There Goes the Bowery. . . Again

Where did everything go? They're messin' with my frockin' town.

I am hopelessly late to the wedding of Chris P. Carrot and Penelo Pea Pod. It is the alleged high point of the First Veggie Pride parade in America, a couple of Sundays ago, but I spend the morning, as I do every Sunday, at the Garage Flea Market on West 25th Street, which is rumored to be closing in November and will no doubt be replaced by another looming Chelsea high-rise. By the time I get down to Washington Square Park, which is being horribly eviscerated and torn asunder by some harebrained NYU scheme to move the fountain so that it's perfectly aligned with the arch (this was a problem?), the vegetable nuptials are over.

So I decide to kill some time by examining what's left of the Bowery. When the hideous Charles Gwathney–designed turquoise-glass apartment tower went up in the former parking lot across from the cube at Astor Place, I thought the neighborhood couldn't fall much further, but how wrong was I. Now, there's a strange Cubist monstrosity rising right across from the Voice and a series of expensive bistros and boutiques colonizing every square inch of the Bowery, the latest addition being the just-opened Rogan store.

Rogan's on my mind anyway, since a few weeks ago, I went up to Barneys to preview the "eco-conscious," "environmentally friendly," "sustainable" clothes that Rogan has done for Target, and that Barneys, in a bout of noblesse oblige, hung prominently on its co-op floor for three whole days. (After that, you have to hold your nose and go to an actual Target to buy them.) The clothes are fine—too plain for me, but fine—and the prices are certainly a shockeroo at Barneys ($39.95 for a perfectly serviceable striped halter dress, for example), but I must say I am a bit annoyed by the hang tag, which reads: "Enjoy these clothes and don't hesitate to wear them forever." So I can't throw out this thing after one season? Shouldn't this tag be on all the $390—nay, $3,900 items—on the other floors of Barneys, where no sermons on longevity are included with purchase?

I can't even find the new Rogan store on the Bowery. I walk past it twice before I realize that it's sequestered in the historic Bowery Lane theater building. No theater anymore, the kid who works at Rogan tells me, adding that the store is hard to find because the building has landmark status governing what kind of sign they can hang out front. The place is almost pitch-dark, but I make out a silk dress for $650. Instead of a hang tag with a lecture, the frock sports a loquacious label that reads in part: "I love you because you are beautiful and smart . . . Your business acumen astonishes me . . ." and other mysterious accolades, presumably from someone who wants to flatter you into buying something.

Across the street, the much- ballyhooed John Varvatos store, now squatting sumptuously in the old CBGB building, is quiet. When this place opened in April, Varvatos himself, to his credit, offered to take me around, since I had written some not-so-nice things about his plans to take over the site last fall.

AC/DC and Joe Cocker records loom over shelves of jeans at the entrance; pretty colored lamps hang from the ceiling; a sign that reads "Gabba Gabba Hey" decorates a back wall; a striped sweater is tagged $498 (you'd better wear it forever). Varvatos clearly loves the space and wants to honor it: "We tried to keep everything we could keep—we didn't take anything out! If we didn't do this, it would have been a Starbucks—or a bank. We mean to keep the history alive," he says, pointing me to a glass wall behind which are trapped, like dead butterflies, flyers advertising long-ago shows.

"How do you really preserve a part of history, but keep something moving?" he says, almost pleading for understanding. "The only thing we did was clean the air duct. We didn't touch it—we even didn't paint." Well, on one level, you have to hand it to him: They've been working on the Second Avenue subway for decades, but Varvatos has managed to transform a fetid stinkhole of a rock club into a fresh-scrubbed boutique in just a few months.

But just as I'm coming to terms with Rogan and Varvatos, I hear the news that the Hog Pit, a dingy BBQ joint in the meatpacking district with a sign on the door that reads "Our Staff Is Trained to Kill," is closing in January and slated to become just what no neighborhood needs—a Steve Madden shoe store. You remember Madden: He went to jail in 2002 for stock manipulation, which is the kind of detail that might make me like him, at least until now. Will Madden stick a pulled-pork sandwich under glass?

It's not that I don't love stores, especially fancy ones, in any neighborhood. When Soho, a moribund district of decaying cast-iron elephants, was transformed into an art-gallery district and then a home for hundreds of shops, I nearly wept with joy. It was only when Bloomingdale's opened on Broadway, and Chanel ate up Spring Street, and DKNY and Tommy Hilfiger came galumphing in, that I thought: Hey, maybe this isn't so great after all. I even love the big-box stores on Sixth Avenue in Chelsea—the former turn-of-the-century ladies' shopping mile—because 1) they were stores to begin with!, and 2) this neighborhood wasn't exactly bursting with character before Bed Bath and Home Depot arrived. A few cute little stores on Bleecker? No prob. But Bruno Cucinelli? If you want a $1,200 cashmere cardigan, can't you just go to Saks?

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