I don’t suppose I see Rag & Bone’s arrival on Court Street as the ultimate death knell. At least not a louder or more ominous or more definitive death knell than any other high-end retailer that’s popped up around here with bells and bouncers on. First of all, a death knell for what exactly? Death of affordable commercial rents? Yes of course, silly! But that’s been going on for a while. You can eat at super-chain Chipotle a few doors down from Rag & Bone if you’d like. Spend big on the clothes (petite Acid Wash cutoffs for $165), and save big on the food. And after your burrito bowl you can head around the corner to Barneys on Atlantic Ave.—which is no longer the lowly Co-op but an outpost of the original Barneys, because the Co-op was too approachable and low rent, I guess—and spend mightily again on finery by Chloé and Isabel Marant. Barneys happens to sell Rag & Bone too. And enough La Mer creams, serums and potions to permanently infantilize your epidermis.
Is it a death knell for our urban Mayberry, a portentous good-bye to local businesses, just before the neighborhood turns fully and irrevocably into a mega-touristy European shopping destination? Attractive, tan people, in slim-cut pants, milling around with shopping heat-maps, hoovering up knits and leathers on full suction. Perhaps. But really, this is just the most recent incarnation of a rapidly gentrifying, increasingly fancy neighborhood. It’s been getting quite titsy around here for quite a while. The “changes” on Court and Smith might even announce my personal expiration date here—the canary in the coal mine moment when I should pack up my family and move to, I don’t know, Pittsburgh. And not because I don’t love living here. Also, not because I don’t like Rag & Bone. They make many, many excellent things that I’d love to own. I’m not virtuous, or even immune to covetous feelings for luxury goods, just a writer living in a cramped, rented apartment so my kids can attend a solid public school in a solid neighborhood.
I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel about it. Or more precisely, do about it. Besides continue to shop and eat local, which I do. There’s been lots of tough talk from people I know about the J. Crew that is supposed to open on Court Street as well. I’ve stayed mum because what if I promise to protest and behave with moral outrage, and then you see me in there buying stocking stuffers one day? Will I have to lie and say I’m in there defacing heritage American garments with a Sharpie? The point is, I do look around the neighborhood and lament what’s no longer, and I do get the shivers worrying about what this is all going to mean, but then what?
When I read the analyses of neighborhood scholars or sociologists or economists, I get very armed up with opinions. Of course I think I understand the implications of these shifts. Of course I feel the remarkable, staggering wealth rushing into the neighborhood. And of course I dread the Manhattanization and mallification of my environment. Many are left behind and excluded from this tsunami of “progress.” It’s terrifying how quickly rents are rising, and small businesses and working families are getting squeezed/choked/sent elsewhere. Or worse, sent nowhere.
Initially, I wondered if I’d see Rag & Bone Brooklyn (they don’t call it that, but I couldn’t resist—the shameless BROOKLYN at the end of company names must be reaching backlash levels) from my frequent perch in the window at BookCourt Brooklyn. Hands down, my most cherished spot in the neighborhood. They don’t call themselves BookCourt Brooklyn either—they’d never do that of course! See? See what I mean? When naming your new artisanal paperclip company, just ask, WWBCD? What Would BookCourt Do? It’s a nice, solid guide.
Should I feel guilty for never having set foot in the bar that was there before Rag & Bone? Probably. I’m certainly part of that particular problem. But I must admit, before news of a major fashion brand moving in, I’d never been compelled to enter that spot. I actually couldn’t recall the name of the previous business without concentrating. The thing is, by the time I arrived in the neighborhood, that business would already have been considered part of an “old” version of Cobble Hill. Or at least would have belonged to a version of Cobble Hill that was not, if I’m being honest, among the main reasons I’d moved here. Neighborhood nostalgia for businesses I didn’t regularly or ever patronize is unjustified, but not so unusual. If I felt strongly, and selfishly, that the very existence of these businesses contributed in a meaningful way to the milieu I wanted to live in, perhaps I should have given them some of my business. These conflicting allegiances, contradictions and shifting marketplace values are the reason that pricey restaurants like Dover can thrive across the street from behemoths like CVS, which likely put a handful of independent pharmacies out of business a long time ago.
Should I seize this moment of real estate insanity to feel despair that I’ll never have enough cabbage to buy my family a home in the neighborhood we love? I swallow that fact every day, as many of us do, like a Brooklyn fortitude vitamin. At least we’re lucky enough to afford to rent and live in a safe, beautiful part of the city. There’s always my internal back and forth about why I’m willing to live in too small a space with too many financial shortfalls, just to be Here. And irritation that I live in a place where I have to keep pasta and oatmeal in the fridge because the kitchen has no storage? The kitchen also has no kitchen. And most important, is any of this Rag & Bone’s fault?
The surprise, the smirks and wise cracks, the worry for the small businesses struggling to pay the rent, are all typical reactions, but I have no idea why I or anyone else would feel surprise. What’s to be surprised about anymore? Unremarkable single family homes in this neighborhood sell for $3 million. Owning a lovely Rag & Bone sweater isn’t a sin or a crime or even an attack on poor people. I’d like a Rag & Bone sweater. My friend wore one to lunch the other day and I reflexively reached over to feel the pretty white sleeves. Rag & Bone is simply the place holder du jour in our well-meaning conversations about Brooklyn’s unbalanced, blossoming affluence. We have conversations and concerns here with unbroken constancy. We’re exhausting in many ways. Exhaustion Brooklyn.
Sometimes, Brooklyn responds to change by reversing it. Only in Cobble Hill could a Five Guys Burger chain remain as empty as that location always was, and ultimately close its doors, while the organic-meat serving Moo Burger just up the block triumphed, and continues to be a booming, much loved, independent restaurant. With food at least, Brooklyn, for the time being, routinely demands excellence, the small and local, and often as a result, the expensive.
When I walk by the as yet unopened Rag & Bone, I have zero feelings of warmth or particular excitement. And no specific murderous feelings either. I’m certain there will be all kinds of important garments for sale inside once it opens, and I’m certain I’ll pop in and caress them on their hangers from time to time and then exit with a kindly thank you to the sales clerk. And then, if there is a God Brooklyn, I’ll always be able to go across the street to BookCourt, where I can breathe and exercise my own idiosyncratic value judgments. And there I shall spend undisclosed sums that I don’t have on even more books. Books that I actually don’t have any place to put.
This essay originally appeared on South Brooklyn Post on April 24, 2014.