Oh man, this is it. In a year of crisis of sales and closures in New York, the 21st century – the clash with roots in Brooklyn and a flagship store in the Financial District – is the latest to declare bankruptcy and will likely close all its stores, Bloomberg reports this morning. It’s in stark contrast to its insurance carrier for its business interruption payment, and, except for some sort of eleven-hour recovery, it’s a goner. The 21st century is one of the last of the big out-of-price fashion chains in New York, and we can now add its name to the pipe-rack mausoleum it houses. Syms, Loehmann’s, Moe Ginsburg, Daffy, and – in its original pre-glamorous incarnation, when it still had the apostrophe – Barney’s.
These places, and especially the 21st century, were not even secret – they were big companies with big sales footprints – yet they were, curiously, a kind of secret handshake. A particular quality that compels New Yorkers is to know how to experience the city while presenting themselves as a wealthy and elegant person without being rich – to falsify until, or while, doing so. When you start your life here, whether growing up here or moving here as a young adult, learn ways to do that: line up for sales campaigns, take a good look at the Chelsea Flea Market, Going to Orchard Corset for shoulder straps, waiting in line (old New Yorkers never wait in line, only on) for Shakespeare in the Park tickets.
The 21st century is itself a striver. It was started in 1961 by a Syrian American named Sonny Gindi, and the business remains in his family. Under his management, he expanded to 13 stores, including a few outside of New York. The original was – is it – on 86th Street in Bay Ridge, where there is a huge presence in the fabric of the neighborhood (a second store on 87th Street sells well for the home). Before the pandemic, when a train or bus stopped at 86th Street, many people talking about it went straight to the store. Over the weekend, the neighborhood was filled with people walking around with their distinctive 21st-century shopping bags in red and white. Since 86th Street is the transit gateway to Staten Island, shopping leading into the 21st century has often served as the focal point of a day in Brooklyn. Back in the season back to school, you saw rows of people waiting to enter. When a Bay Ridge resident sent an SMS to her daughter today about the closure, she called the store “our closet.”
The downtown Manhattan department store on Cortlandt Street has been adapted for Wall Street customers, with a greater emphasis on designer clothes and more clothing. (The financial aesthetic extended to his physical space, in the former Art Deco East River Savings Bank, where absurd retail accessories were paired a little incongruously with marble floors and giant chandeliers.) Inevitably, Carrie Bradshaw was spotted here. A certain type of dedicated shopper would treat magazines as part of their journey: On the way to the train two or three nights a week, you would take a quick step, stalking the new stuff, watching the racks, deciding whether to jump on. to that Prada blazer at 50 percent off or take a chance on the possibility that the price will drop a hundred bucks by Friday. It also became a huge tourist destination, one where Italians could go and buy Italian fashion for much less than what it would cost them at home, and then bring it to Italy.
Nineteen years ago this week, the Cortlandt Street store – directly in front of the World Trade Center – was destroyed, its windows blown out by the collapse of the towers. During and following weeks, some customers he spoke emotionally about the magazine, as if expressing concern for a friend who lived downtown. (Some of the contents of the store have strangely ended up in an outlet in Lewiston, Maine, where, it always smelled of ash and dust, were sold at a further discount.) When the store reopened the following March, a crowd of people welcomed it again. He had gone through it, and even survived the financial collapse of 2008. This year, however, it is different (largely because those European tourists don’t come), and, at a time of economic hardship he has to deal with. many New Yorkers more eager than ever for a deal will be a real loss.