Clinton Ink next to Koneko Cat Cafe (Photo by Kavitha Surana)

Clinton Ink next to Koneko Cat Cafe (Photo by Kavitha Surana)

Lillian Melendez still remembers when Clinton Street was a destination for anyone planning a sweet sixteen, baby shower or wedding. “If you were having a party, you had to come to Clinton,” she said. “Clinton was famous, everybody knew Clinton.” As a child she spent afternoons playing in her mother’s shop, Genesis Party Supplies at 97 Clinton, packed with custom wedding and bridesmaids dresses, speciality balloons and centerpieces and themed baby shower chairs and pins. Back then, Genesis held court with three other Latino party shops on that stretch of the block alone– if a customer didn’t find what they wanted at Genesis, her mom would send them next door or across the street.

But as the neighborhood inevitably changed, the street’s identity as a special-events destination faded. Two years ago, when her mother was ready to retire, Genesis was the last surviving party supply shop on Clinton– and it seemed like it might not hold out much longer. Melendez said the landlord’s son, newly in charge, suddenly raised the rent to $10,000 a month– almost a $6,000 increase. (She estimates around $2,500 a month would be a reasonable rent for a party supply business to make ends meet comfortably.)

(Photo by Kavitha Surana)

(Photo by Kavitha Surana)

It was a familiar problem. “We have seen so many businesses that have left because the rents are too high,” Melendez sighed. Currently, there are at least 18 vacancies on the street, a huge number for a three-block corridor in one of the most popular and in-demand neighborhoods in Manhattan. And an influx of luxury apartments in the area is casting a pall of uncertainty over the entire retail landscape. 

“A lot of people complain. They say, ‘Oh, they are bringing new bars in here, they are ruining the neighborhood,'” Melendez said. But even those newer, trendier establishments often have a difficult time making ends meet on Clinton Street, as the constant churn of openings and closings attests. 

For now, the street seems stuck in the middle. A walk from Delancey to Houston can feel like traveling through two distinct topographies. Since the 1980s, Clinton has been a vital retail corridor for both the needs and the dreams of the Lower East Side’s large Latino population, and on a warm day you can still inhabit flickers of the old Clinton Street: Men sit on crates playing Spanish music and regulars gather to catch up in Dominican barber shops. Street vendors pour bright flavored syrups over ices, Cibao Restaurant serves up no-frills lunches of sancocho and Cuban sandwiches, and people press against the glass at pawn shops, admiring gold jewelry. But now these old-timer businesses rub shoulders with idiosyncratic cafes and experimental restaurants catering to tourists and newcomers: a cat cafe where you can pay $15 to hang out with kitties for an hour, a fancy bubble tea spot out of San Francisco, a quirky self-service craft beer bar, and a tiny Japanese restaurant where you can indulge in “some of the finest, freshest fish in the world” for $126 (before tax and tip).

(Photo by Kavitha Surana)

In some ways, this mixture of retail reads like a microcosm of the hyper-gentrification narrative playing out across the city, with an established immigrant community feeling the pinch as new neighbors with higher incomes and different tastes move in. But Clinton Street is also at a crossroads uniquely its own. The large number of empty storefronts send an odd message–if the street is so in-demand, why are there so many long-term vacancies? And while higher rents have pushed many retail tenants out, plenty of longtime Latino residents are still hanging on, thanks to nearby public housing complexes where rents remain below market rate. Even in a rapidly upscaling neighborhood, people still need friendly haircuts and affordable grocery stores that accept food stamps. They still want to browse for home goods, and cheap, fashionable clothes–and they’re wondering how much longer they’ll be able to get these basic needs met in their own neighborhood.

Lillian Melendez at Genesis Party Supply (Photo by Kavitha Surana)

Lillian Melendez at the new Genesis Party Supply (Photo by Kavitha Surana)

Melendez turned out to be one of the lucky ones. Though she worried she might be just another casualty of the neighborhood’s gentrification, a stroke of unusual good fortune and coincidence saved her business last year–at the last minute, a landlord sympathetic to her plight offered her a spot a few blocks away for less than market rate. The new shop, on 309 East Houston Street, is significantly smaller, but her network has stayed strong–unlike the fickle tastes of trend-chasing millennials, the community her family served for decades remains loyal.

