Rejoice. That was the first verb in a New York Post story published only half a year after September 11, about the reopening of Century 21, the Manhattan flagship of a scruffy department store selling discounted clothes at the corner of Cortlandt Street and Lower Broadway, opposite Ground Zero. A generation later, the former site of the World Trade Center is still being rebuilt. A three-theater performing arts center is currently a lattice of structural steel under cranes. One World Trade Center, the 2014 skyscraper once known as the Freedom Tower, is starting to pass the test of time, thanks to its urbane obelisk taper, its shimmery foursquare base whose footprint almost equals those of the Twin Towers, and the single profound decision to place its parapet at exactly their height. Much of the rest is anticlimax. The redevelopment masterplan was composed by its architect in such a way that it only would have worked as art—if at all—if every building were also designed by him. Maybe he hoped they would be. Instead, a sturdy line-up of blue-chip firms came and did capable but undistinguished work—bulky buildings rendered ponderous by an insurance-driven imperative to replace all the lost office space. From the gritty to the glorious, Manhattan is capable of robust anomalies: Rockefeller Center; the Grand Central Terminal and former Pan Am Building complex; the Port Authority Bus Station megastructure and its soaring overpasses to the west; and of course the original 1970 World Trade Center complex itself, a sublime and simple and subtle design by Minoru Yamasaki. In another timeline, Ground Zero would have become another such place.
Still, something about Manhattan’s deep downtown, the so-called Financial District all the way down toward the Battery, reveals a soul of the city—even if it is not a soul you want the city to have. For me, this soul has something to do with the acute juxtaposition of the super-sized civic—the looming courthouses and departments assembled around dainty City Hall—and the monumentally mercantile—Wall Street itself, with its trading floor still behind its neoclassical temple front; all those brokerages and banks lining a street that at its western end terminates in a church tower. The whole area is dead at night, save for the bodegas. It feels at once grubby and sterile, not really made for walking around. There are still venerable topographies and traces and congregations and burial grounds down there, incongruous among the skyscrapers, dating even to indigenous history. There’s Fraunces Tavern, or at least a 1904 pastiche that may incorporate something of the 1719 original where George Washington slept. But I struggle to detect the ancient and ancestral. I sense only the hum of these two would-be mighty engines, the machines of urban governance and global finance. Plus, somewhere over to the east, the hokey and spooky and residually 1970s fern-bar-festival marketplace of South Street Seaport.
Although the first Century 21 store dates to 1961 Bay Ridge, the flagship location has anchored the streetscape of the west side of the Financial District for a long time, within a stately block-long Art Deco building between Dey and Cortlandt Streets, plus the base of a later skyscraper behind. The building was first built for the East River Savings Bank between 1931 and 1934, designed by architects Walker & Gillette, authors of the iconic 1927 “Superman Building” Industrial Trust Tower in Providence, Rhode Island, and the Fuller Building, a 1929 midtown skyscraper that’s almost as good as the Chrysler Building. A sign outside the former bank used to say New York’s Best Kept Secret, which was untrue. Century 21 has long been full of striving New Yorkers and international tourists heavily laden with steeply discounted and weird yet still fancy-seeming clothes.
Now Century 21 is closing. This comes as no surprise. Urban department stores are always closing. Like the dead suburban shopping malls into which their history is woven, they offer a way of acquiring consumer goods and clothes that, between Amazon and Walmart, screen and car—and especially during the pandemic—no longer has much to do with how Americans live. Just south of the Cortlandt Street flagship, on the ground floor of a dark Miesian skyscraper, is one of those uncanny Amazon storefronts that have been reverse-engineered out of the internet. Just west, on Broadway, there’s an H&M, and an Eataly—a so-called food hall of the kind that tries to counter the efficiency of online shopping with stimulatingly immersive sensory experiences, and ersatz decor vaguely evoking a Parisian or Milanese arcade. With the increasing unfashionability and ever-more-visible anti-sustainability of so-called fast fashion; and with the growth of cloud kitchens and deliverable produce, these stores seem unlikely to last. But for now, they are the pedestrian-level phenomena to be found in the bland and glassy new skyscrapers that eventually replaced the Twin Towers.
