Columns, Opinion

BERICK: Urban refusal

My mother took my sister to look at colleges during Spring Break the year I was in seventh grade, and I went along. I had a certainty and a temper that far outshone my sister’s, though she was the actual adolescent. I previewed each school and made judgments with heartbreaking severity. One of the last schools we saw was Boston University and to give us –‘-‘- or herself ‘-‘- a break, my mother took us shopping, though shopping with me at that age could hardly have been a relief. We may have gone other places but I only remember the one, it was called Urban Outfitters, and as we walked in my mother turned to me and said, ‘I think you are going to really like this store.’ And I did. Still in middle school and fancying myself a freshman in college, I was all ambition and I was desperately undersupplied. Here I could buy an entire college dorm, from closet to bedspread, posters to props. The store understood my need to have the cultural vocabulary of an adult way before I had earned one. At Urban Outfitters, I could buy the trips overseas, years of thrift store shopping, a boyfriend’s old shirt, the miss-matched cups of several apartments, the furniture of roommates past. At 12, it seemed to me that Urban Outfitters had affixed an attractive, rectangular tag to the whole college experience. I believed I could stock up on the semesters of college five years in my future. We spent hours. The next day I decided I could probably go to Boston University.

By the time I applied to schools, I was just as susceptible to the college commodity.’ Some attractive rectangular brochure convinced me that I could find the leafy college experience I wanted in Boston. Four years later, and eight years after my visit with my sister, I was much less delighted to see the signs for Urban Outfitters this fall on Harvard Avenue just shy of the Commonwealth Avenue intersection. Disappointed as I was to host what I, in my wise old age, know to be a clumsy corporation in my beloved neighborhood, the placement couldn’t be better. The powers that be at Urban have chosen the timberline for their newest location. I call that part of Harvard the timberline because if you have been walking down Harvard from Brookline, that is where the trees end. Really good mountains have timberlines also; it’s the part of the peak that is so high the climate becomes too harsh for any significant greenery. For climbers and sadomasochists, it is the indication that they have reached the unforgiving hard-won territory of the top. Like any good suburb, Brookline is quietly leafy, but at a certain point down Harvard, the streets lose their foliage and there is only the concrete and the Staples sign welcoming you to Allston. The transitory region on Harvard Avenue between where the college students stake their parcels in their proudly proclaimed urban wilderness and where they will take their degrees and carefully stroller-ed toddlers in 10 years is home to the newest Urban Outfitters.’

I am still a sucker for packaging, but I don’t try to get all my products from one place. I’ve adjusted to the reality that I’ll probably always like organic, pseudo international foods that I can find at Trader Joe’s down Harvard.’ I also shop at Tedeschi, in a flare of adolescence, or just for milk. I go to the bodega down the street where I can buy corn tortillas and my favorite Indian sandalwood soap, or I can get bacon from the Russian grocery, a store so close I barely need a coat.’ I’ve got my favorite coffee shop in the area, and if I time it right, it can buy a cup of coffee and a scone and catch most of a pop song in the time it takes for the bus banner to get close enough to read 57 Kenmore Sq. Of course I still walk to Peet’s Coffee for the familiar images of motherhood ,which are both wildly different and equally familiar: there are the pictures of African women who, with a smile, have now ‘earned enough growing Peet’s coffee that they can educate their daughters.’ On the other hand, there are the local mothers trying to scoop Trader Joe Os into their children’s mouths. The kids tend to evade such efforts, managing to get lost, sleepy or petulant between their strollers and their mother’s lap or the elephantine seat of their very own chair.’ Feeding kids is tough all over. Whatever concerns I had about being my mother seem not altogether unpleasant inevitabilities. I’m now happy to walk between my childhood and my adolescence daily as I take the 66 between zip codes.

