Monthly Archives: November 2014

Fulton Center Enlivens #SoBeCaLiving

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On Monday of this week, after more than 10 years of talk and the requisite absurd budget overruns, the new downtown Fulton Center opened to the public. I missed opening day while working from the Vox DC office, but stretched out my morning commute today to check out this new public space. I even brought my iPhone to snap some pics.

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Strolling in from Fulton Street, with Calatrava’s soaring wings visible just a few blocks up at the World Trade Center site — a commute that, coming up from the Seaport, I won’t be doing on any kind of regular basis based on the location of the 2-3 lines — the first thought that hit me was: airport!

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It’s like a real nice new shiny airport, with lots of interactive information screens and even bigger wider video screens flashing words like BURBERRY. This isn’t a terrible thing; airports are much nicer places these days than they used to be, and unabashedly upscale advertising sure beats the usual MTA advertising cohort.

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Coming out into the center of the Center, I beheld the oculus, the fancy architectural word for the big circular element above that got bandied about at the time of the Barclays Center opening. (If your large public/private works project doesn’t have an oculus this decade, you’re not even in the game.) To its credit and that of the Fulton Center architect, Grimshaw, it’s a pretty good oculus. I wasn’t the only one standing under it this morning, iPhone arched skywards, bemused cops looking on while randomly deciding which passengers’ bags to search.

Recently, Evan Reeves wrote a behind-the-scenes about the Fulton Center oculus on Curbed NY. He quotes a Grimshaw architect thusly: “Grand Central station is the obvious reference point, but I wouldn’t want to purport a direct comparison.” Smart move… though then the architect goes and compares the oculus’ size to that of the Guggenheim’s spiral. I’d avoid any and all such comparisons. The thing is cool enough in its own right. Once the three stories of stores that are to be nestled behind the oculus and its “sky reflector net” designed by James Carpenter open, there’ll be a new perspective on it which may make the oculus even cooler. It will at any rate be a good excuse to say the word oculus again.

Fellow downtown resident and author Paul Greenberg took the Fulton Center’s opening to merit and entire rethinking of downtown neighborhood nomenclature:

As Greenberg sees it (quite clearly, imho), FiDi is FiDi. The question is what should we rename this revitalized swath above FiDi, adjacent to City Hall and the Seaport. From the best nominees from the Twitter thread, I’m endorsing Jonathan Glick‘s suggestion of SoBeCa. It’s got the right pedigree, and sounds sufficiently obnoxious that it’s sure to piss off everyone who doesn’t live down here. Plus, neighborhoods with Lo- prefixes have a bad track record of catching on.

The new Fulton Center. We’ll see you in SoBeCa soon.

Happy 50th Birthday, Gentrification!

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Until last week, I had no idea that the word gentrification was coined in 1964 by a British sociologist “seeking a word to sum up what she saw happening in the London borough of Islington, where creative young professionals were suddenly re-appraising the neighborhood’s Georgian terraces and intimate squares,” as Steven Thomson wrote in a wonderful essay on the history of gentrification for Curbed. Nor did I know that the stem of the word is “gentry.” In my gentrification ignorance, I was not alone.

So gentrification — the word if not the reality — turns 50 this year, the same year Curbed turns 10. For the past decade, the topic of gentrification has been a big part of the Curbed narrative. That’s because, as Curbed NY’s Hana Alberts writes, the topics of real estate and neighborhood change, Curbed’s raisons d’être, are inexorably intertwined. It’s also because the word gentrification gets used in ways that transcend its literal definition, which I think is well captured in the graffiti in the photo at the top of this post.

In that slightly broader spirit of gentrification discussion, Curbed NY asked a bunch of writers, bloggers, and NYC neighborhood citizens “to share with us one moment in which they knew their home had irrevocably changed. A shop opens; a dive bar closes. An industrial tank gets torn down; a pile of glassy condos launch.” Curbed’s resulting compilation of carnage makes for outstanding reading.

