Small Businesses: The Heart Of Our Communities

Diane Sawyer of ABC World News Tonight recently returned to her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky to see how it has been faring during the economic downturn. It made me wonder while watching her report that Americans have become so inundated with the daily, unending stream of economic horror stories from across the country that perhaps we are becoming numb to it? Unlike the French, who in protest of their government's attempts to raise the retirement age have taken to the streets in numbers over 1 million, with us it appears the more pain that is inflicted, the more tolerance we build up. If you have not lost your job or your home or both, it is only THEM - and not ME - who are suffering, and for that we seem to be most grateful. Americans - unless you count the lunatics following Glenn Beck's every command - still don't take to the streets like our European friends en masse to protest. When will we learn? Yes, we are beginning to "get it," with the recent One Nation Working Together protests on the Mall in D.C., but where are America's massive movements that brought the changes we so desperately needed in the 1960's?

It was from this realization that I decided I needed to take a closer look at my own community - after all, all politics is local, isn't it? So I headed out on a walking tour to observe and talk to local merchants and people in my neighborhood of the Bronx - just how are we doing?

Now to be clear (for those of you outside of the 5 boroughs of New York), while I live in the Bronx, it is not the South Bronx, forever associated with Fort Apache infamy in the days of burnt-out apartment buildings and gangs and drugs. That was the neighborhood where I lived as a youngster, only a few blocks a way from Colin Powell - and no, we did not know each other. That area, even decades later, still remains one of the lowest income areas in the country, with high unemployment and 1/3 of those who are employed working in low-paying healthcare jobs. In time, I became one of the lucky ones, moving on to a more peaceful and green part of the Bronx on the Hudson River known as Riverdale. As I grew in Riverdale, so did the community, from the farmland cultivated from pastures that Henry Hudson would have seen on his voyage up the Hudson River. A statue of him stands tall in Riverdale overlooking the river (our community is at the highest elevation in the City).

Riverdale is an odd community, made up mainly of cooperatives and condos, along with some very fashionable homes dating to the '20s and '30's. Few rentals exist here, so one can clearly see the makeup of the community in its longtime residents. National chain stores were a rarity until recent years, as coming to Riverdale was almost equated with leaving the state. While this remains an area still foreign to most New Yorkers, a sign of the times has appeared in the 12 new condos that have risen in the past few years - buildings too tall for this community of private homes and smaller apartment complexes. Zoning laws were changed to accommodate speculators that invaded the community like locusts, resulting in 12 empty buildings that are only now beginning to show life as Manhattanites on the hoof from that increasingly high priced island start to discover Riverdale and purchase apartments. Mortgages are low and sales on the increase as this buyer's market plays out.

The community has its churches and synagogues, as well as two private schools that are among the best in the nation: The Riverdale Country School and Horace Mann. The public schools are considerably less distinguished and in constant turmoil, regularly being graded "unsatisfactory" in teaching our children. But this is national issue - communities thrive based on its public school system, and New York City's continues to remain far behind the national average and - despite Joe Klein's and Bloomberg's meddling - a detriment to prosperity and growth in our city. Families do not move into communities with inferior public schools, that is a given, and ours is feeling that sting.

Celebrities have always lived in this area, dating back to JFK as a boy up to Billy Taylor today. Films and TV series have been shot here, and ball players have lived here and continue to even now - Derek Jeter bought an entire floor in one of the newer condos not so long ago, according to the buzz, a mere 20 minutes away from Yankee Stadium. And there is the story of Rudy Guiliani, former mayor of New York, walking into a local Italian restaurant named Josephina for lunch and being asked to leave. The well-known progressive owner of the restaurant refused to serve him. This legendary restaurant is now closed because its $11,000 per month rent was going to climb to $22,000 with the new lease. And so we lost an institution and a great local character due to store rentals that have begun to rival Manhattan.

Forgive me if I have digressed a bit, but I felt the makeup and flavor of the community was important to share.

There are basically three shopping districts here, all within a half mile. The heart of the shopping area is on Johnson Avenue, consisting of perhaps four blocks of 35 stores, 4 banks, a supermarket, a CVS Pharmacy along with a smaller drug store, 3 Chinese restaurants, a Thai restaurant, a Greek diner, a Japanese restaurant, an Italian restaurant, a long-fought-for Starbucks, a liquor store, a Korean fish store, a Rite Aid Pharmacy, a Kosher butcher, a shoe maker and a Tortilla place - a living UN.

