Beloved Fulton Mall Fights For Existence Vs. Boerum-geoisie

“I would like to say, since 1972, the appearance of the mall has become worse and worse,” said Ursula Hahn, a 67-year-old German immigrant who lives a few blocks north of downtown Brooklyn’s Fulton Street Mall.

She was at a panel discussion to review improvements that are planned for the strip, a popular shopping destination.

“I want to know what the planners plan to do to attract a white clientele. You can walk from Jay Street to Flatbush Avenue Extension, and you may see no more than five white people walking down the street. The only store with appeal to the white middle class is Macy’s.”

The audience, a patchwork of neighborhood enthusiasts and professional planners, squirmed like the roiling superego of brownstone Brooklyn, watching helplessly as its well-suppressed id broke through. Here came help:

“What’s your question?!” the panel moderator barked.

“I would like to know how the planners plan to proceed to change this mix of retail offerings to attract a new clientele.”

The audience, embarrassed and indignant, giggled and sighed.

Michael Burke, one of the panelists at the event, which was sponsored by the Municipal Arts Society, and who is the director of the Downtown Brooklyn Council, responded that no one was planning “some sort of race-based marketing strategy,” but that “attracting new tenants in order to attract area workers and residents is very important.”

One or two of the other panelists chimed in, at which point Ms. Hahn stood up again.

“Maybe I should not have said a ‘white clientele,’ but a more upscale middle-class clientele,” she offered.

In Freudian terms, this was a partial success. In fact, words like “upscale” and “middle-class” were not welcome.

Brooklyn’s Fulton Street Mall was once an elegant retail strip that now appears to consist of leftover and surplus inventory: a forlorn Macy’s, a Conway, three Payless Shoe Sources, two Foot Lockers and a Kids Foot Locker. There is an electronics shop called Nu Castle, which rents its first 15 square feet to a man named Mike who makes metal fronts for teeth. (His display case includes a miniature penis engraved on a gold cap.) Entire stores are given over to little six-by-nine-foot stands, like butchers at the old Essex Street Market, except here they sell jewelry and CD’s. The upper-story windows of some of the street’s 19th-century buildings are bricked up with cinderblocks. The black-on-yellow sign for Cellular Island stretches up three floors above street level. The shoppers are largely black. But in order not to talk about race, here’s a glossary for civilized discussion about improving the Fulton Street Mall:

Area residents: largely white, largely upper-middle-class residents of Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill and Fort Greene—though Fort Greene, admittedly, is racially mixed.

Local constituents: see “area residents.”

Non-users: people who don’t shop at the mall.

Underutilized: Area residents and local constituents are non-users.

In the constraints of that syllogism, the issue of race is both difficult to raise and impossible to avoid. When people speak of developing Soho-style lofts in the upper stories of the buildings fronting the mall, or of bringing restaurants like those on Boerum Hill’s Smith Street to the mall’s side streets, or of bringing large office buildings to the area, it’s hard not to imagine the cultural character of the shopping district being transformed beyond recognition. It would certainly mean more white people.

“People are very careful nowadays how they word things and use subterfuges,” Ms. Hahn said later in a telephone interview. “You don’t talk about race anymore. It’s not politically correct.”

And so, really, the dispute with Ms. Hahn was the outward expression of brownstone Brooklyn’s guiltiest secret: They are at the frontlines of gentrification. The racial implications of that will always be papered over, in an almost subconscious operation—mostly by white people.

Successful or ‘Underutilized’?

One way of phrasing the problem is to ask why there are plans to improve Fulton Street Mall in the first place. Economically, it’s a success.

Indeed, given its physical appearance, Fulton Street’s immediate neighbors—the residents of leafy streets in Boerum Hill and Brooklyn Heights—could be forgiven for taking the Fulton Street Mall for a blight. And yet, ground-floor rents ($93 to $125 a square foot annually) match those on Grand Street and Mercer Street in Soho, according to figures from Massey Knakal and Cushman & Wakefield, two real-estate service firms, while the business improvement district claims that more than 100,000 people walk down the street each day—more than on Madison Avenue—and retailers along the nine-block strip gross more than $100 million a year.