But though Melendez says she is thriving, more than a year later Genesis’ old space on Clinton, owned by Yick Fat Realty, still sits empty, waiting for the right $10,000 renter to appear. (As is often the case, I was unable to find any contact information for the landlord.) “Maybe the owners of the buildings, they should consider the small businesses, because the small business is what stays stable for years,” Melendez said. “Sometimes they want more money, but when they want more money, sometimes they bring business that is not good for the community– because I wouldn’t want to live in a neighborhood where there’s only a lot of bars.”

Santo Domingo’s cakes (Photo by Kavitha Surana)

With the character of the street in transition, some local groups have stepped in to try to influence its future. Enrique Cruz, founder of the Association of Latino Business Owners and Residents, grew up around the corner on Suffolk Street and often spent his teenage afternoons wandering down Clinton on his way to work at his father’s bodega on Houston Street. Like Melendez, he remembers when Clinton was the place to be before going out on the weekend– the street where you could get your party supplies, have your hair done, and maybe buy some new jewelry and clothes. “Those kinds of shops probably had 60 percent of the space on Clinton,” he said. “It was fun.”

(Photo by Kavitha Surana)

(Photo by Kavitha Surana)

Cruz, also a member of Community Board 3’s Land Use committee and in the running for the board’s chairperson position, has spent many years analyzing the street’s dilemma, trying to connect Latino shops and help them negotiate ways to stay in the neighborhood. Sometimes it works out: When Vida Natural health shop at 79 Clinton closed up, another long time neighborhood business, La Socia Pawn Shop from up the block, heard about it and negotiated to take over the space. But it’s also a struggle to find new businesses (Latino-owned or otherwise) that both fit into the small and strangely-shaped storefronts.

“Clinton is like a different animal,” said Cruz. The corridor is the last concentrated strip of retail before hitting Baruch Houses, the largest public housing complex in Manhattan with more than 5,000 residents, and Masaryk Towers, a large affordable housing co-op“You have either very low end [earners], that make probably social security checks or around $1,000 a month, and then these kids that are probably making high six figures or low seven figures that have different needs,” Cruz said. “So that’s why Clinton Street is kind of like a toss-up– you can’t really identify it.” On the one hand, positioned right off the Williamsburg Bridge, the street is always busy with constant traffic. But there aren’t too many offices around, so general daytime foot traffic from higher-income consumers tends to be disparate on the weekdays and often sucked up by Clinton Street Bakery, with its tourist-luring pancakes.

(Photo by Kavitha Surana)

(Photo by Kavitha Surana)

Since none of the remaining Latino shops own their buildings, Cruz worries they are all a step away from shutting their doors when their leases come up for renewal or the landlord decides to cash in and sell. To try to shore up the corridor’s business, his organization partnered with the community group Good Old Lower East Side and secured a grant in 2015 through the Department of Small Business Services’s Avenue NYC program. They used it to commission a market analysis of the block, hoping to jumpstart a retail attraction strategy for the many vacant storefronts.

“We’re trying to bring business to the corridor that would comply with what the community needs,” he said. “Not just business owners who want to come and make money, but also really provide a service or product that’s needed in the neighborhood.” It’s a tricky balance, trying to identify shops that are affordable and desirable to both income levels and can make enough money to afford the rent (precise numbers are hard to come by, but according to estimates from brokers, shop owners, and ALBOR, they seem to range from $5,000 to $14,000 recently). Unsurprisingly, Cruz says he’s not interested in adding more bars and restaurants–the area is already saturated with them and it’s unlikely the community board would jump to support new liquor licenses for those vacant spots.

Over the past few months some hopeful newcomers have arrived to fill the empty gaps on the street, like Princes Deli, Galeria’s Brazilian bar and Mondiale’s exotic home goods, but there have also been enough closings (Sabit streetwar brand, the Little Shoe Store, Prosperity Dumplings and Clinton Furniture) to offset the gains.

ClintonStreetFestPoster2016_web

In an effort to bring more foot traffic to the street and drum up interest for those many vacant storefronts, ALBOR and GOLES have periodically led walk-throughs for potential retailers to get to know the block. Today they’ve organized the Clinton Street Fest in collaboration with Fourth Arts Block and Anna Adler + Artists. Starting at 4 p.m, the fest includes a walking tour, a cake tasting at Santo Domingo Bakery (the last Dominican bakery on the block), and various artistic interventions, like a “City of Stories” workshop by Bridget Bartolini and a an installation called”Fragile City” by Priscilla Stadler in the community garden on Clinton and Stanton, as well as pop-up art shows to activate some of the empty storefronts. Various businesses will offer discounts, including Atlas Cafe, Paloma Rocket and East Village Wine and Liquor. 

