August 19, 2007

The rebirth of Union Square, thanks to some specialization

Twenty or 30 years ago, "you took your life in your hands" going to the park in Manhattan's Union Square, city historian and author Joyce Mendelsohn told the New York Times. It was a magnet for drug use and prostitution; "Any middle-class people who lived in the neighborhood didn't feel comfortable using the park."

And today? "Union Square is becoming a one-stop destination for those who consider themselves health-conscious, eco-friendly and deserving of the kind of spiritual and bodily nurturing that in the past was mainly the province of spa vacations," says the Times in an intriguing neighborhood report, A Harmonic Convergence in Union Square.

This is yet another example of how an urban neighborhood rejuvenated by specializing in something. The area takes advantage of its density and offers a sense of place that attracts outsiders, because it has a critical mass of something that appeals to residents and visitors alike.

"With its high concentration of popular organic food suppliers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, plus gyms (a half-dozen major ones in a 10-block radius), yoga and Pilates studios, alternative health practitioners, spas and other peddlers of vitality, Union Square may be the city’s greenest neighborhood. . . . Over the last six years, there has been a proliferation of spas and other personal care businesses in the area."

People come from neighborhoods across New York to enjoy free yoga in the park, the farmer's market, healthy meals, and fitness classes. The main worry now is that the neighborhood, like so many others in the city, is getting too expensive. "This is a new face of new New York: an upscale, health-conscious district," Rutgers professor Robert Snyder told the Times.

"If the meatpacking district is where you go to party, Union Square is where you detoxify," the Times article notes. "We call it the wheatpacking district," said Lisa Blau, co-founder of the VitalJuiceDaily e-mail newsletter.

Whether it's restaurant row on Waltham's Moody Street or the Leather District in Boston, it's clear that a critical mass of certain types of business carries a much greater revitalizing whallop than a random, unfocused collection of residences and businesses.

In Union Square, it all started with the Greenmarket, the city's largest farmer's market, followed by a restaurant that offered a market-inspired menu. "The Greenmarket was able to fill a vacuum to give Union Square a citywide identity," Mitchell L. Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University, told the Times.


  1. Until I saw the link, I though you were talking about Union Square, Somerville, which has also yuppified since I last hung out there much.

    I wonder how many other Union Squares are out there and what has happened to them in the last 20-30 years.

  2. Yes, good point, thanks. I added "Manhattan" to the first sentence so people know which Union Square the post is talking about. And you're right about Somerville, which has definitely upscaled in parts!

  3. The interesting thing that is happening here in South Norwalk, CT, is the emergence of home stores. There are all sorts of retail and commercial businesses focusing on decoration, furnishing, design, tiles, wood flooring, etc. The town is really becoming known as a destination for high end home goods- that and restaurants. It practically a food court now as all other types of retail have not been able to survive. Not sure the home product specialization is having the same impact as wellness has had as the union square, but maybe. we'll see.