Scorsese's 1973 film Mean Streets is not the kind of movie you forget, especially if you've ever lived in New York. In the opening scenes alone, Robert De Niro literally explodes onto the screen -- and onto America's cinematic radar -- by blowing up a corner mailbox in Little Italy. Scorsese goes on to paint a masterful portrait of a tough, rough, and dingy part of town where everyone is struggling to survive. The area now known as Nolita really was a mean place to live in the '70s and '80s.
We all know that during their tenures, Giuliani (and yes Bloomberg) "cleaned up" places like Nolita, making them safer and more livable. As a 10-year resident and lover of my hood, I'm sure I've benefited from that improvement -- local restaurants like Café Habana and Peasant offer great food, there are a lot of little boutiques and of course the fantastic Mcnally Jackson bookstore. There are tons of tourists.
Undeniably, you could argue that for the abundant new-found charm, there's not much edge. While that's in many ways a good thing, are gentrified neighborhoods like Nolita also losing their capability for continued cultural and entrepreneurial renewal? In other words, now that the mean streets of Little Italy have morphed into the polished and expensive streets of Nolita, can they go anywhere else from here? Can people here still take chances on new restaurants or creative projects? Can we continue to nurture diverse local communities? Let's take a closer look, based on some anecdotal evidence.
As if by mutual agreement, odd couple New Museum and Whole Foods both arrived in 2007. The two buildings stand out as aggressive, modern structures next to the Bowery's otherwise grungy buildings. Arguably, Whole Foods makes people's lives better simply by being a much needed actual supermarket (no offense, The Met on Mulberry Street) and by donating to the YMCA. The New Museum, while of more dubious intrinsic value, has nevertheless injected a little artistic flair into the Bowery. In a way, they signal the potential for further culinary or art-related newcomers (albeit well-funded ones). One Point for the "urban re-invention is still possible" side.
Let me quickly deduct that One Point. What seems like once a day (but is more likely once a month) I watch a new business (either fashion or a restaurant) move into one of the commercial spaces on my Elizabeth Street block. The owners paint, put up shelves, display their merchandise and hang their logos -- and less than two months later, they move back out. Maybe it's for lack of realistic sales planning or undesirable products, but more likely it's the fact that rent for a 500 sq. foot space here runs for around $20,000/month. A young designer would have to be selling quite a few handmade bracelets not to go out of business in a matter of minutes. Does the area offer opportunities for these young and daring business owners? It does, but fleeting ones.
Most notably though, cultural diversity is waning. About a year and a half ago, 253 Elizabeth street was mysteriously vacated of all its residents. In the blink of a regulatory eye, the Dominican and Italian families who would set up their barbecues and lawn chairs on the sidewalk every time the sun came out ... were gone. Just gone. For a while, some longtime members of the neighborhood posted a flyer protesting the mass eviction. That flyer has been taken down and is every day being replaced by another layer of graffiti -- unfortunately not the cool kind. The whole building remains empty, and for what?
In short, it seems that Nolita's streets are now only mean to those who can no longer afford their apartments (a fact recently underscored by the change for rent-stabilized tenants paying under $1000) or the $20,000 a month necessary for a tiny retail space.
Of course, this is the price city dwellers pay for lower crime and swanky supermarkets. But it still makes it hard to foster the diversity or the new ideas that keep neighborhoods developing in interesting ways.
Does Nolita offer any lesson to other changing communities across New York, or across other cities for that matter? If so, it may go something like this: as your environment evolves, don't forget to support the pioneering spirit of the little guys -- the idealistic entrepreneurs, and the original residents who built families and businesses there -- that made your area what it is in the first place. It's that kind of urban strategy that makes experimentation possible not just for big companies like Whole Foods, but for everyone.
It would be hard to imagine Scorsese making a masterpiece about anything less.