The legacy department stores of New York City—Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Saks—were founded for the most part in the previous gilded age around the turn of the 20th century. Now, they always seem to be caught in the network logic of their own chains, as their own real estate becomes more valuable than anything else they might offer shareholders and investors; and as they get conscripted into venture capital, bankruptcy becomes an algorithmically appealing optimum. Commercial retail can no longer be the default development answer for why people should want to fill the streets below towers. Century 21’s insurance didn’t cover the long closures of the city’s pandemic lockdowns to date, and now everything must go.
Because there is nowhere to go in Manhattan, you just go out, and you sort of keep moving. The island is not generally a place of piazzas and embankments, of public outdoor places that invite ingathering; but a platform of avenues that lead only to the horizon and streets that it takes determination to occupy with a public body. That’s why stoops are so important. Washington Square Park, one of the very few places to have been community organized and collectively designed, in 1970, to occasion just that sort of conversation-pit public assembly and happening, was destroyed in 2008 by a primly faux-19th-century pastiche of a renovation. Even glorious Central Park, in its Victorian way, is really also pretty much a bunch of pathways and carriage roads that hustle you along between picturesque views, whose built-in and rather pushy virtue was in parading and promenading, not so much loafing on the leaves of grass.
The term third place, coined by the sociologist Ray Oldenburg, refers to urban spaces that are neither home nor work, where without much too much cost or constraint you can linger and encounter friends and strangers: sidewalk cafés, or barber shops, or union halls, or handball courts, or even far more improvised and incidental venues for assembly. A third place is often an indoor-outdoor space, or in wintry cities an indoors large or labyrinthine enough to feel like an outdoors. The department store, whose advent over the 19th century corresponded to that of an urban middle class, afforded women of that class especially a site of public liberty and sociability, under the premise of shopping. Oldenburg suggested that such places were a basis of civil society. Some cities have a lot of third places, but relative to its density and population, Manhattan—especially post-1940s peak automat-and-diner, pre-1990s peak Starbucks-and-Barnes-&-Noble—has historically been a third-place desert. It goes without saying that this is the kind of place that the requirements of pandemic lockdowns have necessarily erased.
In 2011, and sometimes afterwards, there was just one walk in Manhattan that I took. I did not vary the routine. I benefited inadvertently from how the repetition revealed subtle variations in weather and light—tiny anomalies that recovered my conscious attention back into the material, spatial, physical world. The long plunge south took me down Broadway to the Canyon of Heroes—Lower Broadway past the Woolworth Building, past Radio Row and a Pain Quotidien, and then two right turns, to go back north along the West Side Highway along the river. I realized later that I was retracing the first walk that I took downtown after September 11, as far as Cortlandt Street and Lower Broadway—on one side the pile of wreckage and on the other, the dusty but uncannily implacable-looking Century 21. At some point, I started to swerve into another walk-within-a-walk inside the department store itself. I didn’t consciously shop for anything, but I walked around the store. I learned later that the mere contemplation or observation of retail purchases triggers one’s nervous and adrenal systems to manufacture dopamine, which can ameliorate the physiological consequences of distress. There were surprisingly few mirrors in Century 21: two old mirrored walls by the west entrance, a small three-way tucked into an aedicule off the southern end of the mezzanine, some three-quarter-length glasses against columns and pilasters. But I would be glad somehow, as I headed out and back uptown, to briefly catch myself in one.
