Joseph, a slender 19-year-old from Fort Greene, stood inside Downtown Pawn Shop Sunday afternoon turning an almost-new Nokia flip phone over in his hands. On either side of him were glass display cases, chipped and fluorescent.
Those before him held more new and used phones, neatly arrayed. Beside that were purses in an array of colors and material. Across the way was perfume—Lilac for Women, Yacht Man Chocolate—and more jewelry than the Zales across the street, in maybe one-fifth the space. Bomber jackets hung on the wall, besides po sters of President Obama, still smiling, celebrating his inauguration. Bills from every Caribbean nation were taped up next to that. In the back was a tattoo parlor and an optometrist. “Designer Frames Start at $59.99.”
Like generations of Brooklynites before him, Joseph had come to the Fulton Mall to do some shopping. Some historians credit the centuries old strip with pioneering urban department store shopping, with the opening of Abraham & Weschler in 1865 and the many stores that followed, all now long gone but for the Neo-Grec and Beaux Arts temples to retail they erected.
When he arrived on the mall this day, Joseph had passed by the T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T and MetroPCS outlets and come here for his new-enough phone. “They don’t want so much here,” Joseph said, a Dodgers cap—L.A., not Brooklyn—resting on his head. “It’s a good deal.”
But for how much longer? It is getting to be that they want more and more on the Fulton Mall. Just like the rest of Brooklyn before it.
“I am so damn excited,” Albert Laboz said, his fruit cup just arrived. “Even if a fraction of these tenants come in, it’s gonna change everything. It’s gonna be a game changer.”
Friday morning, Mr. Laboz was seated at a round table in the middle of Junior’s, one of the only surviving Fulton Mall institutions left, having consumed two rounds of coffee in the first half of an hour-long interview. A developer and landlord, he is among the handful of machers actively reshaping the five-block bazaar into his version of a family friendly destination, inviting for everyone from the blacks who have dominated the mall since it fell into decline decades ago to the white bohemians and businessmen who have set about, wantonly or not, dislodging them from many other parts of the borough.
Mr. Laboz insists it does not have to be one way or the other, that all of Brooklyn can happily coalesce around a few stores in restaurants in the middle of some of the most valuable real estate in the country. (Not to mention the GQ-certified coolest.) Just two blocks away is the three-Michelin-starred Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare. The 20-course meal is 30 times the price of dinner at Mr. Fulton, the soul food institution on the corner of Flatbush Avenue.
“We can meet in the middle,” Mr. Laboz said. “Everyone wants a bargain.”
His strategy, and that of his neighbors, is attracting middlebrow retailers who appeal to both the design and price conscious. H&M is scheduled for a new glass building on the corner of Hoyt Street being built by Mr. Laboz, below which will be a TJ Maxx. Aeropostale opened across the street in the fall of 2010, around the same time the new Shake Shack was announced, which opened in December, a month after the Gap announced plans to take space on the mall. Express is coming, too. The gleaming new first phase of CityPoint will open in the first half of next year, quite possibly with a Target inside, so successful is the one half-a-mile away at Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Center Mall.
Yet, venture inside that mall, and it is largely devoid—except for the aisles of Target—of the kind of clientele Mr. Laboz and his cohort talk of attracting. It remains to be seen whether the brownstone babies and their cousins in the condo towers will ever migrate to the mall, giving up on Bird, Greenlight Books or the newly arrived Barney’s Co-op.
“The hard part is, black people will shop where white people shop, they don’t have a choice,” one veteran Brooklyn broker said. “It doesn’t work the other way around.”
Sure, there is Shake Shack, but besides that, literally and figurativelyh, the new eateries consist of a barbecue place from Vegas, a candy store called Sugar and Plumm, and a Paneras?
These are precisely the kinds of establishments people moved to New York, and now Brooklyn, since they have colonized so much of Manhattan, to get away from. They are fleeing middle American malls, not craving them.