The newest Manhattan branch of Whole Foods opened today on a block of the Bowery that straddles Nolita and the Lower East Side, and it's being hailed, predictably, as the second coming by ecstatic bloggers and the local press. It's hard to fault a store that loves small farmers, its employees, the environment, animals, and all mankind—a store where you can find voluptuous organic produce, seductive artisanal meats and cheeses, fragrant small-batch coffees, plus a french-fry station, a gelato stand, and a conveyor-belt sushi bar, all in one place. Whole Foods is, in many ways, the consummate food-lover's fantasy. But I can't help feeling about it the way Jennifer Aniston must feel about Angelina Jolie.
For one thing, Whole Foods stores are a little too gorgeous, a little too smooth—and are they really as virtuous as they claim to be? For another thing, they're just too damn big. When I stare at this new 72,000-square-foot giant, all I see is an equally giant R.I.P. tombstone looming over the neighborhood as we know it. Over the past decade, as this formerly scruffy piece of Manhattan east of Broadway and south of Houston transformed itself into a hipster ghetto, it's managed to retain its own oddball character—thanks mostly to all the small, jaunty, one-off shops and restaurants, many of them with highly dubious business models and short shelf lives. This is one of the few parts of town where you can open a shop selling only Japanese-made bean bags (Mogu miraculously lasted more than a year on Elizabeth Street), or a preposterous space-age rice pudding emporium (amazingly, still alive and well).
It's not that Whole Foods introduces gentrification to these parts; this area is already wildly gentrified, albeit in its own quirky way. But the store does usher in a new era here, one of competent management, manifest-destiny real estate, astonishingly fast-moving lines, and cheerful customer service. It's a worrisome trend. Any second now, mobs of smug yoga-bots from the new Equinox gym on Crosby Street will start streaming over to Whole Foods for their post-workout Laboratorio del Gelato fix. Full disclosure: I live in the neighborhood, I've surrendered to the Equinox membership drive, and in a matter of hours, you'll probably find me in the Whole Foods express lane clutching a bottle of Kombucha. Help.