About 5 shops have closed in this long stable business area, as the rents along this Avenue have also begun to rival those in Manhattan. Most of the commercial properties are owned by a real estate tycoon with vast holdings in Manhattan, who is clearly not concerned about stores sitting empty for long periods of time - possibly he can use some of his losses as tax writeoffs? When he upped the rent for their new lease to $70,000 per month from $30,000, D'Agostino's closed, one of the largest chain supermarkets in the City which had been in the community for decades. Eventually it was replaced by a CVS. Even so, a few of the local stores with a different landlord are making it.

A few blocks away there is another shopping area on Riverdale Avenue that has always struggled due to sparse foot traffic - a kind of commercial dead zone. Within three blocks there are 6 pizza places, a bakery, a liquor store, a florist, a few restaurants, a bar and a bagel shop. A large book shop that was the street anchor has closed after decades. There are about 50 stores on this two-block shopping area, with some of the closed Johnson Avenue shops moving there with its lower rents and different realtors. A merchants organization has been created, and there is new energy on this street, transferred from Johnson Avenue, which is for the first time experiencing hard times with empty streets and empty shops. The local merchant community, like all others, is feeling the economic pinch. More staying home and less going out. Johnson and Riverdale Avenues are not near a major transportation hub or a high density community that would provide a steady stream of customers, so the future will continue to be difficult. Survival is a day-to-day fight in these two shopping areas. HIGH rentals, low population density and a lack of street space to grow the business community along with a transportation issue. The future does not look bright.

A bright spot is the largest shopping district in the area, which is a half-mile away from the other two and known as Kingsbridge - a vibrant, heavy traffic area with close to 200 stores. The hub of it is at Broadway and 230th Street, under the elevated IRT subway. The variety of businesses is wide, from the Cambridge Podiatry Center to two national pharmacies, an IHOP, Dominican restaurants, GNC, four 99-cent stores that are always busy, as well as a Staples. Two supermarkets, a Korean fish market, a few bodegas, a Kosher deli, and African shop with arts and crafts, a florist, a new chocolate shop and everything in between, along with 2 banks.

This area has remained stable because small, local real estate operatives have worked with the business community to keep merchants in their stores and not gouge them on rent. Empty stores - just like empty homes - destroy communities, leading to vandalism, lower tax revenues for municipalities and states. People living there see a reduced quality of life and an increase in crime, followed by an exodus from the community. Shopping locally is an imperative to the vitality of all communities.

One of the more recent openings in this area is a large market called The Garden Gourmet with an incredible array of fresh fruits and vegetables, a selection of 100 cheeses, barrels of coffee beans, prepared takeout food at half of Manhattan's prices, and even sushi. There is a meat department that offers goat meat - hard to find anywhere except in certain ethnic communities. The hot soups rival anything we can make at home, and the ethnic cooked dishes like rice and beans, pasta dishes, stuffed cabbage, oxtail, roasted vegetables and dozens of other hot choices are a delight. People flock to this market from the local area and from Riverdale.

Kingsbridge is flourishing due in part to its proximity to transportation by subway and several buses. Coming home in the evening from work, folks stop at The Garden Gourmet to load up on hot dishes and then catch a bus to the top of the hill and Riverdale. Kingsbridge is an interesting, growing community with new residents wearing Saris and Turbans from India, Russians, Slovaks, Albanians, Irish, Asians joining Latinos and African Americans already in the community, with its affordable rents in buildings with character that may be 70 years or older, including art deco buildings.

Some 700 people work in these stores, and with the delivery truck drivers and wholesalers who provide all kinds of products to stock shelves and counters, all tolled, you can safely say that a few thousand are employed to service these almost 200 shops. For every $1 dollar spent locally it turns over 6 times - $6 that stays in the community. On Sunday, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand stated during her debate with Joe DiGuardi that 2/3 of all new jobs in New York State are created by small businesses.

Now, two new apartment buildings are rising just blocks away, one a condo and one a rental, alongside a beautiful new library - the first new buildings in decades and a real success story in very trying times. Perhaps President Obama should come and learn about the issues confronting these small shopkeepers, the heart and soul of our nation, and see what he can do for them.

Ten blocks further North a different story emerged a couple of years ago along Broadway beneath the IRT el, when the nationally known Italian cookie factory, Stella D'Oro, became embroiled in union busting, eventually closing the factory and moving to a non-union shop in Ohio. 1,000 gallant workers who had been there for decades picketed for over a year in rain, heat and sleet, eventually losing. What has happened to those families? The building remains shuttered and the asking price is $15 million, with no takers. How great it would be to see a new business like a solar panel company take it over and bring new life and jobs into the area.

But for now, our eyes are on other issues as our incumbent member of Congress, Rep. Eliot Engel, is challenged for the first time in his 22 years by a member of the Tea Party and by another challenger backed by the Republican Party - this in a primarily heavily Democratic area.