Brooklyn's Relentless Changes, As Told By a Single Street Corner
The peppy red-and-white Lululemon Athletica billboards showed up at the construction site in my neighborhood a couple of weeks ago, confirming the rumors that had been percolating for more than a year. It won’t be much longer before a full selection of yoga and running gear, such as the company's $88 "post restorative sweatpant," will go on sale at this location.
The arrival of Lululemon is a fitting apotheosis of gentrification for a corner that has been morphed beyond recognition since I moved to this part of Brooklyn almost 13 years ago. Back then, the storefront in this spot – in a building owned by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, whose subway tracks run underneath the street — was a branch of the Texas-based retailer Rent-A-Center, which offers a “rent to own” option on furniture and electronics to people who can’t afford to pay for them outright. (That company, which has 3,000 outlets around the country, has faced repeated charges of price-gouging over the years, and in 2010 reached a $343,000 settlement with the Washington state attorney general’s office over allegations of harassment and inflated prices).
After Rent-A-Center moved out, the MTA closed up the storefront in cinderblocks, and the building became known locally as "the bunker," winning the sad distinction of being named one of the ugliest structures in New York.
Then, in 2011, the MTA finally sold the thing, and it has been undergoing a total makeover ever since. Now cased in brick and featuring a series of setbacks going up three stories, it will have residential units on the upper floors and, as mentioned before, some pricy workout gear at ground level.
Founded in 1998 in Vancouver, Lululemon isn’t just selling sports bras and crop tops, but also an aspirational lifestyle. In case you’re not familiar with the company’s marketing materials, Lululemon (which recently faced its own mini-scandal over see-through yoga pants) promotes itself with a manifesto of bromides about how to live a better life, printed on bags and posters. For the company’s founder, Chip Wilson, the aspiration thing has worked out great. Wilson is now worth about $2.9 billion.
Here's part of the rags-to-riches story from the company’s website (lower-case styling theirs):
The idea was to have the store be a community hub where people could learn and discuss the physical aspects of healthy living from yoga and diet to running and cycling as well as the mental aspects of living a powerful life of possibilities. …
Although the initial goal was to only have one store, it was soon obvious that to provide a fulfilling life of growth, family, salary and mortgage for our amazing staff, we would have to provide more opportunities. It was really a matter of grow or die because active minds need a challenge.
The training program was such a success that the lululemon people have created a life for themselves that most people could only dream of. lululemon is a company where dreams come to fruition.
Wilson, whose dreams have undeniably borne fruit, has cited Ayn Rand as an influence, and for a time in 2011 the company’s distinctive red-and-white bags featured the opening line from Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s 1957 paean to the free market: “Who is John Galt?” Some customers were not amused.
The aphorisms that scream out at me every time I walk past the Lululemon construction site are more generic than Randian, but I confess I find them annoying nonetheless. "Dance, sing, floss and travel." "Jealousy works the opposite way you want it to." "Stress is related to 99% of all illness." (What’s that 1 percent?) "Friends are more important than money." (But money sure is nice, isn’t it?)
I’m not the only one who’s irritated. Next to the pronouncement "The pursuit of happiness is the source of all unhappiness," someone has scrawled, with a black Sharpie, "False."
The Rent-A-Center that used to occupy this place sold its own brand of aspiration, of course: that company's website leads with the slogan "Everyone’s pre-approved to start buying without credit!" (follow the double asterisks for the fine print on that promise). At least the people buying Lululemon gear probably have the disposable income to spare, as well as a high tolerance for self-righteous affirmations. And Lululemon does have a community philanthropy program in place.
Reaching even further back in time, a commenter on the Brownstoner website linked to a picture of what Smith Street looked like back in the day when streetcars dominated. The Lululemon site was occupied then by a furniture store, doubtless an emporium of that era's middle-class must-haves. The more things change.
I know that worse things can happen to a neighborhood than a Lululemon. Worse things can happen to a neighborhood than gentrification. Still, Lululemon’s arrival here feels like it's heralding yet another new era of loss in a city where income inequality is rampant and even "affordable housing" is often unaffordable. If it weren't for the huge public housing complex just a block to the east, this neighborhood would likely soon be completely gutted of anything even resembling economic or racial diversity – the very kind of texture that has drawn so many people to this part of Brooklyn in favor of Manhattan.
The Lululemon manifesto counsels you to "Breathe deeply and appreciate the moment. Living in the moment could be the meaning of life." When I pass that sign each day, I find myself holding my breath, and wondering what will happen when this moment turns into the next.