The Starbucks tipping point

And now, a short break from our regularly scheduled national politics...

I found out Friday through some local gossip rags -- Gawker and Curbed -- that the fourth horseman of the Apocolypse is riding into the Lower East Side of Manhattan (that'd be my neighborhood): Starbucks is coming.

There have been rumors since I moved to the neighborhood four years ago, every time another vacant lot opened up, every time another construction site went down. When Collective Unconscious, an indie/underground performance space, and Barramundi, a neighborhood-friendly bar, lost their leases to make way for a new high-rise development on Ludlow Street, locals made their fears known by spraypainting the former signs to read "The Gap" and "Starbucks." Most of us never thought it would really happen, though. The nearest Starbucks is a cluster phenomenon on Astor Place in the East Village, where one can stand and see three within eye shot. New Yorkers are resilient, though -- the infamous Mud Truck set up shop in between them.

Panic set in when I found out about the monstrosity at Allen and Delancey. Some may chalk this up to histronics and hysterics, but let me explain. New York City, since the early '90s, is slowly being turned into a shopping mall. Soho, once well-known for its galleries and interesting art spaces, is nothing but Bloomingdales (!) and Old Navy. At least three new megaplexes have opened, and there's of course the Disneyfication of 42nd Street. People like Reverend Billy have been crying out for years, sure. But the steamrollers have moved on, and now it's not just Manhattan, with its expanding universities and strip malls, but even the safe-haven of Brooklyn is under attack as well.

The Lower East Side has been gentrifying for at least the last ten years, but there is something particularly sinister about gentrification happening here. Most people don't know that the LES is the home of many radical political movements and events -- labor riots of the early 1900s, Jewish indie publishing, the Tompkins Square riots of the early 1990s, squatter's rights, popular higher education, the Beats, American punk rock, and environmentalism all found a place in the heart of this neighborhood, just to name a few. (For more radical history, check out Bruce Kayton's Radical Walking Tours. Here's some highlights.) The LES has been a safe haven for anyone outside the mainstream -- not rich, not yuppie, not white, not straight, not capitalist, whathaveyou -- since its inception, and it's why I moved here. Longtime neighborhood residents are proud of the history, and it's now celebrated (as it disappears) at the annual Howl Festival, itself a source of contention for many, but I think it does a good job of covering the ground.

So, back to Starbucks and why it's a devastating blow for the LES, and what we're doing about it. I've been working with a number of local organizations to address the serious problem of hyperdevelopment here; not only are the people being removed, but the physical character of the neighborhood is being destroyed. Just Saturday night, I wandered over to my former place of employment for a show to discover that one of the last holdouts against a new development had finally been demolished. Erased. Cease to exist. We've been working on campaigns and joining forces with other struggles against hyperdevelopment to address zoning, the City Council selling out the residents, etc. So far, load of energy has poured in -- I never thought I'd see the day where radicals from the Tompkins Square riots would be hosting zoning forums, but it's important and it's actually happening. L.O.C.O. has been battling the violations on Orchard and Ludlow. P.S. 64 is being saved, and folks are fighting for St. Brigid's Church. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation is stepping into the fray. It's mind-blowing!

Starbucks is the urban Wal-Mart, and is a powerfully nasty symbol and metaphor for the homogenization of America. To have it arrive at the home of counterculture is just plain unacceptable. I can't stand the thought of losing Guss' Pickles, or the Santo Domingo Bakery, or having to pay for wifi access because the Lotus Lounge closed up shop.

So, I sat down today to start a new campaign. I'm going to help people make a better coffee decision when it opens in four weeks -- I'm going to stand outside every day and hand out cards that I'm printing up:


(click images for larger view; download a hi-res PDF here to print your own)

The fact that there's ten other places to get coffee signals to me that there's no demand for Starbucks here, ya know? And I left some places out -- these are just my own personal favorites. I plan on being there pretty often, and I'm taking offers for shifts if anyone's around and interested. Plus, some folks from the cultural production company I belong to are working on a flashy dispenser for cards when we're not there.

Bottom line is, regardless of what happens next, I still refuse to take this lying down. Where will the people go, if New York really does become the whitewashed upscale utopia -- all the comforts of home included! -- that the developers imagine it to be? What will happen to the unique perspective on history from the Lower East Side? What will the poor folks do if affordable housing becomes a distant memory of better days? Where will artists find cheap spaces to live and create? The social misfits, the political radicals, the indvidualists, where will they call home? They won't come to NYC anymore, not if it looks just like where they came from.

Above the entrance to the Bowery Poetry Club, it says in enormous letters: "EVERYTHING IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE." Believe me, this isn't just a reference to the madcap schedule the Club maintains. If this island is going to keep changing, I'm going to keep working on making sure that it retains some semblance of history, and that there's a place for all the freaks, geeks and otherwise unfit-for-homogeny. Who's with me?

UPDATE: What with the ensuing squawk storm that happened below and elsewhere, I've posted a reply over on my neighborhood news blog, LES Bridge Mix. Feel free to comment below or over there...

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