Having walked through Century 21 over and over again, I unintentionally carry an intricate and now useless mental map, a memory palace, of where everything was displayed, both before and after a 2015 renovation. In that renovation, sunglasses moved from the southeast corner of the back of the ground floor to the northeast wall. The cryptic category known as Famous European Designer moved the other way, north to south. Men’s suits always ringed the high mezzanine cantilevered around that forty-foot-high main chamber, although the more fashion-forward suits formerly at the northwest corner moved down to the southern half of the ground floor. I cannot remember the names of my friends’ children but I can remember all of this. That mental map extends to the 2011 Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park, only a block south on Broadway from Century 21. I used to tag along with an enthusiastic friend who liked to visit the camp late into the evening, before his last commuter train took him safely home. When the sublimity and eerie midway melancholy of Occupy became too much for me, I would leave my friend and detour through the department store, open very late and at those hours often all but empty. I would walk through the bright fluorescent hush of Century 21 and run my hands across the soft and crisp textures of the clean and unworn clothes.
In such moments, it was possible to conceive of Century 21 as an anticapitalist, or at least trans-capitalist, endeavor. The big number on its printed receipts corresponded not to how much you had spent but how much, purportedly, you had saved thanks to the discounts. Spending was saving. You saved $874.60, the receipt would say, with inscrutable precision, when you bought a scarf for sixty bucks. Sometimes clothes were spatially arranged to reflect an additional incremental percentage to be taken off their ticketed prices. Sometimes the price tag would have its own additional tags and stickers in orange and red, lowering and lowering the price as if in some Dutch auction. Sometimes you could see where someone had fingernailed away the successive stickers to confirm the original discounted price, in the service of some private calculation or intimate feeling. In this peeling, there was some kind of retracing of the chain of events in capital and carbon that had accumulated into the original prices: cost of material extraction, cost of the labor of manufacture, cost of shipping, cost of marketing—plus obsolete speculation about what the market would bear on top of that. Under these conditions, familiar ideas—of the binding exchanges of purchase superseding other bonds, of price as a measure of value, of possession itself—all became strange. In a 2003 episode of Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw has a pivotal conversation on her flip phone with her boyfriend Mr. Big, while simultaneously picking up, “the most unbelievable Ana Molinari dress and a Dolce kimono” at Century 21. The phone call takes a turn. “With an armful of discount clothing,” Carrie concludes in voiceover, “I realized I could no longer discount my feelings.”
I can’t stand elegies about places that are gone from Manhattan. I get fretful when I hear the phrase Old New York. In any other American city, I thrill to the peculiar manufactory, the old customs house, the haunted tavern. On visits to Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia, I have raced around to take in the old places, great and small. But not in Manhattan, where performative and token reverence for a select few privileged buildings, whether here or gone, too often serves as a license for demolition of all others. I can’t bear recollections of good old Pennsylvania Station and Chumleys and the Waldorf Astoria, even as I know that their excellence was genuine and their memory is to be treasured. The brilliant heart of Rem Koolhaas’s 1978 book Delirious New York was its elegy to the Waldorf, the hotel that was demolished to build the Empire State Building. It was a tribute to a certain kind of America that existed in a certain kind of late-mid-century European imagination: big, fast, high, luminous, libertine, technocratic, efficient, crass, overwhelming yet decodable, sexy. Everything Koolhaas wrote about that hotel was unprovable but irrefutable. Nothing could be disproved about the city that was already lost.
For all that Koolhaas professed to love about the old hotel, I suspect that in a brutal, paradoxical, and trickster-god way, he also loved that it was gone—consumed by that singular skyscraper that stands for New York City, even for all of America in a global imagination, such that his tribute to the Empire State Building’s precursor could also tacitly assail that icon. And also encourage the replacement of one building by another on which architects still depend. In New York City, any longing for aesthetic evidence of the deep past can be easily suppressed. There is rather less of the past here than in most places east of the Mississippi, thanks to three Great Fires in 1776, 1835, and 1845; to the unsentimental non-restorations that followed; and to a high rate of architectural replacement on an island of some two million people living and working on twenty-three square miles. Considered at continental scale, as a singular mega-artifact where a river meets an ocean, Manhattan is one of the glories of human invention. But considered at human scale, block by block, the general quality of Manhattan architecture, whether new or old, relative to that in other American cities, is low. Here, we’re not as good at design as we should be.
