When Target opened its Alphabet City location the week before last, it did more than just add another link in the chain of stores now spreading across New York. For its grand opening, Target created a one-day “brand activation,” a tableau vivant that simulated the life of the city street — the very life that is under threat from overdevelopment and corporatization.
I’d heard about the event on the morning of July 21 from the blogger E.V. Grieve, who tweeted that Target had constructed an “homage to CBGB.” When I arrived on the corner of Avenue A and 14th Street that afternoon to check it out, I found a far more astonishing spectacle. Target hadn’t just built a faux-CBGB storefront, renamed “TRGT” to evoke the famed punk club; it had built an entire Potemkin East Village.
The Hollywood-set fantasy included a life-size backdrop of tenements photo-printed on vinyl sheets; a fake stoop on which a hip-hop dancer wore a Target bandanna tied around his thigh; red Target-branded buckets for imitating bucket-drumming sidewalk buskers; and a red newspaper kiosk that looked a lot like the ones that used to carry the Village Voice. Inside the store, painted on an East Village–themed mural above the cash registers, were the words “NYC Nuyoricans” and “Poets Café.”
As neighborhood appropriation goes, creating a crass and cynical simulation of the local New York streetscape is bad enough. But worse yet, it’s this very ecosystem that is being erased, block by block, by the presence of chain stores like Target — as well as by big developers like its landlord, Extell, which has named the new luxury building in which Target sits “EVGB,” a riff on CBGB that is supposed to stand for “East Village’s Greatest Building.”
Many people welcome these changes. The sidewalk that day was mobbed. Under the watch of three private security guards and an NYPD officer, people posed for selfies and lined up for free promotional trinkets like keychains and sunglasses. No one seemed troubled by the advertainment; instead, they were advertained. I spotted one person who seemed to be observing more than participating, and I asked what she thought. “I think it’s wonderful,” she said, with a thrill in her voice. I felt out of place, alienated in my own neighborhood.
I reached out to Chris Stein of the band Blondie, who got their start at CBGB and helped make the club a household name. He said of Target’s marketing stunt, “It’s grotesque on the level that it’s an attraction that will seduce people. It’s a false god. And it’s the antithesis of what the club stood for — freedom and individuality. Target is just mass sheep appeal. It is massive conformity.”
Target’s opening celebration may have been tone-deaf — the company later issued a non-apology apology — but it was neither an anomaly nor a mistake. It is part of the larger process of hyper-gentrification, the state-sponsored class takeover of urban neighborhoods in our era of late-stage capitalism. Gentrification long ago stopped being the small-scale, sporadic process it was when first observed in the late 1960s and ’70s. By the 1980s, it had become official policy for making New York friendly to big business, tourism, real estate developers, and upscale professionals. That top-down process has since grown exponentially, glutting the city with luxury developments and chain stores that homogenize the streets and rob New York of its character and variety, as well as its affordability.
In this less open, more boring cityscape, the corporate chains often present themselves as friendly and fun. It is part of the Disneyfication of the city, the creation of what architect Michael Sorkin, in his book Variations on a Theme Park, called “a city of simulations.” This is “urban renewal with a sinister twist, an architecture of deception which, in its happy-face familiarity, constantly distances itself from the most fundamental realities.”
Globalized capital aims to distance us from reality, and from community, in order to destabilize us, and to lower our self-esteem. We consume more, studies have shown, when we feel insecure. In their work on terror management and mortality salience (the awareness that one will die), marketing researchers Naomi Mandel and Dirk Smeesters noted that the terrorist attacks of 9-11, as well as natural disasters, increased death-related thoughts for many people, and one way of coping with those thoughts is through excessive consumerism. In their research, they found that individuals with low self-esteem, especially, engage in overconsumption in order to escape self-awareness. (And we know that advertising often lowers self-esteem. As Christopher Lasch wrote in The Culture of Narcissism, “modern advertising seeks to promote not so much self-indulgence as self-doubt. It seeks to create needs, not to fulfill them; to generate new anxieties instead of allaying old ones.”)
