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Will selfies save New York's flower district?
[NEW YORK] — New York's flower district, more than 100 years old and a home mostly to wholesalers, used to thrive like a jungle along Sixth Avenue. Now it is concentrated in just one block of West 28th Street.
Long said to be on its way out because of a changing industry and continually rising rents in Chelsea, its surrounding neighborhood, the district could be saved, at least symbolically, from the very thing threatening its existence: gentrification.
In between the shops offering garden accessories and roses or ferns in bulk, several trendy hotels have recently opened on the block. Instead of pushing out the local shops, they are relying on the uniqueness of the flower district to lure visitors.
The Moxy Chelsea opened on West 28th Street in February. The property is covered in flowers. In the lobby is the first retail shop of a well-known floral design company, Putnam & Putnam, which has its workshop across the street. Vertical gardens are on the second floor.
The hotel's crown jewel is the Fleur Room, a lounge and nightclub on the 35th floor. Cocktails are dressed with blossoms (some are even lodged inside ice cubes). Couches are covered with a floral velvet. Vases of flowers are placed strategically between tables.
"It is all inspired by Dutch floral paintings from the 17th century," said Angelo Bianchi, who operates the Fleur Room alongside Tao Group.
Part of his attraction to the project was that it was on this particular street. "I moved to the city when I was 17, and the first time I discovered this block I felt it was a magical oasis, one of the coolest blocks in the city because you just don't expect all these flowers of different colors here," he said. "Being on this block is essential to our identity."
On weekends young people line up for the Fleur Room. And lines are not something to which this neighborhood is accustomed.
Historically, the sidewalks of West 28th Street have been more cluttered with potted plants than people, with the exception being early in the morning, when florists, event planners caterers and other trade professionals visit. But now, throughout the day, tourists and New Yorkers alike are visiting. And lingering. The vegetation, it turns out, is proving to be popular backdrop for photography and general loafing.
"The flower district has become more of a fun neighborhood," said Tom Weisse, who owns Caribbean Cuts, which has been on the block for more than 30 years and specializes in tropical flowers and foliage. "People come in wanting to take pictures," he continued. "Some people have even asked to rent my space out."
Troy Baksh, the owner of JRose Wholesale Flowers, which has been on West 28th Street for seven years, said people are also looking for Instagram moments inside of his shop. "It's forcing me to do a better job cleaning my floors and walls," he said. "You never know who will see those photos."
Whether this interest in the neighborhood will be lucrative for the flower shops is up for debate. But interest means attention, at least. And some people on the block are capitalizing on it.
Lewis Miller, a florist and event planner based in the district, has started a "flower flash" where he sets up elaborate displays in trash cans, subway stations and against random brick walls all over the city. "Surprising these jaded creatures who live in this urban jungle with a surge of flowers when they least expect it is a total joy for me and hopefully for them too," said Miller, who has over 120,000 followers on Instagram.
Others businesses in or around West 28th Street are also cropping up, making the neighborhood more of a destination for those outside the flower trade. Two years ago, a hotel on the block since 2009 rebranded as the Hotel Hayden and opened a buzzy rooftop bar, Mykonos Blue. In January Emeril Lagasse helped open a restaurant in Hotel Henri, four blocks away. A Peloton studio and a Cha Cha Matcha are also close by.
"The area was very deserted," said Audrey Stipanovich, who owns Pastoral, a flower shop on the Lower East Side, of the flower district, where she still conducts business at least once a week. "There wasn't even a place to get coffee to go." She now has breakfast at the Chelsea Moxy, where she bumps into other florists. "It's quickly become a local spot, a place we can hang," she said. She even spent the night at the hotel once, when she needed to be at the market early the next day.
The growth has inspired shop owners already in the district, like Baksh, to create a more inviting environment for clients. In the next two months he's opening a space in his store for customers to get bagels and coffee. "I want to show them how much we appreciate them," he said.
Still, there are downsides to the rapid development, the main one being parking. "The parking garage where our clients used to park has been torn down," Baksh said. "Now they have to park on the street. It's a nuisance for them."
Weiss said having lots of random people browsing in his shop is not helpful for professional florists who come there to focus. "A lot of my customers need to come in here and get out," he said. "I can feel their frustration. It isn't as easy for them."
Then there is the unfortunate fact of renting in a hot neighborhood.
"Is the flower district dying right now?" Baksh said. "No, but rent is going up, and eventually flower shops won't be able to afford it. It's going to cause a slow death."
In the short term, Baksh hopes that the new businesses continue to honor the neighborhood's history and identity. "At least the Chelsea Moxy has Putnam," he said of its mini store. "At least they are keeping the flower market surviving."