History has shown that change is inevitable in this hippest part of town.
You would think that the sky is falling the way some New Yorkers have been reacting to the news that a Starbucks is opening on the Lower East Side, specifically on the corner of Delancey and Allen Streets. Some have called it a sign of the apocalypse, others wonder when the gates of hell will open.
I'm wondering what the big deal is.
Over the past five years or so New York's Lower East Side has slowly grown as Ground Zero for all thing hip and trendy. And it is a great place to be. There's lots of food, stores, everything's pretty close to each other and the people are pretty friendly. In a few weeks a Starbucks, which in some circles is the antithesis of anything innovative, will open its doors blocks away from the epicenter of the neighborhood.
Before we get all aflutter and start passing petitions around, let's take a look at history. The Lower East Side has always been an area of change. Whereas places such as the Upper East Side and Gramercy have always stayed relatively upscale, dating back as far as the 1800s, the Lower East Side has opened its land and its doors to anyone who needed a home.
Like many parts of New York in the early 1800s, the land that is now the Lower East Side was open farmland. As the rich families moved farther uptown, freed slaves moved into the area around the 1820s after they had served their time for their masters. They were followed by the Irish in the 1840s escaping the potato famine. The Germans came in the 1850s. The Southern Italians were next to move in in the 1870s as they fled economic deprivation. Eventually the influx of Jews came in the 1900s that has left the largest mark on the neighborhood. Lately it's been a Latino and Chinese population calling the 10002 zip code home, as well as the young and the arty.
I understand the goals of some neighborhood organizations such as L.O.C.O. that are trying to preserve the flavor of the neighborhood and protesting against developments such as high rise apartment buildings. They're right to try to keep rents affordable not only for the groups who have been there for decades, but also for people to come. That's the way it's always been and everyone seems to get along just fine. Also, when you tear down buildings you tear down history, and the LES has many layers of rich and intact history. That's not something that can duplicated.
But before everyone starts yammering because soy lattes will be available just steps from Orchard Bar, we need to look at what has come before. There have been other aspects of the Lower East Side that are hardly in sync with what the area was even five years ago. In boutiques such as Foley and Corinna it's hard to find anything under $100 much less $50. Schiller's is a former pharmacy that has been converted into a bar and restaurant that serves $10 hamburgers. Piano's on a Saturday night is a sea of bridge and tunnel plebeians as well as former frat boys from the Upper East Side. People who live in the neighborhood a lot of times don't want to go in on a weekend for exactly that reason. And they're getting upset about a coffee shop?
I understand, though, why Lower East Siders might get anxious over a Starbucks. A classic example of an artists' neighborhood gone sadly commercial is SoHo. As recently as the 1980s and the early 1990s, if you were a painter or a musician or any artistic type in New York City you could find a place in SoHo. The location was perfect, right smack in the middle of downtown and the spaces were tremendous. Of course, realtors saw gold in them thar hills and quickly bought up the properties and rented them out to high-end retailers and assorted celebrities. Now the whole enclave is more of a tourist attraction than a neighborhood . Worse, it's nearly impossible to find a cheap cup of coffee. On a related note, the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco has turned into one long strip mall. There's even a Gap. Oy.
I realize an argument could be made that Starbucks is a big, corporate nasty out of line with the rest of the general mom and pop atmosphere of the LES. On one level, that is correct. But let's take a walk down Delancey Street and see what else we find. Not the legendary Economy Candy store that's been around since 1937 (that's on Rivington) or Katz's Deli, (That's on Houston and Ludlow) which is best known for Meg Ryan's fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally. Instead, on Delancey we find, among other things, a Payless Shoes, a Duane Reade drugstore and (gasp!) a McDonald's. Isn't that the place that Fast Food Nation was written about? Isn't that part of the Hipster Reading Canon? Yet, there's one right there on Delancey Street, blocks from The Delancey, a very popular bar and performance space. Why am I not hearing any uproar over the availability of the McChicken?
The bottom line is that people are going to vote with their feet. You can buy the $2 cup of coffee or $4 mocha at Starbucks, or you can go around the corner to a bodega and get it for 75 cents. Enjoy it on the steps of the park at Chrystie Street and get your caffeine buzz on with your street cred intact. True, the bodega probably doesn't sell the latest Norah Jones CD, but this is the price one pays to uproot gentrification.
Even if the tourists from the Tenement Museum tours bring in enough business to keep the Starbucks afloat — and I suspect they will — don't despair. The neighborhood was never the hipsters' find to begin with. (As much as I don't like to use that term.) They just got in while the rents were still low. If there was ever an area in New York City that will constantly change, it is the Lower East Side. Houses replaced farmlands just as storefronts replaced pushcarts. The least one can do is sigh, cave in and have a Frappucino. They're not half bad.
Dispatches from NYC is a bi-weekly commentary on America's largest city and its impact on the wider world.