Monday, June 5, 2017

Squeezing Out a Living in NYC: The Gerry Project

The following is a guest post by Michelle Standley:

Over twenty years ago, my friend, Gerry Ranson, a British-born illustrator, did a series of pen-and-ink illustrations of dozens of small retail and service shops that he had noticed during long walks throughout Manhattan: shoe repair shops; flower and accessory stores; sandwich and coffee shops; locksmiths and dry cleaners; barbershops, boutiques, and book stalls.

What they all had in common is that they were tiny, really small, sometimes no more than a few feet wide and not much higher than a few feet above your head. And for all appearances they looked as if they had wedged themselves into the narrow, forgotten spaces left between two skyscrapers.

Syed Candy Store at 1236 Lexington Avenue and East 84th Street

Gerry fell in love with these quirky little shops and deeply admired their plucky owners. He called the project, “Squeezing Out a Living in New York City,” based not only on their appearance but also on his conversations with the shop owners. Like Gerry, they had come from elsewhere, ready to roll up their sleeves and do what they needed to do, in order to make it in their new home.

Gerry did his last sketch sometime in the late 1990s. A lot has changed in New York City since then. Most of the shops Gerry sketched have closed and most of their owners seemed to have disappeared into the city’s landscapes of memory. I’m on a mission to excavate them, to find these former shops, and their owners, and recover a bit of the city’s lost history before it’s too late, before they are buried beneath the rubble of construction.

La Di Da at 2410 Broadway and West 88th Street, opened in 1993

For the past two years, I have been walking around the city with Gerry’s pictures, gathering clues by looking closely and by talking to people who work or live nearby. Finding the shops took some time, but was not too difficult. But locating the owners or any information about them has proved more challenging. With so many newcomers and such rapid change to the cityscape over the past twenty years, very few of those who now live or work near the former flower stalls or novelty shops remember them, much less those who used to run them.

Gerry’s sketches capture a particular moment in New York City’s recent past. The 1990s were in some ways a boom time in Manhattan for newcomers and ambitious, local entrepreneurs. But today’s New York is not the same city that Gerry observed. Not only has crime dropped dramatically, the murder rate by 85 percent since 1990, but the city’s population has grown, from roughly 7.3 to over 8.5 million; subway ridership has doubled to its current rate of nearly 1.8 billion riders; and last year the city attracted a record 60.3 million visitors.

While those changes might sound positive on the surface, they only tell part of the story. Over the course of the 1990s rent in Manhattan has increased by 84 percent, and during the early 2000s by 116 percent. Rates of homelessness have now reached levels not seen in New York City since the Great Depression. And despite increases in the Asian and Latino population in certain parts of the city, overall in Manhattan the percentage of white residents has grown while those of blacks and Latinos has declined.

Along with increased rent, and a whiter Manhattan, has come a commercial and residential landscape increasingly dominated by mega-corporations, chain stores, and luxury sky rises. On the street level this has meant more glass-box architecture, more national and international chain stores, and streets populated by empty shops, as landlords hold out in hopes of landing a Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks.

249 Columbus Avenue and West 72nd Street in the 1990s

249 Columbus Avenue and West 72nd Street today

When he did them, Gerry saw his pictures as a way to capture the spirit of the city as he had experienced it, as a tough place to land but one that ultimately rewarded those who worked hard. It’s a particular vision of New York, and of America for that matter, that is increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of untrammeled globalization and city policies that favor corporations and those passing through town over small businesses and committed residents.

My hope is that maybe instead of nurturing nostalgia for what’s lost that we can instead take inspiration from the stories of these unique spaces and the lives that have passed through them. Maybe they will help us cast off the shrug of indifference and reinvigorate our vision of New York City as a place not only for the wealthy and well-connected but as a place for newcomers and old-timers, wealthy and poor, immigrants and native born, as a place that makes room for everyone with a dream and the willingness to dare.

That’s the New York City, the America, that Gerry saw and the one to which we should again aspire.

Still going strong. Angelo’s Shoe Repair at 228 Columbus Avenue and 71st Street, for over 40 years

I am hoping that you can aid me in my search and perhaps contribute to “The Gerry Project” yourselves by sharing with me any tips you might have or your memories of the spaces or shops. The easiest way is to do this is to go to the website: The Gerry Project.

The site includes pictures of the missing shops, field notes about the search, and photos and observations about what is there today.

Can you perhaps help me find the missing shops and their owners? Can you help me gather their stories and save a vital piece of New York City before they are lost forever?


Caleo said...

This is a great project and I wish the writer luck, but this trend of describing the recent increase in the white population as a problem is ridiculous.
As difficult as it may be for regular readers to deal with, NYC was majority white well into the 70's, and overwhelmingly white ethnic until the 50's.
That's OK. The problem is not that whites are increasing as a percentage of the population but what social class they come from and how their tastes and expectations are changing the neighborhoods they move into.
I suppose the writer wouldn't mind if, like Toronto and Vancouver, the majority of the new arrivals were Chinese and Indian millionaires pushing out older residents and jacking up the rental market, as long as people of color are the ones doing the gentrifying.
Give the ethnomasochism a rest.

Unknown said...

Is it possible that the Columbus Avenue is a separate tax lot that was purchased by the operator 40 years ago? That would have just prior to the gentrification of Columbus. So the building would have been purchased for next to nothing. Seems to be the only explanation.

If the store is part of one of the adjacent buildings, he would have been out a long time ago.

Nicholas West said...

Another long-standing micro-shop squeezed in between two buildings is the space between Barzini's and the next building south, on the west side of Broadway between 90th & 91st St. Now occupied by Gaby's Barber Shop, in the 1970s this used to be a shop called "Takako", and it was an interesting junk shop selling old furniture and electronics. It was there for years and years, and Takako was a familiar guy in the neighborhood.

Unknown said...

Your point is well taken and appreciated. Class is the great, so often unspoken, divide that needs to be addressed in America. However, socio-economic class and ethnicity, especially in the young history of the United States, overlap. To ignore those intersections, is to ignore an unequal reality and division of prosperity and opportunity, making it difficult to confront those issues. Plus, while it’s true that since the arrival of the Dutch, in the seventeenth century, Manhattan has been largely inhabited by fair-skinned people, for most of its history the island was populated by plants, animals, and for several centuries by the Lenape Indians. In other words, arguments about origins or what came before do not help us address present, undesirable realities, namely the massive socio-economic inequality that disproportionately impacts the non-white populations who work and live in New York City today, only most reside not in its heart but at its geographic margins.

Unknown said...

What became of your friend Gerry?