Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

October 7, 2010

Street Cred

Street Value: Shopping, Planning, and Politics at Fulton Mall


Architecture, Articles, Damon Rich, Rosten Woo, Urbanism

Eight-foot tall man in a perfect Malcolm X suit selling whole leopard skins and persimmons oil and cobra venom incense and a table of books by some conspiracy wrangler named Napoleon Fung gets hungry for a Jamaican meat patty wrapped in coco bread. Wrap that in a slice of pizza and cough out a chicken bone you didn’t even know was in there. Drumstick bones in an accumulating heap teeter down the subway portal. The city bus skids off Butt Flash onto Full-Time, doomed pedestrians swept up by its Soylent Green people-catcher depositing them in a jumble on the Albeit Squalor Mall escalators — going up!

— Jonathan Lethem, “Ruckus Flatbush” from Brooklyn Was Mine

The Fulton Mall in Downtown Brooklyn is a jumble of every hope and dream ever projected on the borough. Implicated in every era and every development, from the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1880s to the boosterism of the postwar years, from the urban renewal and brownstone gentrification of the ’60s and ’70s to the Bloomberg-era building bubble, the eight-block-long shopping street routinely fails to live up to expectations. The gulf between the reality of the mall — today a thriving mix of retail tenants paying high rents and selling cheap goods to a diverse crowd of low- to middle-income shoppers — and the ever-frustrated vision dreamed over and over by civic leaders, businessmen and planners — that it would become a visually unified, sanitized and safe environment attractive to both high-end national chains and an equally well-heeled clientele — is the subject of Street Value: Shopping, Planning and Politics at Fulton Mall [Princeton Architectural Press, 2010].

The compact, yellow-orange paperback, written by Rosten Woo and Meredith TenHoor with Damon Rich, and the first in series of urban-minded research investigations published by Inventory Books and distributed by Princeton Architectural Press, fits neatly into a jacket pocket. And it slips just as unassumingly into that gap between what is and what could be. Much is packed into 206 pages: photographs, history, interview transcripts and planning guidelines, with each author shepherding a given section. The book opens with images of what is, or at least what recently was, since the mall’s metamorphosis has continued even as the authors composed their manuscript. The first chapter, “Merchants on the Mall,” profiles local shop owners circa 2004-05, and the second, “Down on The Street,” features a photo essay shot by Gus Powell in 2009. In that time businesses have been shuttered, street furniture removed, and buildings demolished. In fact, it’s difficult to capture Fulton Mall’s frenetic energy and dodgy character in photographs or in words. Powell’s images make artful still lives out of beauty products on store shelves and cheap gold hoop earrings in window displays. They render the bustle into sun-bleached tableaux: asphalt street, weather-stained storefronts, bag-laden shoppers. The constraints of the photographic frame and the paperback layout tame the street and instantly make it more digestible, knowable and perhaps even fixable. But really, Fulton Mall is more like that chicken bone coughed up in Jonathan Lethem’s “Ruckus Flatbush,” unknowable and maybe not so nice. And that’s okay. The authors seem content to track the mall as an urban planning narrative, at best a cautionary tale, and their solutions come sparingly and late in the story.

Street Value could be taken as historical research — “Invisible Street: A History of Fulton Mall,” by Rosten Woo, co-founder of the non-profit Center for Urban Pedagogy, carefully documents every phase of the street’s redevelopment saga. Woo begins in the 19th century, with a dry-goods store in a cast-iron building; he unearths ephemera documenting the aspirations of Abraham Abraham, who along with Nathan Straus would transform the dry-goods store into Abraham & Straus, the first department store on Fulton Street. As Woo writes: “In 1899, A&S boasted in a public advertisement ‘You cannot wander through our establishment without feeling something akin to a personal pride that your city should be the possessor of such a store.’” [page 40]

Imagine Abraham’s dismay to find today’s pedestrian mall, where the cries of venders hawking disposable cell phones echo off facades layered with decades of commercial signage. Abraham’s impetus to link civic pride with a bustling commercial district foreshadows the subtext of every urban plan applied to the street since then. The golden age of Fulton Street happened early in its history — early enough to take on the mythic status of a brief moment when upscale shops and well-heeled shoppers aligned. By 1940, when the elevated train tracks that had shadowed the street were taken down, the street was lined with robust department stores catering to a middle-class white clientele. This heyday was short-lived. Urban demographics shifted, discount stores encroached. Woo includes a chart from the 1969 Plan for New York City; it reveals that African-American and Puerto Rican populations were growing, and that the white population — the department store owners’ cherished demographic — was taking flight.

Era by era, Woo tracks the tension between those looking to optimize Fulton Street and its users. Plans were made, some were implemented, none were truly effective. But Street Value is not a benign chronology. There’s an exposé hidden in these pages. Woo, TenHoor and Rich conducted interviews with planners and governmental functionaries instrumental in the Fulton redevelopment from 1966 to 1982. The presentation — lightly edited transcripts in the middle of the book — de-emphasizes their importance. Yet one of these Q&A sessions reveals the planners’ Mad Men-era attitudes toward race and class. Which feels startling; for while the book never shrinks from race issues, it for the most part presents them neutrally, within an historical context — the migration of blacks from the South, the move of whites to the suburbs, the more recent gentrification of Brooklyn.

