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Supporting Small Business in our Neighborhoods

Independent small businesses are one of the cornerstones of our neighborhoods. They don’t just provide services and goods, they respond to the particular tastes and needs of their community. Fashioned as they are after the individual visions of their owners, they also help create a distinctive sense of place. In addition, they often enhance local civic, cultural, and social life. And occasionally, they do this across generations, amplifying the role they play in deepening your connection to a neighborhood. It’s one thing to buy bread at the supermarket; it’s another to buy it at the local baker; and it’s yet another to buy at the baker where they’ve known you since you accompanied your grandmother there as a child and where they now know the child who accompanies you. 

Despite their ample contributions, small businesses often succumb to challenges that attend the current retail environment. The list of those challenges is long, without even counting macroeconomic headwinds: outrageous rent hikes, a bias by corporate landlords and lenders toward chains and multinational tenants, the “warehousing” of storefronts, and nuisance lawsuits, among others. With both their contributions and struggles in mind, we have for years undertaken a number of initiatives aimed at supporting these “mom and pop” establishments. Some have entailed advocacy on behalf of particular businesses facing unfair evictions; others have consisted of ongoing programs to support all local small businesses.

In November 2014, we launched our Business of the Month program, which honors publicly-nominated independent, small businesses for enriching life in our neighborhoods. The program features a different storefront every month, calling attention to their unique stories and to the people behind them. We circulate these write-ups, reaching tens of thousands of people, and we then add that month’s honoree to our Business of the Month map, for everyone’s future reference. The Business of the Month then gets a decal with QR code that links to their article. Many of these businesses have been with us for decades, some for over a hundred years. They provide a wide range of goods and services, from the essential, like egg and cheese sandwiches, to the specialized, like top hats (you can find an overview of their diversity here). Almost half of the owners immigrated to this country, hailing from over a dozen different countries, and worked their way to small business ownership in our neighborhood. We recently named our 100th Business of the Month and made a video to celebrate the occasion; you can check it out here

In 2020, we launched our Small Business, Big History program, which encourages people to support independent local businesses while learning about their neighborhood. It works like this: participating storefronts display a small Village Preservation sign that refers people to a short article about their building and its architecture, their immediate surroundings, and notable people and movements associated with those locations. We then add the business to a map and promote both the business and the map throughout the year. Through this program, you can learn about Greek Revival architecture, German immigration, the onset of building regulation, heavy 70s’ rock, and much more. Along the way, you can snack on a french cruller, play a game of chess, and get decked out in French-vintage-style. The program has more than doubled in size since it started and will grow even more this year. 

Proposed enhanced commercial district map

We have looked on in dismay for years as beloved small businesses get displaced in favor of chain retail. This typically occurs when new development takes the place of older buildings and when corporate landlords acquire property from their smaller, local counterparts. When this started happening in the East Village, it sparked a popular backlash and widespread interest in finding ways to prevent this problem from spreading. In 2019, Community Board 3 took an interest in the issue and retained a consultant to explore possible land use strategies for addressing the problem. On the basis of his findings, the community board resolved to seek an enhanced commercial zoning district that would limit chain retail in certain areas and to solicit public input on the matter. The COVID pandemic, unfortunately, delayed this initiative and introduced a level of uncertainty into the community board’s analysis. In an effort to revisit this proposal, we have started conducting comprehensive storefront surveys of the district so as to gain a better handle on the impact of the pandemic, and we are beginning to conduct public outreach to invite feedback and push this initiative forward. You can find basic details on the district proposal here

Learn more about our small business advocacy and programs, and see how you can get involved here.

What special small business would you like to see featured next? Just click here to nominate our next one. Thank you! #shoplocalnyc

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