How did Fulton Street do this? While the strip lost its luster for white Brooklynites in the 1970’s and 1980’s once the department stores disappeared, it became a gathering place for black Brooklynites, who were carried there by six subway lines. It’s the same city dynamic that brings crowds of Chinese-Americans to the subway platforms of the D line, which connects the Chinatown in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park to the busy and expanding shopping districts of Manhattan’s Chinatown—which can hardly house the number of people who operate businesses on its crowded streets. And the same dynamic that gave us Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train,” a paean to the express train that took black riders from Bedford-Stuyvesant to the bustle of Harlem.

And like Harlem, Fulton Street is popular abroad.

“Bus trips come from out of state every Saturday and Sunday, and the same customers come back to us each time,” said Patrick Whittaker, an assistant manager at Menswear Fino. “They come from upstate, from Connecticut—Hartford—and from Ohio.” At Dr. Jay’s, a two-story T-shirt and jeans store, manager Jeff Roopnarine says that many of his customers come from Europe: “We’re in guide books.” By contrast, residents from Brooklyn Heights, an affluent neighborhood just two blocks to the west, make up just 6.3 percent of mall shoppers, according to a survey by the Pratt Center for Community Development.

All of which means that Fulton Street is, in the catchphrase of the moment, “underutilized.” It has to catch up with some 20 years of gentrification that has lately surrounded it on all sides.

“It is criticized by plenty of people who live or work around it, and it lacks the support of an indigenous local constituency,” said Vicki Weiner, the director of the Pratt Center study, speaking to the audience at the Municipal Art Society on Feb. 9. Part of the strategy, in fact, is to get the city to provide tax incentives for landlords who turn the upper-floor office space into apartments because this space, now vacant, is also “underutilized.” In some buildings, the front entrances and staircases have been removed entirely because the street frontage is so valuable. Another part of the plan is to somehow encourage small restaurants, such as one might find on nearby Smith Street, to settle in the side streets—because these side streets, lined by ramshackle shops, are also “underutilized.”

The Pratt Center knows that Fulton Street Mall has a good thing going for it, and that all of these changes must happen without pushing out the African-American clientele. That’s part of the problem—sorry, “challenge.”

This latest push to bring about improvements started three years ago, after Lou Carbonetti, accused of spending nearly $36,000 in “questionable expenditures,” stepped down as executive director of the Fulton Street Mall Improvement Association. Two up-and-coming property owners, Albert Laboz and Joseph Sitt, ran and won in the next district election to become chairmen of the board. They promised more efficiency for district operations and a more lucrative future for the mall. They accomplished the first one pretty simply, and they have now detailed the second. It includes more national chains, updated street furniture, renovated lofts and a decent place to eat lunch.

“The car is running on five cylinders,” Mr. Laboz told The Observer. “The goal is to make it a better experience and a better environment for everybody. Right now, some people aren’t using it who could use it more.”

But not everybody thinks somebody isn’t using Fulton Street.

“Everybody comes to Fulton Street; that’s why I’m here,” said Rodney E. Daniels, a 38-year-old African-American who is selling his self-published novel, Only God Can Create a Woman, from a table on the sidewalk this winter. (He sells 20 to 25 copies a day.) “Look at all the people going back and forth.”

The mall’s identity as a destination for African-Americans is at once a benefit for people like Mr. Daniels, and a liability for people like Ms. Hahn and, to an extent, Mr. Laboz (whether or not he would admit it)—and the people behind the new non-race-based marketing strategy don’t know quite how to handle that. They aren’t sure whether to call it a black mall or not. Arguing that it isn’t as black as you might think, a draft of the Pratt study states that just 58 percent of shoppers identified themselves as “black, African, African-American, Caribbean or Caribbean-American.” And yet, Ms. Weiner said, “The hip-hop needs to be retained.”