Like most things in Allston, the Urban Outfitters started out as a rumor. I would have noticed if there was any earlier indication. Summer runs and summer cold took me into Brookline daily.’ I heard from someone ‘-‘- a fellow student ‘-‘- speaking with disdain about the store on Harvard. The ‘can you believe it’ attitude was reinforced by the semi-aggressive graffiti on the emerging construction site ‘-‘- ‘Get the f— out of Allston,’ it read. I have my doubts, however ‘-‘- the spray paint conveniently only marred the plywood over the door, obviously removable and rather mild for the Allston activist biker gangs.’ The explicit message was soon covered up by cuter spray-painted embellishments in the same aqua as the contrast building material slowly going up on site. With hearts covering the profanity and accenting the tougher neon lettering, the vandalism looked like a piece of the fa’ccedil;ade. I wouldn’t put it past the savvy of the management company to set up the whole controversy. They, after all, claim to stock their store by their ‘customer’s [. . .] interest in contemporary art, music and fashion.’ What better way to attract the tough hip residents then by making the new store a nearly-political-almost- battleground?

The website for the Urban Outfitters corporation boasts 130 stores. Not all of them can be on urban frontiers. I know for a fact of one or two in firmly commercial areas, though, of course, they’ve been handily constructed to look like unearthed warehouses. For arbiters of authenticity such as real Allston residents, the fallacy of constructing the de-construction of the store is only compounded by the reality that the niche mega-boutique Anthropologie is owned by the same company. Specializing in attainably unique merchandise, Anthropologie is either for the older set or the set hoping to look older, ‘catering to the fashionable, educated and creative woman of 30 to 45.’ The pair of them, Urban and Anthro (the cool older sister) have been in my family for years. All through high school, friends and I would find ways of getting ourselves –‘-‘- independence is so important ‘-‘- to the nearest Urban in what was once Chinatown in Washington, D.C. The shop, hardly a part of the immigrant culture, is just a few blocks away from my family’s favorite special occasion restaurant, well reviewed and frequented by K-street lawyers and lobbyists and us, a middle class family from the suburbs.

Along with my fully self-conscious (that’s part of the look) struggling student act, I have developed an interest in gentrification. A sure indication that you, yourself, may be a trespasser is a conviction that your neighborhood is about to go corporate. See Brooklyn and a 1980s Oxford American definition of gentrification explained it as the ‘movement of middle class families into urban areas causing property values to increase and having secondary effect of driving out poor families.’ Turning an otherwise working class area into a place suitable for the modern gentry? Unfortunately, boys and girls ‘-‘- that’s us. Students and young graduates are often the first step. In some states gay couples are also urban pioneers, but this is Massachusetts, so gay couples live with their two and a half children wherever they want. More concerned with affordability and living independent of our parents than a good school system, a neighborhood ‘in transition’ is perfect for us. We are a good bet for landlords with attractive old buildings and houses that have fallen into disrepair. We are at the age where we are attracted to hardwood but not picky about how recently it was refinished. Slowly, vegan restaurant by vegan restaurant, vintage boutique by vintage boutique, the neighborhood will become more attractive to a slightly older crowd. The dipping economy will help channel the reverse migration of more affluent residents back into the city, and, ironically, the Urban Outfitters, made to look like the watering pool of young people on the edge, is just one more indication that the neighborhood is moving toward the middle.’

I’ve had a fairly normal relationship with the store.’ Young love faded and I became disillusioned. I decided we needed to take a break around my freshman year of college. I was hoping to see other genres. I wanted to really be on my own for a while. Eventually, I began to collect the culture Urban Outfitters had been trying to sell me wholesale. The clothing in my Goodwill dressers is not terribly different from what is offered in the store ‘-‘- the so-called ‘eclectic mix of merchandise.’ Some of it was even purchased at Urban Outfitters, but it accumulated slowly and from that trip and this friend. I am sure I will visit when the new store opens up. There will be sales and employment opportunities’ and my friends and I will share the artfully disheveled aisles with kids on the bus from Newton coming into the city to shop like the college students.

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