Unease with elegy is defense against grief. But for me, in Manhattan, I think it mostly has to do with money. Within me, I discover that some internalized developer just tabulates the prices of places: the cost of the land and the air above it, and of its renting and letting. And this information makes me impatient and restless and situationally blind to the picturesque. The means and rewards of the mercantile, the forces of ruthless luxuriance, sexy efficiency, and crass calculatedness that Koolhaas professed to love in the old Waldorf, were the very same forces that caused its demise, and that even now are causing the Empire State Building itself to be lost—visually crowded out of the midtown skyline. I sense Manhattan as a board for the speed chess that they still play in Washington Square Park, and although I don’t admire this about myself, I am unable to hear too much about the design of some piece that has been taken off the board—I just want to hear about the moves themselves, the changing pattern of the pieces in play. Maybe it was so, for the private developers and developer architects of Manhattan’s buildings, both here and gone. And maybe this is why so many of those buildings just aren’t very good.
I can’t help but wonder if this feeling makes more comprehensible what many New Yorkers see as an original sin of Donald Trump: his 1980 destruction of the 1929 Bonwit Teller department store building in order to build Trump Tower. Not so much for the fact of that department store’s closing forever—for close forever, now as then, is what department stores do—but for its manner. He promised that he would donate to the Metropolitan Museum Bonwit Teller’s beloved facade statuary—the work of Grand Central Terminal architects Warren and Wetmore. This was a civic gesture appropriate to the remarkable concessions and rebates the city had given his father’s company, just to see a new shiny skyscraper go up in midtown, not too long after the city’s 1970s financial humiliations. Instead, before more official preservation could be ensured, the sculptures were jackhammered into oblivion. Posing as his imaginary spokesman John Baron, Trump lied to the press that the artworks had been independently appraised as worthless.
I wonder, too, if this feeling makes more comprehensible the placelessness and listlessness to be found in much of the Hudson Yards development, in much of the new World Trade Center redevelopment, and even in much of the new glassy megablocks of Long Island City, Queens. These artifacts and effects may be better understood less as failed efforts at humanism and urbanism, than as a kind of collateral damage to cities factored into calculations generating the financial products whose derivation requires urban ground and sky—exactly and only as good as they need to be, as a matter of design, to serve the markets in which those products dwell.
What is this feeling? It is some kind of wised-up wistfulness that risks curdling into ruthlessness and bathos. At the very end of 2002’s Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese’s ponderous Cinecittá treatment of 1840s social drama, the film suddenly tries for an otherwise unearned pathos and sense of dénouement with computer-generated time-lapse footage that shows a century and a half of development in the Manhattan skyline in less than a minute. It was probably a sublimated post–September 11 fantasy of swift reconstruction. Sometimes I feel that all I want to watch is not that movie as it was, but hours of that last minute—the city only as a computationally generated imaginary, as a synaptically speeding self-making-and-unmaking matrix. “For those of us what lived and died in them furious days,” says Leonardo DiCaprio in the voiceover, “it was as if everything we knew were swept away.” But Leo, I think restlessly at the screen, the daily furiousness and the sweeping away are the same thing. When a closing store tells you that everything must go, it is telling you not only that it is going away, but also the opposite: that everything else, around it and after it, by duty or by necessity, must keep going. It is telling you that the clocks don’t stop just because you lose the one you love.