Mr. Laboz told The Observer, “This is not a race issue. I want to make Fulton Street Mall into 34th Street, where it is strong retailers giving a quality shopping experience. Instead of bringing in a dozen cell-phone stores, bring in a sprinkling of lingerie, women’s garments, H&M or other type of store.” Mr. Sitt, his friend and co-chairman, knows the buying power of the minority market personally. He started the Ashley Stewart clothing-store chain on the mall 15 years ago, and since then has bought up several “inner-city” shopping arcades across the country—including the 475,000-square-foot Gallery at Fulton Street, which is at one end of the mall.

At the same time that all of these retail changes will be taking place, the rest of the downtown is supposed to be transformed into a sort of Jersey City, with 4.6 million square feet of class-A back-office space made possible by a rezoning in 2004. Of course, it’s hard to lure Fortune 500 companies to downtown Brooklyn with people selling penis-engraved tooth caps next door—which is one reason why the city’s plans and the business leaders’ plans go hand in hand. To edge the transformation along, the city’s Economic Development Corporation offered up $8.5 million to redo the 1970’s-era bus shelters, lampposts, planters and other elements of the streetscape.

The Pratt Center study argues that it’s possible to keep the mall functioning as “a vibrant commercial center and important social space” while becoming more attractive, preserving old buildings and getting rid of the three-story cell-phone signs.

The small-time merchants who have made the place into what it is—a little like a laundromat—are not so sure.

“It would hurt for small business owners,” said Malik Muhammad, a 34-year-old Pakistani immigrant who runs a perfume stand inside the Music Factory. He moved there last year after the storefront where he was previously located became a Cingular phone store. “When I got kicked out last year, unbelievable how much I got stress, how much I got headache,” he said. “I have family. I pay taxes here. Every three months, I pay my taxes quarterly.”

Down the block, Diamond Girl, where a woman’s knee-length polyester-filled winter coat goes for $49, is holding a closeout sale. The owner, David Sharifian, an Iranian Jew who has been on the mall for 12 years, said that his rent had just gone up from $15,000 to $45,000 a month, or from $72 to $216 a square foot annually. His landlord turns out to be none other than Albert Laboz, the co-chairman of the business district. Mr. Laboz disputes that the new rent is as high as $45,000, but explains that he had just bought the building and that Mr. Sharifian’s lease had run out. Mr. Laboz said he needed to increase the rent, considering how much he had paid for the building, and that the new rent is a fair market rate.

Still, Mr. Sharifian doesn’t understand the need for these changes. “They are not doing much better for the neighborhood,” he said. “Chain stores come here and poor people cannot afford to come here.”

Mr. Laboz predicts a “tremendous shift in retail” in the next two or three years, which will mean many more closeout sales and stress headaches for the Sharifians and Muhammads of the world. But it’s possible that nothing will happen at all. The $8.5 million promised by the city is not a lot of money. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation this month awarded more than four times that much to redo the other Fulton Street, in Manhattan. A few storeowners are already complaining that Atlantic Center, a new suburban-style mall with Target and D.S.W. less than a half-mile away, has depressed sales along Fulton Street. And the megalopolis known as Atlantic Yards will bring lots of people nearby, but also shift the gravitational pull further east.

But if it works, downtown Brooklyn will cram four different neighborhoods into 23 blocks: 34th Street retail along Fulton, Soho lofts above them, Boerum Hill restaurants on the side streets, and Jersey City high-rise office buildings on either end. If all of these parts come together, New York can dispense with its subway system and take up residence on Fulton Street: a place in which one can not only find everything one needs, but live every lifestyle one could ever want.

It’s ambitious only in the smaller picture. When urban planning has finished its greatest work in New York, none of Brooklyn will be “underutilized” at all.