The Demise of Broadway Farm

by

01/02/2002

Broadway & W 85th St, New York, NY 10024

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

When I first heard the rumor several months ago, it seemed absurd. Someone in my neighborhood said she’d heard that Broadway Farm, the poor man’s Fairway that had been anchoring the southwest corner of 85th street for a decade, was going to shut down to make way for a Victoria’s Secret.

How could this be? I’m as big a supporter of women in sexy bras, underwear, and nightgowns as the next guy, but why would anyone think that the Upper West Side, teeming as it does with yarmulkes and Maclarens, needed a giant outlet for undergarments more than it needed Tribeca Bakery bread, Coltibuono olive oil, Edy’s ice cream, broccoli rabe, nitrite-free turkey breast and Saranac beer?

Months went by and Broadway Farm kept chugging away undiminished, and the rumor faded. The store’s huge selection of beautiful fresh flowers – from lilacs to sunflowers to lilies – remained; the colorful, cheap produce was still piled high both indoors and out; the cheerful guys behind the deli counter still had their endless array of prepared food, meats and cheese; the teeming shelves of beer, spaghetti sauces, and self-declared “Smart” chocolate chip cookies showed no telltale signs of winnowing.

Then sometime in the past week–poof! Like those recently leveled giant gas tanks, the Farm was disappeared. Gutted without a trace of edible life. It looked dingy in its abandonment, as if it had been vacant for years. Passersby stopped and stared like a bomb had gone off and killed one of their friends.

In a way, it had. To combat the faceless, mass aspects of New York, people get into their little routines, stake out their personal turfs, identify themselves by their daily choices: where they get their dry cleaning done, which take-out places they order food from, where they pick up a gallon of milk. Broadway Farm was the kind of comfy, welcoming place that was open late, with enough room to move about the aisles, attractive, clean displays, ample but not harsh lighting; you could walk in tired or drunk or depressed or harried and, by finding what you wanted without any hassle, for a not unreasonable price, you could walk out a little calmer.

Now it is gone. Where is that cute Indian guy who held down the night shift? The cheerful, charming assistant manager/cashier Sondra, who always asked after my daughters? And why are these residential blocks now suddenly ground zero for the kind of luxury goods that should stick to Madison Avenue? There was no one to ask at the Farm except the members of one of those casually-dressed Asian construction crews who seem to have a monopoly on reconfiguring storefronts. And they didn’t speak English.

Of course, turnover and gentrification are nothing new on the Upper West Side. When I moved here from downtown in 1989, it was for purely economic reasons: the apartments were bigger and prices lower, because no one cool wanted to live here. There wasn’t a single decent restaurant; it was a wasteland of run-down crappy coffee shops, generic Chinese restaurants, cramped Korean delis, pizza joints, ancient barber shops, the occasional low-rent bridal boutique and, yes, lingerie shop.

Soon after I arrived, Broadway Farm opened up, and at first it seemed redundant – after all, Zabar’s was only five blocks south, and Fairway just a half-mile away. A giant Gristedes was opening a mere block away under a new high-rise. Surely the west side didn’t need more foodstuffs.

But Broadway Farm had some secret weapons: good taste, service, and speed. The produce was good, the gourmet-ness was smart but not overbearing; if you wanted to buy, say, ingredients for a salad, you could get in and out of there quickly. At Fairway, especially after it expanded, even when there are no lines at the cashiers, before you get back out the door you feel like you’ve run some kind of gauntlet, jostling as many elbows as riding the subway. Zabar’s is even worse; unlike its ritzy east side cousin Eli’s, it has a very west side “I’ll just suffer” attitude about its cramped quarters, in which an ordinary shopping cart feels as unwieldy as a Humvee. Broadway Farm had a limited, choice selection, the produce and baked goods were uniformly excellent, there were always enough cashiers, and people who worked there were actually friendly. I could do most of the shopping I needed to do in a few minutes, and lived close enough that I never had to lug the bags home in a cab.

The Farm portended a new yuppie boomlet for its stretch of Broadway; soon there was a Gap, a multiplex, a Starbucks, Ollie’s and Carmine’s – all things that the tweedy old-timers of the neighborhood rightly scorned as generic, but for the younger ones, they made life a lot more convenient and pleasant. At first I bemoaned the death of the classic Greek diner called the Argo on 90th, until I ate in its replacement, City Diner, which has exactly the same menu and surly Greek waiters, except the food is good, the decor is classy, and the floor and bathrooms are clean. I even came around on big, bad Barnes and Noble swallowing beloved, cramped Shakespeare and Company.

Unfortunately the upgrading didn’t halt with the arrival of nicer Asian restaurants, classy cuisine (Ocean Grill, Avenue), a cool 24-hour café (French Roast), a comfortable, hip bar (Fez), and the inevitable snuffing of the Love Stores by Duane Reade. It kept snowballing, quashing quirky, bargain shops like Kids Are Magic, carrying Broadway’s retail spaces high into the thin air of the leisure class. Suddenly we had Godiva Chocolates, Coach Leather, L’Occitaine (I’m still not sure what that is).

No one I know shops in any of these places; whenever I walk by them, they are as empty as a Christmas shop in July. But they’re 3-D corporate branding billboards that have nothing to do with earning money. They can effortlessly trump the rent mustered by little mom-and-pop joints, and don’t seem to be going anywhere fast.

If someone needs a quick fix of undergarments in our neighborhood, they can be had at the funky old Town Shop and Danskin stores (which don’t seem long for this earth), or, if you MUST have Victoria’s Secret, you can visit its outpost a mere mile south at 1981 Broadway, not to mention its catalogue or website.

Someone I know suggested that the presence of Victoria’s Secret will eventually wear down even uninterested passersby, and they’ll find themselves shopping there. “Oh yeah,” I replied. “I don’t really want eggs for breakfast. What I want is a camisole.”

Now, the devil’s advocates will counter that just four blocks north is a store called Barzini’s, which opened around the same time, and has all the beer you can name, lots of fresh produce, and a deli counter. What am I, lazy? A sentimental sap? Go buy your honeydew and croissant there and stop moaning like one of those cranky old-timers who misses Schrafft’s.

Well, it’s more than the specific functions and functionality of the place. Time marches on in this city, seemingly quicker than in most places, and the neighborhood identity is one of the few ways we slow it down, make it feel a little like middle America. Neighborhoods are only a few blocks long – when people move ten blocks away, they start using totally different stores for services. Broadway Farm was our corner store, and now it’s gone. It’s not just the arugula. Such turnover is just another reminder of how loose our toehold is in anything permanent.

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