Courtesy Patrica Stadler

Courtesy Priscilla Stadler

Anna Adler, consulting with FAB on this initiative, said artists and poets like Raul Rios, Sally Young and Erin Sweeny, are creating works reflecting on the relationship between commerce and culture. “Part of [Fourth Arts Block’s] interest is expanding the definition of art to include small businesses, which are a huge part of the identity and the culture of neighborhoods,” she said.

Courtesy Bridget Bartolini

Courtesy Bridget Bartolini

But, of course, the incentives of the Lower East Side’s increasingly art-focused rental market are less and less hospitable to the types of businesses that help foster Clinton Street’s unique sense of culture and community. With an upscale building going up at 50 Clinton (apartments are in the million dollar range) and new developments like Essex Crossing soon to bring an influx of offices and 1,000 apartment units across the street, landlords seem to be willing to wait out empty storefronts for a future windfall. Some don’t even have their properties on offer right now– a rep for Seagram Properties, which bought 86 and 88 Clinton in 2013 (formerly home to Venus Boutique, Denisha Fashion and Latinos Multiservice, they are currently being converted into luxury apartments), said those retail units are not on the market yet because they are undergoing gut renovations. He wouldn’t say how much they’ll rent for or what kind of retail tenants they hope to attract.

Whatever those new retail spots eventually become, its not clear if they would be a good fit for the type of businesses Cruz’s third-party market study suggests match the community’s needs. The study identified a big market gap, finding that shoppers from the area are going elsewhere to spend $30 million in groceries and over $38 million in general merchandise that could be spent on Clinton Street. It recommended more dollar stores or shops selling household goods, hardware, electronics, low-cost fresh produce and to-go delis, or businesses geared towards health and personal care. Still, many of the floor plans vacant on Clinton are small and wouldn’t fit an anchor tenant that could command a lot of money, like a big hardware or electronics shop.

(Photo by Kavitha Surana)

(Photo by Kavitha Surana)

And, paradoxically, even so-called “gentrifier” businesses. like restaurants and boutiques, have a tough time affording the steep rents. Often attracted to the neighborhood’s “underground” and “community” vibe, some later find that it’s too underground, farther from the subway than the Orchard/Ludlow nightlife axis, and out of the way for the young professional clientele they hope to attract on a regular basis.

Doug Jaeger, who used to run a creative studio at 55 Clinton, tried to dip his toes into retail a few years ago with JnrlStr, a concept shop at the front of their studio that sold stylish minimalist home items at a wide price range, from a sleek black toothbrush for $7 to a hot pink wrecking bar for $75. But he saw firsthand how difficult it was to sustain an experimental small business on the street. In a sort of precursor to Cruz’s effort, Jaeger loosely organized a few of the newer restaurants and shops to hold block parties and events, trying to boost business across the board. All of the restaurants and stores involved, including Fatta Cuckoo, Blake Scotland, and Kupersmith, have since closed, and JnrlStr left and moved online in 2013. The old storefront, 55 Clinton, is now a tailor shop.

(Photo by Kavitha Surana)

(Photo by Kavitha Surana)

Jaeger blamed inconsistent foot traffic for the difficult climate. “For a period we did study the foot traffic on the block versus store traffic and found that during the day it was mostly school kids and parents, while in the early mornings and evening [it was] young professionals [going] to and from work, as well as culinary explorers,” he said in an e-mail. “The block was mainly a place for destination dining, and local services for the families that lived there, including tailors, laundry, hair dressers, delis, tax prep, and clothing and food stores.” He said some unique restaurants, like Wylie Dufresne’s famous molecular gastronomy destination WD-50 (since closed to make way for 50 Clinton’s construction) were able to build an audience outside the local population on the block, but for many the buzz was often short-lived.

“Many underestimated how hard it would be to attract customers to the neighborhood, without mass transit there,” he said. “Even with Uber and Lyft, it still seems like a tough spot.”