I moved to New York city in August 1996; my first apartment, in the odd cul-de-sac of East 5th Street between Avenues B and C in Alphabet City, was on a run-down block. Two weeks after I moved in, Neil Strauss wrote a story for the New York Times called Life Beyond Avenue A. Strauss wrote, “For many New Yorkers and tourists, Avenue A is a boundary line, east of which they will not cross. Beyond Avenue A, the streets get darker, the commercial offerings more sporadic. Stepping through a brightly lighted doorway could take you into a trendy new bar or a cockfight in progress, a fence may hide a burgeoning community garden or a sprawling garbage dump.” Indeed, the first bistro, Cafe Margaux, had just opened further up on Avenue B; hailing a cab on Avenue C was impossible, as cabs simply didn’t drive there. Less than four years later, the Times returned again, this time with a real estate reporter to tell the new story of the neighborhood: “It is impossible to take a stroll around the avenues and their connecting blocks without encountering concrete being poured, foundations for new structures being sunk, and old town houses and tenements undergoing facelifts.”

Save for one year in the West Village and one year abroad, I lived in the East Village and Lower East Side consecutively from 1996 until 2011. In that era, my answer to Curbed’s question about the moment of irrevocable change would be when the gas stations closed.

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It happened mostly in the 2005-2006 era; perhaps I remember it vividly because I was doing most of the writing on Curbed back then and found myself fascinated with the sudden closings of nearly every gas station below 42nd Street. The Gaseteria at the bottom of Avenue B? Gone. (Now apartments and a bank.) The gas station on the north side of the Houston/Broadway intersection? Gone. (Now that giant sleek Adidas building.) The one on lower Sixth Avenue, between Canal and Houston? Gone. (And only now being developed into apartments, if I recall correctly).

In this same era and area, I’d count the preservation of so many of the community gardens of the East Village as the biggest preservationist win. What would the East Village be without the garden at Avenue B and Sixth, or Avenue C and 10th? And gas stations, well, one wouldn’t think that’d be such a big loss. We’re now a city of Ubers, anyway. Yet it’s what sticks in my mind when I think about the downtown that was, and isn’t any more.

The Eater 38 (Redux)

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The Eater 38 debuted on October 3, 2006, with entry No. 1, Balthazar. Soon after, entry No. 2, Nha Trang, joined it. The feature then sat fallow for the better part of two years despite near-monthly conversations between Ben Leventhal and me about jump-starting it. Finally, we did, and the feature grew into one of Eater’s most beloved. It’s a genuine pleasure every time someone says to me, “I used the Eater 38 when I went to [city] and we had the best meal because of it!”

Yesterday, I arrived at work to an email from Fred Wilson that he’d written an appreciation of the Eater 38 on his blog. I headed over there to give my two cents in the comments, but by the time I arrived — about 10:30am — the post had been live for about four hours and 125 comments had already piled up. Such is the way of the world at AVC.

The first batch of comments and responses were harshly negative. “Ouch, bad news — the Austin list is exactly the list that a clueless, foreigner would make about Austin,” commenter number one offered. Though many others critiqued Eater’s inclusions, other commenters raised fair points concerning things Eater can be clearer about, such as the fact that the 38 list isn’t ranked (in fact, it’s in no particular order).

(As an aside: mad love to the various Eater editors who waded into the fray to correct misconceptions about the 38s, including Eater’s editor-in-chief herself. For good measure, I added some deep background.)

Separate from what one might call The Philosophy of the 38, this comment addressed Eater’s user interface: “I am minimally interested in how good the restaurants are — but the site functionality (mobile+ lists+ maps) is pretty cool.” I appreciate the props, but tend to agree more with this commenter: “I too love Eater 38 but the new UX detracts from its usefulness.”

In the month-plus since Eater’s relaunch, we’ve come to the same conclusion. One initial issue — a map zoom that was just too tight — has already been resolved. Among other improvements, Vox Product is working on a far more robust List view, as well as smoother mobile swiping. I’m reliably informed that the next round of upgrades will be rolling out across all Eater maps next week. Stay tuned.

And now, a final lesson: if at any point in its lifespan you can get your product critiqued by the raucous crowd at AVC, you and your product will be the better for it.

