On Saturday, an angry but subdued crowd gathered on 9th Ave between 17th and 18th to protest landlord Morris Moinian's plan to push out the small businesses and rent-regulated tenants of his newly acquired building. I broke this news not long ago and it was exciting to see how quickly information can spread and turn into action.
Andrew Berman, Miguel Acevedo, and Gloria Sukenik organized the demonstration which included, by my estimation, 200 people.
The politicians showed up. Senator Tom Duane spoke about the need for small businesses in a place where "not everybody is rich." Assembly member Dick Gottfried made a plea to bring back commercial rent control, saying, "A neighborhood is not a neighborhood if it's overrun by high-end boutiques, banks, and chain stores." And Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer addressed the city-wide problem, saying, "This isn't about a single store, but an entire neighborhood and the city as a whole."
Berman, Sukenik, Duane, Acevedo
One of the most powerful speakers was Phyllis Gonzalez, president of the Elliott-Chelsea Tenants Association, who spoke from her wheelchair about her personal relationship with the shops on the block. "I can be outside any of these stores and in minutes someone comes out and says, 'What can I get for you Ms. Gonzalez?'" This won't happen, she predicted, if she rolls up to the new high-end businesses that are planned. To those people, she's just an undesirable outsider.
She recalled that her children could run for safety into these same stores and their keepers would shelter them, saying, "Stay in here and let me call your mother." Is that going to happen when Equinox moves in? Or the wine bar that's already under construction? I doubt it.
Yes, these businesses are shabby-looking, but they provide an invaluable community for many. They are in integral part of a vulnerable social network--at times, a safety net--that keeps people connected to each other in an increasingly isolating city. When these businesses are gone, the people they serve will fade away. And isn't that the master plan?
More than one speaker noted that the wealthy new New Yorkers will soon grow tired of looking at the housing projects from their floor-to-ceiling windows, their sidewalk cafe tables, and their potted-plant promenades. Then they'll petition the city, with all their deep-pocket power, and the projects will become luxury housing and hotels, the "undesirables" washed away.
Upon the shoulders of these little shops rests a world. Their demise will have a ripple effect on the entire city. And this is how the world ends--not with a bang, but with the whimpers of one man, one woman at a time.