I like to think of myself as cosmopolitan, but I believe that Century 21 educated me as no other place in New York City ever has. I learned there about people by seeing them try on clothes. Until the 2015 renovation, there were no changing rooms that I knew of, and so the private was public. I never saw anyone undress, save the occasional athletic man eager for an excuse to take off his shirt. But I saw a lot of people dress—new clothes worn speculatively over old. Strangers tended to gather around the scarce mirrors. Through some kind of collective intelligence, the interesting articles of clothing would similarly be gathered—not returned by their triers-on to their original locations but rehung near those mirrors. Century 21 taught me something about whiteness, about blackness, about different kinds of queerness, about so many alterities. There is something about trying on a leather jacket still warm from a body so very different from your own. I remember outer-borough accents that made me feel like I was traveling in time. I remember observant Jewish families, the moms in glossy wigs, the dads with tzitzit, piling up wheeled carts with white shirts and black suits. Some mixed-up part of me had thought such clothes came from some singular and inaccessible source, some Holy of Holies. But those clothes, at least, came from Century 21.
If the people at Century 21 taught me something about the city, I feel that the ambient music at Century 21 taught me something about the country. It was wandering around Century 21 that I first heard Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, The Weeknd. Mariah Carey at Christmastime. This is what people listen to at a barbeque, I would postulate. This is what people listen to at the club. This is what people listen to in their cars.
Though also American, I spent the better half of my childhood in another country that still feels like home, and my parents grew up in still other countries. We experienced immigrant confusion and isolation, without the consolations of zeal. When we arrived in Boston, my mother, though she had lived briefly in midtown Manhattan in the 1970s, seemed confounded by how and where to shop. Everything was too big and too clean, I think—it didn’t map onto the newsagents and greengrocers and dressmakers and butchers of her own provincial childhood. I remember once, with me in tow, she found her way to Filenes, Boston’s analogue to the Macy’s at Herald Square. Upstairs, the store was sterile and gleaming and prim in some weirdly Bostonian combination of the Puritan and mercantile. But the basement—the original of the eponymous discount department store chain—was something else. It was this weird katabasic shitshow of factory seconds and outdated fashions and damaged goods, with clothes like rags piled rummage-ready on wooden tables. My mother, rational and irrational saver of glass jars and waterer-down of juice, exhaled in relief at the approachability of all those rough edges and the thrill of the hunt.
Century 21 used to be more like that—a little dire and disorderly. I think this is what drew me into it. Then, in that 2015 renovation, they invested tremendous resources of artifice and capital into fancy renovations of the flagship: incongruous details of brushed brass inset in terrazzo, artistic arrays of flatscreen monitors worthy of an airport terminal, a random stairwell lined in grey Venetian plaster; and later, a would-be millennial-friendly gallery of arched tinted mirrors and pale unfinished wood and bits of neon. As an architect, I appreciated this apparent faith in piecemeal transformations of the built environment—even if the results were curious. I associate this investment with the visible cherishing, at Century 21, of the word Designer. As an adjective in the store’s signage, it distinguished the good stuff from the dadwear. The designer sunglasses were in locked glass cases—you could try on some Ray Bans from their spinning racks, but for the Tom Fords you had to find someone with a key. In the realm of menswear, the adjective designer covered a range of sins—from weird gothic cowls to sub-sprezzy Italian blazers. Most of the Famous European Designers were not actually famous, at least to me. People don’t much love the word architecture, unless it’s recoded as information architecture or back-formed into the cant verb to architect. But people do like the word design. Maybe for that reason, some stylists, and some cultish would-be universal systematizers of their own personal tastes, and those willfully or unwittingly bamboozled thereby, desire you to imagine that they are undertaking design; and desire you to imagine that design entails some special cognitive mode somewhere between authoritative mysticism and bro-topian semi-artificial intelligence. But design is a poor adjective, though a rich noun. Designer feels a little suspect as a noun, but as an adjective—Century 21 and I agree—it’s charming.
