Street Value — Fulton Street Mall, Brooklyn

Street Value - Rosten Woo & Meredith TenHoorStreet Value is a brilliant little book from Rosten Woo and Meredith TenHoor. It is beautifully illustrated and innovative in form, with copious drawings, photographs, maps and plans that charts the history of Fulton Street Mall in Brooklyn decade by decade. It brings together quotes from business owners and customers, memories, narratives and photo essays to try and understand the history of this single street in a way that I love.

At the same time, it evokes a history of many such streets across the country by unpacking the narratives of abandonment, racial change, redevelopment and above all, highlighting the ways that racism has shaped urban spaces through some of the most honest and revealing interviews I have ever read. This street continued to make money through thick and thin where almost all other malls failed. Yet from the moment white flight really took hold and it became a shopping destination of choice for communities of colour, it has been seen as a ‘problem’ by the city and planning agencies who have continuously worked to ‘redevelop’ and ‘revitalise’ a space that needed neither redevelopment nor revitalisation in order to bring the white folks back. But let the book speak for itself.

By 1960, most of the larger department stores that had come of age with A&S, such as Loeser’s and Namm’s, were already finding it hard to compete with a new generation of discount retailers. …

The owners of Fulton Street’s largest stores perceived the problem differently. To them, the clearest indicator and proximate cause for worry was this: white people were making up a smaller and smaller percentage of the street’s shoppers. (55)

You have the influential Chicago School: Park & Burgess’s basic theory held that racial succession was, if not a cause, then a very accurate indicator that depressed property values, and abandonment would soon follow.

The concept of blight proved a powerful, though unsubstantiated, explanatory mechanism. The declaration of blight on Fulton Street was unique because the objective indicators of economic health so clearly contradicted the theory of blight. The shoppers may have come from Bed-Stuy, but business was good. Foot traffic was brisk and retail rents could compete with the best in the city. (59)

‘Preventative renewal imagined two rivals: Manhattan on the one hand, and the suburbs on the other’ (60). They simply couldn’t imagine a street that succeeded and yet was neither. So they unsuccessfully tried to become one or the other.

The Fulton Arcade was a preemptive strike against the perceived decline of the Central Business District. Designed to compete with the charms of the suburban strip, it would attract would-be suburban shoppers by constructing a proxy of a regional shopping mall… (62)

The pedestrian was to rescue the commercial life of the street; the planners only had to remove this figure’s natural enemies: the elements and the automobile. But an important contradiction haunted the scheme: the street was already a commercial success. Pedestrians already thronged Fulton street. Why was preventive renewal so necessary? … By their logic [planners], black shoppers were poor and poor shoppers had no place in the Central Business District of Brooklyn. (63)

They still kept trying. So no one with any experience of downtown revitalisation efforts will be surprised at their next steps:

Urban design could make the street look like a mall, but it couldn’t make it act like a mall. To create the impression of safety, cleanliness and order…had to invent a new form of government: the Business Improvement District. (73)

By the 1990s:

Pedestrianization had failed to bring white middle-class shoppers back to the area. Instead, it helped the mall flourish as a nationally significant locus of consumer culture. The culture’s significance, however, continued to remain invisible to the mainstream, no matter how many hit singles mentioned the mall or how many dollars were spent on the street.
Planners continued to view the street as a problem to be solved rather than as a resource to draw from (89).

The following quotes are from an interview with Richard Rosen, then a member of the Urban Design Group working on the Fulton Mall, before becoming Chief Executive Officer of the Urban Land Institute. They studied the street in 1968 and found that the number shopping there

was always around 400,000 a day. We did find it was the fourth biggest shopping center in the United States, and that the retail sales were hugely dramatic, in spite of the fact that Max Schulman, the president of J.W. Mays Department Stores, wasn’t very comfortable with who his customers were. (127)

He continues

You guys can’t imagine this because you’re younger, but this was a white America not used to multicultural activity. They wanted to be sire that they covered their white base so they went to Kings Plaza and Roosevelt Field. A&S moved further and further out.

Thus is wasn’t the lack of sales or of people that caused stores to leave, but the prejudices of the owners, their identification with a white base. ‘A cultural thing’ as Rosen says. He is astonishingly open in this interview:

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 (131)

And then so revealing for the work of planners and those working on downtown ‘revitalisation’:

I think that Downtown Brooklyn happened in spite of what we did at Fulton Mall. It’s all about safety, and the perception of safety and the reality of safety. And in the 60s, one of the things that was happening with the perception of safety was that it wasn’t. Department store owners were saying that they’d rather be in a mall because in a mall you can control it, and how are you going to control Fulton Mall?

Part of the idea was to make it clean. We had people dressed up in uniforms, and it was all to create a perception of safety. But I don’t think we saw it in those days quite like you might in retrospect. I never conceptualized that the reasons that people liked malls was because they were safe and they didn’t like Fulton Street because they didn’t know if it was safe, and there’s a lot of people walking along that don’t look like you do and you’re afraid and you don’t want to be there.

You heard from Jonathan Barnett who had the perception that the economy in Brooklyn was going down. He was wrong, it was going up. We had a perception that we had to save the economy by renovating the mall, and that’s because the department store owners were saying they were going to move out. And why were they going to move out? They weren’t moving out because they weren’t selling things. They were making lots of money. They were moving out because they perceived it wasn’t safe and their clientele was not who they wanted it to be (132).

Always always always the use of the word ‘people’ in these quotes assumes white people. It’s so extraordinary and yet explains so much about American society. In an interview with Mike Weiss, former executive director of the Fulton Mall Improvement Association and the MetroTech Business Improvement District from 2003 to 2007, he says of the mall—already a vibrant and profitable mall for people of colour:

The vision would be to assist in managing change, which is always inevitable, and try to build the district into more of a kind of vibrant 24-hour diverse, multi-use district. There are constituencies that don’t yet shop on the mall that we believe could, including the college community that exists in Downtown Brooklyn (154).

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