Our urban neighborhoods, too, have destabilized. New York is always changing, of course, but for much of its history it also possessed a certain equilibrium. Today, in hyper-gentrified parts of town, your neighbors come and go, many not sticking around for more than a year. Businesses come and go rapidly, too, without long leases and affordable rents to give them stability. More and more, storefronts fill with pop-up shops, creating a “here today, gone tomorrow” city of whiplash changeability.
Almost all the actual elements of New York that were featured in Target’s pop-up village have vanished or are in danger of vanishing. Their Disney-style depiction traffics in a nostalgia that many New Yorkers feel for lost neighborhoods that once offered what Jane Jacobs famously called “the sidewalk ballet,” the lively variety of the local, human-sized city. What was most objectionable in Target’s imitation of life was that it capitalized on the very experience it is replacing.
Target is not alone. It is only the latest actor in the co-optation and commodification of the city’s obliterated history:
Often, these marketing stunts trigger a backlash. After the South Bronx real estate party, local social media exploded in outrage. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito demanded an apology and tweeted, “Lack of empathy & basic awareness are signs of an ailing society. Who thought ‘Bronx is Burning’ theme a good idea?” The outcry against Summerhill was also swift and fierce, with neighborhood residents gathering outside in protest of what they saw as a gentrifying white business owner profiting from the pain of the community and commodifying blackness, a trend that American University public affairs professor Derek S. Hyra, in his book Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City, calls “black branding.” At the opening of the John Varvatos boutique, anti-gentrification activists protested what they called the “co-opting of culture to sell overpriced luxury goods.” They held signs that read “$800 Pants Kill Music in NYC” and “40-40-40,000 Dollars a Month, We’re Gonna Be Evicted!”
But the backlash doesn’t last, and more often than not, the offending business goes on to success. The luxury developers in the South Bronx and Long Island City will probably find takers for their units. DBGB enjoyed eight years of selling $12 hot dogs. People are dining at Summerhill and Legacy Records. They are shopping at the Varvatos store, admiring the preserved CBGB walls. So far, Target appears to be doing just fine on Avenue A. In fact, it’s opening another Lower East Side outpost in the Essex Crossing mega-development, in a building called The Rollins, named for jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who once lived in a now-demolished tenement on the site. As the Times pointed out, rents at The Rollins “will be among the highest in the neighborhood,” with concierge service, a pet spa, a shuffleboard table, a private gym, and rooftop barbecue grills.
What the colonizers desire and replicate is gritty New York without the grit. Punk and jazz and poetry without the enlivening shock of unpredictability. It’s a neat trick that works in part because we are starving for reality and a connection to history. Homesick for our lost city, we can be easily seduced by imitations of life.
At Target’s grand-opening event, it wasn’t the pseudo-CBGB that really got to me. I keep thinking about that fake stoop. The stoop, so utterly urban, normally brings the inside out; facing the street, it engages residents with the sidewalk ballet. But in today’s homogenized city, the new developments turn away from the street, like suburban developments often do, shielding their residents inside controlled private spaces that reject the communality and chaos of city life. Target’s fake stoop haunts me as a ghost of the unreal, an empty representation recalling a reality that is slipping away. As urbanist M. Christine Boyer has written, in her essay “Cities for Sale,” “these tableaux are the true nonplaces, hollowed out urban remnants, without connection to the rest of the city or the past, waiting to be filled with contemporary fantasies, colonized by wishful projections, and turned into spectacles of consumption.”
A haunted feeling is part of the package in today’s commodified cities. Hyper-gentrification is a horror movie mash-up. An invasion of the body snatchers, it zombifies what went before. It kills and then reanimates its victims, sanitized and tamed, to sell itself and expand into further territory, all while working to convince us that it has the best intentions and means no harm. It just wants to be part of the community. Part of the family. One of us, one of us. Like a vampire at the door it asks, with a seductive smile: Won’t we please let it in?