Scenes from the Fulton Mall


Although business at the Fulton Mall is booming, the mostly discounted clothing, jewelry, and electronics shops don’t cater to the surrounding neighborhoods. But that seems to be changing. Coming soon to Brooklyn’s famous outdoor shopping area are H&M, Shake Shack, a Syms/Filene’s Basement, and maybe even an Apple Store, and one can only presume more and more like that will follow.

Isaac Chera, from one of the few families that owns all the properties in Fulton Mall, recently said he foresees Fulton Mall becoming a hybrid of 34th street and Times Square.

Well, that sounds terrible. I will most likely buy so many $3 made-in-China earrings at that new H&M that I’ll regularly discover new pairs I’d forgotten about in my pockets. But I also feel a bit protective of this enclave of ghetto fabulous bargains amidst the tumbleweaves, because, to paraphrase Biz Markie, my house is near the Albee Square Mall, and I’ve been here long enough to remember the legendary hip hop record emporium Beat Street, and to have seen Pretty Girl, Strawberry, Bakers, and Conway (with optional ‘s) and others do-si-do from one location to another within the mall.

(Note that the Albee Square Mall, an enclosed shopping mall within the Fulton Street shopping district, has been demolished to make way for the City Point retail and residential development.)

It’s not like I shop Strawberry today, because I’m not in the market for six-inch platform heels, and I have no plans to patronize “Bed, Bath and Linen,” where one can purchase an all-synthetic, fire-encouraging bedding set with a lion motif.

And the mall has plenty to dislike. It looks depressing as hell, aside from the disappointing Macy’s and the circa-1875 gas-lit former site of Gage and Tollner (which did brief latter-day turns as Friday’s and Arby’s, and served as a filming location for Boardwalk Empire this week).

The current storefronts in Fulton Mall appear to have been set up to purposely look bad, with signage ranging from vinyl banners to unappealing all-caps shouting the name of the store.

But look around long enough and you see evidence that it used to look nice, and could look nice again. On the corner across from the future H&M, where once there was a looping cursive Baker’s shoe store sign and a mid-century display window recessed entryway, is now a flat-fronted Rainbow filled end to end with scraps of polyester that will briefly serve as clothing. (The same fate is befalling a more elaborate recessed entryway in Chicago.)

You have to look up to see the vestiges of a more grand era for this district, to the remaining intact edifices on stores’ mostly unused upper floors. Up there at elevated-train height, you can also spot ghost signs painted on brick walls, including my favorite, advertising Pomeroy Trusses, Elastic Stockings, Abdominal Belts, and Artificial Legs. That ad really fits in to the current Brooklyn aesthetic–it could be a theme for an Atlantic Avenue ephemeral curiosity boutique or a cocktail bar where the bartenders wear suspenders. (Are we pretending to be in the 1920s or sometime in the 1800s? We’re not really sure, but there are also pinstripes! It’s Brooklyn!™)

During the day, Fulton Mall is not tranquil. This can be endearing, like near Jay Street where the sidewalk vendor specializing in the “Michael Jackson on his throne” art genre is playing “Wanna be Startin’ Something” on the boom box and a little kid and/or grandma is dancing along. Or it can be disruptive like when a store barker shouts directly into your ear as you walk by, or when some disenfranchised slob is bellowing into a cell phone or in their opponent’s direction a block away. This hollering scenario plays out beneath my apartment’s windows at least once per day. Then there are the businesses that advertise by shouting their pitch for hours. One employment agency advertises “full-time part-time positions” under my windows over and over until infinity.

(So good luck to new apartment owners at Be @ Schermerhorn come open-window weather in spring. And to anyone considering the lofts slated for the landmark building at 505 Fulton next to the future H&M and other new properties that will follow, I’d advise you to think long and hard about how much you value daytime quiet.)

And the shuttles! The shuttle maxi-vans that ship in shoppers from other points in Brooklyn are lawless, they are a menace to pedestrians, and while their mariachi-style attention-grabbing horns aren’t bad, at stoplights the drivers lean on their more angry-sounding traffic horns for 15-second intervals.

Fulton Mall could benefit from change, for sure. But I already miss the sewing and crafting store Save-a-Thon, formerly the only nearby non-boutique seller of yarn, in the mall’s own little garment district. In the past months, it was demolished to make way for H&M.

I’m not sure how some of the other shops are still hanging on and how much longer they’ll remain, especially with the rents reportedly so high. Fulton Mall somehow supports two health food stores on its fringes. One carries a line of creepy canned fake meat products: patties, hot dogs, and chunks of non-flesh. It’s the only place I’ve ever seen them in person.

The other health food store has been open since the 1930s. It trades mainly in protein shakes and vitality smoothies, and last I visited it had a spartan selection of dusty groceries and freezer-burn-encrusted frozen items. One time the older shopkeeper kept saying over and over how the poster of Speedo-clad male fitness models that he’d pinned up over the door was just “for a joke,” and he used the phrase “for a joke” so very many times during my visit that it seemed like maybe it wasn’t for a joke.

This area is still a place that’s a bit mysterious and it has little diagonal streets and obscure corners and for some reason there’s a Tudor facade or two somewhere in there (or used to be), and if you have the hankering you can find vintage cans of fake meat. I’ve also heard there’s an Easter parade down Fulton Street wherein the ladies wear their Easter crowns and finery.

Attractive or not, the Fulton Street Mall is one of the endangered intact slices of older Brooklyn. Here’s something that’s still mostly operating as if all this other change hadn’t happened around it. I’ve begun exploring some of the crannies while they’re still there. (You can see more photos here.)

When I lived in Baton Rouge near much ugliness and blight, I sought out weirdness and documented it on my blog Abandoned Baton Rouge. In that part of the world, oddity is often allowed to fester indefinitely into even more strangeness. Here, if it’s within a desirable area, its days are numbered. There’s not enough room or time for that. Nothing weird can stay.

Colleen Kane is a writer who lives in the heart of downtown Brooklyn and hosts the reading series Show and Tell, which happens one special Monday each month at Union Hall. The next show is on March 14,  featuring Irish-themed stories.

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