Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Sidewalk Cobblers

A little while ago, New York magazine published a piece on how Chinatown has stayed Chinatown, instead of becoming yet another bland, suburban, luxury Nowhere like most of Manhattan. It really is one of the last holdout neighborhoods of the old New York.

I love the relative lawlessness of Chinatown's sidewalks, where all manner of business is conducted. The place has not been regulated and tamed. One phenomenon I particularly enjoy is that of the sidewalk cobbler. While storefront cobblers across town are dying out, thanks to skyrocketing rents, these renegade merchants survive.

There are many of them, but my favorite has a wide space on Elizabeth Street by Grand. Not the ruined Elizabeth Street of "Nolita," but the other Elizabeth Street, further south.



The cobbler's stall, if you can call it that, consists of a long piece of plywood erected alongside a corner herb market. It is beautifully decorated with hand-drawn illustrations, glued to the brick wall. Most of the drawings are of animals--birds, horses, cats, pandas--but also waterfalls and warships and airplanes.



The cobbler and his assistant sit and smoke cigarettes while they work--and their customers wait, stocking-footed, on nearby stools, reading Chinese newspapers.



Most of the sidewalk cobblers will also sharpen your knives and scissors.

Here's another:



And another:



Writing for the Times about the shopless cobblers of Chinatown in 2003, here's Joseph Berger:

"No one knows whether this breed of entrepreneur is growing, but scholars say the phenomenon may reflect the city's rising costs of doing business.

'As rents increased, it became more prohibitive to open up a store, so if you can have a store without paying the rent you do it,' said Dr. William B. Helmreich, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York who specializes in urban ethnography.

These sidewalk tradespeople may be a throwback to the European immigrants of a century ago who would stake out a business wherever it was possible."

4 comments:

laura rubin said...

this is my favorite part of NYC. always was. its traditional old NY. thankyou for posting this, it made my day.

David Diroma said...


It reminds me of the sharpening guy that used to walk the streets when I was a kid. He had a foot-treadle powered sharpening wheel and would walk up and down the streets ringing a hand-held bell. HE was an old man then (late '50's and early '60's).

onemorefoldedsunset said...

Wonderful. You can see similar sidewalk businesses in the Sunset Park Chinatown. My husband gets his shoes re-soled by a sidewalk cobbler there.

anacluephone said...

This is also a common practice is much of East and Southeast Asia, regardless of the relative cost of rent. People just have stalls in open air, cooking food and performing services.