The Famous European Designer clothes were always strange: ten thousand awful boxy blue peacoats and one exquisite satin cape suitable for Cosimo de Medici, though not for me. Still, being at Century 21 would sometimes give me a bright-lights-big-city feeling that somewhere in there, something otherwise unattainable would be just within reach. Only once, I found something that rewarded that feeling. Like Carrie’s kimono, it was by Dolce: a pearlescent navy blue jacket that, unlike standard suiting, had no lining and no padding. Nothing hidden. Only the design of its pattern gave it structure and strength—just geometry in service of a body moving through space. It was as light as a feather. It was delicate but razor-sharp. It was, even at its asserted discount, expensive. It was machine-made and corporately-branded, and yet because it was Italian and had spalla manica a camicia, I could decide to see in it a vision of a season on the Amalfi Coast and the notion of someone’s private bespoke tailor in Napoli. I put it on and it fit right and I looked in the mirror and thought: I could be that man. Or rather, I thought, I could look like who I believe myself to be, if I bought this. This is fashion. This is commerce. But also this thing felt so good. I realized I could no longer discount my feelings. I put it back on the rack. I walked away. The next day I came back and it was still there. Reader, I bought it. The cashier gave it an appraising look. “This,” she said, “is good.” I wore that jacket and I wore that jacket and I wore that jacket. In the years since, it’s become the only piece of clothing I’ve ever fully worn out—the warp and weft of its fabric fraying irreparably in places, beyond darning or patching. I try to embrace the brokenness and the wabi-sabi and I keep on wearing it. I imagine that someday I will understand how to repair it.
Maybe the single item that I appreciate the most in all of Manhattan’s streetscapes is the circa 1988 illuminated sign that attaches to Century 21’s northwest corner. There is something touching about seeing such antiquated technology—it’s just an array of proto-diodes in a kind of black shadow box, more like a temporary traffic sign than the sleek luminous displays of Times Square. What I love is that this sign shows not only the name of the store, but also the time and temperature. There is some vision of civic duty in this mere department store giving you this information. Or at least I like to see it this way. I wonder if this sign delivers these two helpful data points because it was originally the sign of the bank that was there before, and it seems that banks used to do this, for a touch of gravitas or civitas. Bank branches are, or were, secular chapels of a kind: think of the cathedral of commerce that is the ground floor of Brooklyn’s Williamsburgh Bank Tower, or of the hushed solemnity—you’ve seen it in an old movie just before the heist starts—of teller windows and bank books and pens on silver chains. Despite the incongruous shambles of racks and clothes, the main Century 21 shopping floor was just such a place: a barrel-vaulted basilica with a marble floor and mahogany paneling and a railway-station-worthy clock and a grand imperial staircase and dual cylindrical chandeliers in bronze.
Recently I took the same walk I used to, down Broadway, this time to the close-out sale. I wanted to see the store for the last time at the same time as knowing that I was seeing it for the last time. I always imagined that the clothes in Century 21 came from close-out sales of other department stores. So this sale felt like some kind of ouroboros, like a Century 22. (In actuality, if clothes are damaged or unsold at a discount store, their final destination is a salvage store—like Marden’s Surplus & Salvage in Lewiston, Maine, to which Century 21 sent the clothes, reportedly still smelling of smoke, that had been in stock on September 11.) At the close-out sale, there was nothing good. The place was picked clean. Half the ground floor featured all the chrome racks and shelves from the floors above, all for sale. Outside, someone had diligently painted blue lines six feet apart on the sidewalk, for people to line up on at the epidemiologically social distance. Everyone ignored the lines and bunched up. The older man in front of me took off his papery pandemic mask and ran his hand wearily and luxuriantly across his face, from his chin, up over his head, back down to the nape of his neck. C’mon, I thought at him, don’t touch your face. Inside, the standard precaution of one-way circulation was indifferently enforced. There was a beautifully dressed couple all in black, she with ponytail and mukluks, he in a jumpsuit. They were probably architects. There were hipsters speaking foreign languages. Big paper signs said: Store Closing; Going Out of Business; Everything Must Go.