expensive it is to live and rent space here. I think half of Downtown has moved to Brooklyn,” he says.

There are those who feel Downtown has betrayed itself—or, more to the point, them—in the name of mammon, that money has broken Downtown’s spirit. Resentment over gentrification is nothing new, but it’s grown increasingly bitter in the past 15 years. (That Guggenheim-Prada switch didn’t help.) “For the first time in Manhattan’s history, it has no bohemian frontier,” declared Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker in 2007. “Another bookstore closes, another theater becomes a condo, another soulful place becomes a sealed residence.” MacPherson seconds Gopnik’s alarm: “I often wonder, Do we really need so many banks?

But if the effects of millennial prosperity were undeniable, the effects of recession are now plainly visible. Storefront vacancy rates in New York are at their highest since the early 1990’s, and a full one in 10 retail spaces in SoHo are presently unoccupied. “With prices loosening up a little,” MacPherson says, “there might be more room for more adventurous projects.”.

So will the softening of the real estate market spark a revival? Will poets and sculptors recolonize Lower Manhattan? Phillips is optimistic. “Downtown still represents the vanguard of the counterculture. There’s still a lot of renegade thinking that takes place here—and the downturn is going to bring even more changes.”

“Art and music do seem to be more inspired when people are struggling,” Jesse Malin observes. “Downtown always needs that next kick in the ass.”

If novelty is one of the only constants in New York, there are also places whose constancy is the novelty. Places that have held on so long they might as well be preserved in vinegar. Places like Russ & Daughters, the Jewish “appetizing” shop that’s occupied the same Houston Street storefront since 1920. It’s the sort of spot where you might join a nonagenarian widow, a tattooed drummer, and Harvey Keitel in line for bagels and whitefish.

“All these hipsters who’ve settled in the neighborhood are now discovering us,” says Niki Russ Federman, the 31-year-old great-granddaughter of founder Joel Russ. “You’ll see them chatting with the grandmothers, sharing tips—‘Oh, you have to try the wasabi-roe and cream-cheese sandwich!’”

Federman remembers a wholly different neighborhood from her youth, when the Lower East Side was still dominated by working-class families. Its transformation into a trendsetters’ bastion is now complete, though traces of the Old World remain: in the cacophonous weekend marketplace on Orchard Street; in the discount underwear shops run by Orthodox Jews; in the brilliantly conceived Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which documents the era when this immigrants’ ghetto was the densest conurbation on earth.

Federman studied for an MBA at Yale and worked in international development and health care and as a yoga teacher until a few years ago, when she began to consider joining the family business. She got an unexpected boost from a Downtown icon. “I was at a friend’s party, and Lou Reed happened to be there,” she recalls. “I’d brought some hors d’oeuvres from Russ & Daughters, and Lou was hovering around the table, devouring the smoked salmon. Someone finally told him who I was. He marched right over and shook my hand and said ‘Niki, I just wanted to say—you’re New York royalty.’ Lou Reed! I almost dropped on the floor.”

And when Lou Reed speaks, Downtowners listen. Not long afterward she started work at the shop.

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