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.
Mr. Laboz and his two younger brothers followed their father into the real estate business, and it was on the mall where they got their start. Daddy Laboz arrived at the end of the beginning, when Martin’s department store closed at 505 Fulton, in 1979. It was a part of Fulton Street’s commercial quartet, along with Abraham and Strauss, May’s and E.J. Korvette. Only the first still exists, in the form of Macy’s. The location is one of the company’s top grossing stores.
Mr. Laboz is a Brooklyn boy, born and raised in as much comfort as the borough could afford: Manhattan Beach, the Riviera of Coney Island. He and a partner set up shop around the corner from his dad’s place in 1985, after they had taken a stake in the property. He eventually bought out his father as he continued to expand along the corridor.
“From a real estate point of view, the building was always a success,” Mr. Laboz said. The ground floor had been chopped up into smaller storefronts and stalls, all paying a decent rent for the tens of thousands of shoppers, office workers and students streaming by each day. Upstairs were government agencies. Now they have been cleared out, along with a stand of five rowhouses, demolished to make way for the H&M. Mr. Laboz is even considering lofts on the upper floors of the old Martin’s building.
“I don’t want to sound like Donald Trump,” said Mr. Laboz, “but my site is the best location in the block. It’s across from Macy’s, it’s on the 50 yard line.”
Part of the problem with developers, politicians and the media talking about the transformation or revitalization of Fulton Street is that it suggests there was something wrong in the first place. Unlike Smith Street or Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, which were largely empty, the Fulton Mall has always been packed. With its 110,000 patrons a day, it is the third busiest retail strip in the city, besting Madison Avenue and behind only Fifth and Times Square.
The idea is that with 12,000 new residents in the adjacent towers, the people will need somewhere to shop. But this also presumes such changes will not alienate the current clientele. Were this to resemble Smith Street, with its boutiques and boulangeries, it would be a failure for the landlords on the strip, who command $200 a square foot, compared to $70 per on Atlantic Avenue and $50 on Smith, according to numbers furnished by brokerage Prudential Douglas Elliman. Some of the national retailers are even paying upwards of $300 a square foot, which helps explain the desire for change, even if the demand may not follow.
“Do we really need 10 sneaker stores and a dozen cellphone outlets?” asked Isaac Chera in a phone interview. His family owns half-a-dozen properties on the stretch and has been a fixture there for four decades. They now own retail properties citywide, but he still credits the Fulton Mall with teaching him how to do business.
“Brooklyn’s a big, big, big, big place,” Mr. Chera said. “It’s the fourth biggest city in America. Everything can’t be everything to everybody. There are segments, and that’s who we’re looking to serve.”
Borough President Marty Markowitz remembers the days when his mother used to drag him to the mall. “We used to shop at May’s while the nicer folks went to Abraham & Strauss,” he recalled from his office on Monday, overlooking Fulton Street—he boasts of being able to shout his order down to the new Shake Shack. “I never liked shopping,” Mr. Markowitz continued, “I still don’t, but at least I always knew it meant a trip to Chock Full o’Nuts or Nedick’s. They served hot dogs in little white doilies.”
The borough president has been a huge champion of the strip’s transformation, disputing charges of its Manhattanification. “Nobody wants that less than me, I campaigned against that when I ran for office,” Mr. Markowitz said. “Brooklyn is still Brooklyn, there is still plenty of room for mom and pops, but we can find space for other people, too. This is not changing Fulton Street, this is bringing it back to what it was.” But are people really traveling to Manhattan from Brooklyn to shop at the new JCPenney?
Mr. Markowitz said he would like to see some kind of commercial rent control to protect tenants rents, though he was also wary of even mentioning the topic, knowing how it is despised by the real estate industry. “Maybe some kind of mediation, so if your rent triples, you can go to someone about it,” he said. He also said that if he could have any store on the strip, it would be a Nordstrom’s, though he would also settle for a Nordstrom’s Rack.
“Can you believe this? They just tried to charge me $50 for this, just ‘cause it says Sony on the side.” James Sanders was standing outside CompuWorld just after sunset on Monday, a grey beanie on his head and burgundy Versace scarf on his neck. Mr. Sanders had managed to barter the men behind the counter down to $10 in only five minutes of work.
Mr. Sanders grew up in the neighborhood, and even though he now lives near Columbus Circle, he said he makes the trip down at least once a week to do his shopping. “You come down here to Downtown Brooklyn, they will always work with you,” Mr. Sanders said. “They never want to let the money walk out the door. You could never do that at a name store. It’s embarrassing, you could come by every day, they still don’t know you.”
Just then, a pack of screaming teenagers could be heard from a few blocks away. At least a hundred of them were packed around a pair of men, there was shouting, it seemed perhaps a fight. It turned out to be the rapper Drake, who stopped into Quick Strike, one of the strips remaining hat-and-shoe outlets. He picked up a Toronto Blue Jays cap, representing his hometown team. Even in Canada, they know the Fulton Mall. Would Drake really have come to shop at Lids down the block?
Lauri Cumbo, a Fort Greene fixture who founded the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art, argues that the loss of the mom and pops is bad, but worse is the erosion of the mall’s culture. She points out that while the Bronx may have been the birthplace of hip hop, the Fulton Mall is where it grew up, with Biz Marquee and Biggie Smalls rapping on the corner. “The way things are going, entrepreneurship will be smothered all together,” she said. “There will be no room for creativity or originality. People may still shop here, but there will be no community.”
At the Brooklyn Fare grocery on Fulton Street, Chris, who lives nearby, was shopping for dinner with his girlfriend. They were deciding which humus to get, and settled on Three Kings. Did he do much shopping on Fulton Mall? Would he if the stores were to change?
“I mostly come here to shop, or on Atlantic and Court,” he said. “It’s different types of stores over there, and it feels too much like the city. I moved out here a month ago, and I did it to get away from all that.”