So, in what direction is Clinton Street headed? And what are the landlords hoping to achieve by keeping so many storefronts empty or off the market? Some stakeholders aren’t shy about breathlessly promoting the changing landscape as a business opportunity with high profit margins. Last December Eastern Consolidated brokers published a press release touting a $12 million mixed-use building at 125 Rivington, just two blocks from Clinton, as a potential cash cow. The language was pretty direct:

“This property presents an ideal opportunity for a user, owner-operator, or investor to reposition the property by renovating the vacant units and attracting an upscale retailer as well as millennials seeking to share a sought after loft apartment in the heart of the Lower East Side,” [Deborah] Gutoff said.  “The building is only one block from Essex Crossing, the massive 1.9 million-square-foot residential, retail, entertainment, office, and community complex now under development, which will bring an influx of new residents, office workers, and visitors to the neighborhood.”

[Ronda] Rogovin noted, “The increased foot traffic Essex Crossing is expected to bring is already being factored into the area’s retail rents, which are well over $100 per square foot, a threshold rarely seen in the Lower East Side. In the very near future, Essex Crossing will serve as a magnet for New Yorkers and tourists who will flock to this area that was once viewed primarily as a weekend and nighttime destination for hip bars and restaurants.”

New Essex Street Market entrance, Handel Architects

Future Essex Street Market entrance, Handel Architects

I asked Cruz, who sometimes negotiates as a middleman with landlords and their brokers, what he thought the prices are based on. Indeed, he agreed that some landlords seem to be expecting the upcoming wave of development to eventually land them in a better negotiating position, even if it takes some time. “That’s what they bring up–all the development in the neighborhood and how the neighborhood is changing and they’ll get their number eventually,” he said.

It’s sometimes a frustrating process and Cruz has seen potential deals fall through over the past year. “[The landlords] all say they’re going to be flexible and then we start negotiating deals with retailers. But…it’s almost like they’re gonna stand still for their number,” he said. “They talk, but then at the end when you start to negotiate, it’s like: ‘If I don’t get my number, I’m not renting it.’

71 Clinton (Photo by Kavitha Surana)

71 Clinton (Photo by Kavitha Surana)

Still, despite broker-babble enthusiasm, Cruz is not convinced Essex Crossing and other developments will make as big difference to Clinton Street’s market as landlords and brokers hope. New Yorkers can be remarkably circumscribed in their neighborhood shopping, confined to their three-block radius. And Delancey Street, with its wide roads and busy traffic heading onto the Williamsburg Bridge, tends to act as a natural border that some people rarely cross.

“Yeah, we will have a lot more families and a lot more commercial interest and hopefully some of that will drift towards Clinton Street,” he said. “But I’m more of the opinion that it might not be good because then people are just going to the [new Essex Street Market and Market Line] shopping area that they’re going to open there, and they’re not going to come to Clinton Street.” 

50 Clinton, luxury apartments currently under construction  (Photo by Kavitha Surana)

50 Clinton, luxury apartments currently under construction (Photo by Kavitha Surana)

Cruz worries that if he doesn’t manage to stop Clinton Street’s retail bleeding and stabilize the Latino-owned businesses on the street soon, the neighborhood will lose a vital chance to solidify a retail corridor that serves both high and low-income communities. As landlords are clearly expecting, the whole neighborhood will be irreversibly reshaped in only a few years, with a glut of major developments, including 50 Clinton, Essex Crossing’s 10-building project, and huge high-rises on the waterfront, like Extell’s One Manhattan Square tower, finishing at the same time. If long-time families still holding out in their rent-controlled apartments and public housing can’t afford a remade Clinton Street–or the rest of the neighborhood, for that matter–they may be left ordering party supplies online, trekking to other neighborhoods for haircuts, and making do with meager produce offerings at 7-Eleven and Duane Reade.

Lately Cruz has been thinking the street might need to specialize in order to remain viable, like the Diamond District or the Light District on the Bowery. “We were late to the game and the only way we might be able to save Clinton Street is for it to be a destination point– what they call a ‘cluster,'” he said. “That’s the only way we might be able to save it, where we can keep some stores or retail spaces that will serve the diverse communities. If not, otherwise it’ll turn into small little galleries and small little boutiques.” It wasn’t apparent what kind of cluster of products or services could achieve that balance, though–and clearly the party-supply days of the block aren’t coming back. 

Clinton Street Fest, Friday, June 24, 4-7 p.m. Walking tour begins at Donnybrook Bar, 35 Clinton.