Yours,
Clueless Foreigner

Going Vertical

Last week, Rafat Ali wrote a great blog post titled Why It’s Time for a Vertical Media Collective. He explains:

For all the hype that media loves to shower on itself, vertical media companies, outlets and startups are the invisible middle child that everyone ignores. Even media reporters writing at vertical media outlets ignore it, while using those platforms to talk about the same five BuzzVoxViceQuartz538Gawker & the ilk.

I have written previously about my love for verticals — after all I have built my life in them — and companies and sites I admire that are taking a vertical focus and building long-lasting loyalties way beyond the flavor-of-the-day types.

Verticals, the real ones, are focused on subject matters where professionals build careers in, or enthusiasts spent their lives in being obsessed about. By definition, these are specific niches, but businesses being built on top of these don’t have to be.

As someone who spent a decade building and growing the vertical media stacks of Curbed, Eater, and Racked, I couldn’t agree more. In his post, Rafat rattles off a bunch of vertical media companies that he loves. Here are some of mine, in no particular order: Pando (Sarah Lacy’s Silicon Valley events and media company); Apartment Therapy (Max Ryan’s interiors site); Food52 (Amanda Hesser’s impressive recipe-cum-commerce hub); MediaRedef (Jason Hirschorn’s growing curated email newsletter empire); and Skift (Rafat’s own travel intelligence and events concern).

Each of these sites does what a strong vertical media company should do: deliver an insane depth of knowledge about its world, and, in many cases, creates ways for people who live in the penumbra of that world to meet up in real life and/or transact commerce in a very specialized way (such as with Food52′s Provisions store, which feels like shopping alongside Amanda Hesser herself).

Separate from Rafat’s post, I’ve been thinking about verticalized media as it relates to Vox Media. Despite Rafat lumping Vox in with a bunch of other horizontal media plays at the start of his post, I think one of the core advantages of a model like Vox’s (or Gawker Media’s) as compared to, say, the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, or Mashable, is that our verticals can stay mostly verticalized, whereas more horizontal media companies need to expand their purview significantly in order to increase audience. Refinery 29, one of the leading fashion websites, has been doing this aggressively over the past few years, branching out into food and drink and movies and TV coverage, among numerous other subverticals. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to give a rabid audience more of what they want, and R29 has a pretty good filter for this sort of thing. But I also think a brand like R29 risks losing its authority in its original vertical when the site that was once the best place about one thing becomes yet another site about everything.

An interesting Digiday story that came out this morning about The Verge illustrates this same tension inside Vox Media:

The Verge may have been founded as a competitor to tech sites like CNet and Engadget, but it’s now eyeing newer, bigger targets: lifestyle publishers like Rolling Stone and Vice. Since its launch in 2011, the Vox Media tech site has extended its editorial coverage beyond technology to culture, science and even general news. This has all been in the hopes of building its audience beyond gadget enthusiasts and attracting more lifestyle-oriented advertisers.

In its most recent move, the site hired Grantland culture editor Emily Yoshida to build out the its coverage of movies, television and music. The Verge is also putting the finishing touches on an automotive and transportation section, which will push its coverage boundaries even further.

Listening to Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel explain it, the purview of The Verge isn’t so much “technology” as it is “the future.” Which helps explain the filter The Verge will use to expand its coverage into areas like entertainment and automotive. The risk is that in doing so, The Verge loses touch with the core of what makes it so great — and its fans so passionate about it. Nilay and the team are aware of this risk, and I believe they’ll manage it successfully. (I also could not be more excited about The Verge’s addition of Emily Yoshida to its team; she’s going to kill it.) But it’s a risk worth remembering and revisiting as The Verge grows.

Meantime, Rafat’s planning to assemble a bunch of folks obsessed with vertical media — including me — next month in New York City. He’s calling the undertaking the Verticals Collective, and hey, you know it’s serious because he’s even got a website for it up and running. If any of what I’ve written about here touches a nerve, join us. I expect the conversation will be illuminating — and oh so very vertical.