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Irem Yildiz on Bleecker Street as part of her Vacant Store Initiative. 
Photograph by Erica Freudenstein Photography.
Irem Yildiz on Bleecker Street as part of her Vacant Store Initiative. Photograph by Erica Freudenstein Photography.

Fast Company Chooses İrem Yildiz, MA Design Studies ’18, as Finalist for “World Changing Ideas” Competition

Several years ago, Bleecker Street west of Seventh Avenue was home to many of the most luxurious retail stores in New York City. More recently, it has become known for the growing number of retail vacancies, so much so that one resident told the New York Times that the street was turning into a “ghost town.” Gone is the Marc Jacobs flagship and dozens of other establishments that allowed for comparisons to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.    

The empty stores captured the attention of Irem Yildiz, a Design Studies student at Parsons School of Design. For her graduate thesis, Yildiz developed the Vacant Store Initiative, a project that was recently chosen by Fast Company magazine as a finalist in the Student category in its World Changing Ideas competition. Yildiz’s project was one of 2,000 entries.

“My main interest has always been the ways in which people activate spaces in unexpected ways — in other ways than the designer or architect intended them to be used,” Yildiz says about her research. “My prior work has been related to this concept as well. My thesis advisor, Jilly Traganou, suggested to me to look at vacant retail stores in general as a problem. There was a lot of interesting information about Bleecker Street. The main drivers of my interest were the complexity of the problem, abundance of information, its rich history, how a lot of different people feel ownership on the street, the visibility of the problem on such a small scale, and the proximity that makes the ethnographic research possible.”

On the website for the initiative, Yildiz writes, “The main purposes of the initiative are to vitalize the street life, to contribute to the urban culture, to support current businesses, and to encourage small businesses to grow by assuring the needs of the neighborhood.”

Among the goals of the Vacant Store Initiative is to set up a network of vacant retail stores on Bleecker Street between Bank and Carmine Streets.

“The main idea is to match up multiple different stores to create multiple concept stores,” Yildiz explains. “My initial model was matching a laundromat with a coffee shop.”

Yildiz says the idea is transform everyday tasks like doing laundry into more interesting and shareable activities.  

If the initiative were to become a reality, she would like to see it run by a multidisciplinary team that would collaborate with city government and nonprofit organizations. She adds that for projects like hers to be successful, all stakeholders, from landlords and businesses to residents and government officials, must be on board. That view shaped the way she conducted her research.

Last April, Yildiz set up a table and two chairs in front of a vacant store at 400 Bleecker Street “to make it inviting and welcoming,” she says. There she spoke to local residents about their hopes and aspirations for the neighborhood.  

Over a period of six months, Yildiz observed that the number of vacancies had increased from 16 to 21 percent. Some experts have estimated the city’s vacancy rate at 20 percent, although there is no central database that tracks that information.

“I definitely see it as a model or framework to approach similar problems in different contexts,” Yildiz says. “I’d love to have or create the opportunity to actually take the research further and make it happen.”  

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