But when Woo and TenHoor interview Richard Rosan — today the CEO of the Urban Land Institute, years ago a young planner in charge of implementing the proposals for Fulton Mall developed by the Urban Design Group, a division of the Office of City Planning — the tone changes. Without being combative, Woo and TenHoor’s queries push Rosan to be uncannily frank, and he puts his cards on the table in a discussion of why, beginning in the late ’60s, Abraham & Straus was focusing on the more suburban stretches of Brooklyn. “[I]n the 1960s Fulton Street was very heavily African American. There were a certain amount of Puerto Rican shoppers too. … Sales were good but it was a demographic that the store owners weren’t used to dealing with. You guys can’t imagine this because you’re younger, but this was a white America not used to multicultural activity. [A&S] wanted to be sure that they covered their white base so they went to Kings Plaza and Roosevelt Field. A&S moved further and further out.” [page 128] And later in the conversation Rosan blows the lid off the tendency within urbanist circles to euphemize race — to speak in term of abstract demographics. Woo asks if there was a directive by business leaders to bring white middle-class people back to Downtown Brooklyn. Rosan responds:

No. I think we weren’t so — well, yeah, we probably were sort of racist in our thinking at that time to think blacks were synonymous with poor. When I started to work at the Urban Land Institute in 1992 we used to tongue-in-cheek say to staff, the worst word you can use is “urban.” Urban was such a bad word. It was a code word for poor and minority. And now urban is a hot word. Urban Outfitters. Urban this, urban that. I mean it’s just changed. So, yes, I think [Bill] Rothschild [head of A&S in 1965] and company wanted a higher level of income, but in fairness to them I don’t think they cared if they were black or white. They wanted a higher level of shopping. They wanted to be able to attract people from Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill and ultimately Boerum Hill and Park Slope. [page 131–132]

Over decades the issues of race, perceived purchasing power and aesthetics form the crux of the street’s design problem, with the latter masking the significance of the former. Rundown, filled with a mishmash of storefronts and a motley mix of street furniture, bus shelters and kiosks, Fulton Mall was unappealing to department store owners: they simply didn’t like the look of the street. It looked too urban. Throughout Street Value, the mall is cited as having high profitability, high traffic and high rents (comparable to Manhattan rates) and yet it’s perennially subject to dogmatically taste-driven makeovers. An Archigram-y redo by architect Lee Harris Pomeroy, first conceived in 1976, embraced then-fashionable urban quirks: it proposed closing the street to car traffic and installing pop signage, street furniture, brick paving and a floating canopy over the pedestrianized mall. Dubbed “The People Street” by the Fulton Mall Improvement Association (a predecessor to today’s Building Improvement District) the design was only partially executed — most of the unifying elements, including the canopy and brick paving, were scrapped due to rising construction costs — and it failed to stem the flow of white shoppers away from the area.

According to the authors, the paradox of Fulton Street is that from the mid-’80s on, once it was left alone by the planners, the mall flourished as a center for hip-hop and African American culture. It is this period that informs the design guidelines for the future of Fulton Mall put forward by Damon Rich, CUP founder and now Urban Designer for the City of Newark. With a percussive punch, Rich describes the scene: “Biz Markie met Big Daddy Kane at the Albee Square Mall, and young African Americans from across Brooklyn and the city came to shop for the latest styles at Dr. Jay’s, S&D Underground, Music Factory, Jimmy Jazz, Scheme, and Beat Street Records.” [page 191] Hip-hop epicenter Albee Square Mall, made famous in a Biz Markie rap, was once Albee Square Theater, named for the vaudevillian promoter Edward Albee II, the adoptive grandfather of playwright Edward Albee. Today the site is an empty lot, awaiting economic recovery to usher in a new mixed-use development. As part of an effort to boost the “creative class” presence in Downtown Brooklyn (as envisioned in the 2004 Downtown Brooklyn Development Plan), it is slated for 650 residential units, 475,000 square feet of retail, and 100,000 square feet of Class A office space.

Although Street Value comes during an economic lull, the blocks surrounding Fulton Mall are crowded with luxury developments that mushroomed during the bubble. Condo towers and new midrise housing circle the pedestrian street; the banners that hang down the sides of the new buildings advertise the loft-living demographic that is predicted to descend on the mall when the recovery happens. In addition, art spaces such as The Metropolitan Exchange (MEx), a cooperative of architects, urban planners, and researchers, and 177 Livingston, the semi-permanent home of Triple Canopy, Light Industry and The Public School, have moved into the area. There’s an uneasy relationship at play; Street Value’s authors are linked to these organizations. MEx hosted a book launch, which was followed by a celebratory walking tour of Fulton Mall. These newcomers are already creating dynamic energy in Downtown Brooklyn, but they are harbingers of gentrification and potential conflict. A rumor even circulated after the walking tour that the “tourists” had caused an uncomfortable stir among mall locals. Which is why the authors may have thought it necessary to create the guidelines for the future of Fulton Mall.

The design guidelines occupy only six pages of the two-hundred-plus-page book. The three proposals trade in hybridity and acceptance, with their titles spelling out the goals: Guideline 1, Preserve Evidence of Failed Aesthetic Unification; Guideline 2, Use Street Furniture of a Multitude of Occupations; Guideline 3, Celebrate the Socioeconomics of Signage. They suggest an intimacy with the mall’s social legacy unheard of in the schemes put forward by previous generations, where planners and developers construed the users of the street as an undesirable other — black, poor, urban. If Street Value’s interviews lay bare the biases and tensions of earlier planners and government officials, then Rich’s guidelines, even as a critique of past practices, are revealingly non-reactive, everyday responses to the Fulton fabric. Rich clearly likes what is there, and is hesitant to propose anything that would undo the existing urban culture. We may have to wait for the bulldozers to start their engines to find out if there will be a debate. The authors are all strong voices of a new generation of urban thinkers, but their sensibilities —thoughtful and inclusive, shaped by education and research — have yet to be challenged by the market forces. In this sense, the bright orange book, and its case study and guidelines, is a talisman against the forces (governmental and developmental) ready to descend on Fulton Street.