Part 2: Selected Transcripts
Below are excerpts from oral histories with Jamie Rogers and Amy Li, each of whom are uniquely situated within the ever-changing Lower East Side. Jamie, owner of Pushcart Coffee, currently serves as the chairperson of Community Board 3. In the below excerpt he reflects on the nostalgia and uncertainty felt by some as new businesses continue to populate the neighborhood. Amy, who runs a gallery out of her father’s Chinatown button store, shares her memories of Chinatown before the recent influx of galleries and cafes. As a gallery owner herself, Amy speaks to her experience negotiating between old and new.
After speaking with both Jamie and Amy I had to confront my own tendency to sentimentalize small businesses. Regardless of the deeply personal nature of small businesses, they remain above all a business. It became increasingly obvious to me that although these spaces might be a product of someone’s dream, foremost they are responding in some way to a perceived need. Even though I feel it is important to recognize small businesses as cultural institutions whose value cannot be quantified by their transactional services alone, the reality remains that they must compete with new market demands. For this reason there remains a tension between the need for a neighborhood to maintain a sense of familiarity, in part through protecting its small businesses, and its inescapable march towards the new.
Jamie currently serves as the chairperson of Community Board 3 in Manhattan. He also owns and operates Pushcart Coffee, located in North Chelsea and Peter’s Field.
Interviewer: Have you noticed a tension between the more integrated entrepreneurial model and the older businesses that maybe never used social-media branding tactics and might be struggling, potentially, as a result of that? Part of why I asked this question is I’m curious about the future of the cohabitation of old and new in neighborhoods like this which has such a rich immigrant history.
Jamie: No, I agree completely. There’s, you know, there’s a lot of conflict on a lot of levels between old and new in our neighborhood right now. It’s pervasive throughout every conversation whether it’s housing, small business preservation, liquor licenses, healthcare services, it’s all a conversation about old versus new which is unfortunate. I think it disconnects — Everyone wants to live in a good place, a place that they’re proud of, a place that’s clean and safe, that people can become part of something bigger than themselves, even if just for a period of time, and even if they’re only renting for a year or two. Everyone wants that in their neighborhood. The conflict arises, I think, because of the, you know, the market forces that are at play that are changing the equities, right? And disrupting the expectations. So, we’ve got these older businesses in our neighborhood, they’ve been around forever, that have served the community extremely well. And they’re finding that community is changing and they’re finding that the customers they used to serve are no longer present.
They found that the newer population doesn’t — isn’t as receptive to their business and they’re not going to adapt because it’s extremely difficult to adapt and pivot as an entrenched long time small business. You know, like the tea shop or the Kosher store – They don’t change. That’s part of their virtue. It’s…not a museum or to wax nostalgic about them but it’s that sameness that people appreciate so much. Unfortunately, in New York, it’s a glaring example of how the market works and functions. There’s no romance in economics. It’s either you’re making money or you’re not. And if you’re not, then you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing. Now, you know, I think that that doesn’t necessarily mean that businesses that aren’t seeing the patronage they used to should be out of business here. It just means that the framework needs to change of how businesses are structured and how, essentially… their value is monetized. It’s kind of a technical way of looking at it but it’s something we all appreciate. We’re the reasons people move here, right? And pay huge rents. It’s because they appreciate the neighborhood for itself. They’re not moving here to change it. They’re moving here to appreciate what’s already here.
So, in that way, unfortunately, they’re paying extremely high rents for that value, but that value doesn’t then transfer to the small business owner. Where the conversation needs to go is on a legislative level and also on a business level, is this idea that we need to transfer the value into the hands of the business owners. It can be done in a number of ways. I think none of them are inside the box and they’re all going to have to be creative solutions that we come to together as a community to figure out, but they’re there, you know, they’re there. But I think all the new businesses actually probably find more in the long run than they maybe initially think. I think, you know, the person who started their small business 50 years ago and the person who’s starting their business today, their methods of operation would be different but their motivations are pretty similar. They both want like an independence from the status quo. They don’t want to wear a suit every day. They had a dream and a vision and they’re going to do it at all costs, and you know, when they sit down together, they actually have a lot in common, facilitating that is difficult … getting those people to talk.
I know all the businesses on all my block in all my stores. I have relationships with all of them and I know I can go to them whether they’ve been on my block for like a week or 50 years. I know that I can trust them.
Interviewer: Part of what I heard in some of the previous conversations I’ve had is that with new residents come new ideas for businesses and a different demand. So, for example, the nightlife in this neighborhood has changed and there have been some varied opinions, some people claim that it’s always been that kind of destination, some people have been saying that it’s a much higher volume in a much different capacity than it used to be. I take that as one example of new interests and businesses following those interests, but also creating a rift between new residents and old residents. As chair, do you hear people voicing their discomfort about a perceived imbalance in neighborhood businesses now?
Jamie: Every day, every day. We hear stories of longtime residents being very disrupted and upset by the proliferation of bars, by the loss of, you know, of businesses that they’ve known for a long time. One of the things that actually — People generally don’t find that there’s anything lacking in the sense of like you can still get groceries and get your dry cleaning done and go to the nail salon and all those sort of essential services still exist, like hardware stores. The internet has done a lot to make the sort of really nuance specialty shops less relevant to people but the basic core essentials are still available on a street level. Where I think our longtime residents feel the pain is the loss of something familiar and a friendly face and a character that’s lacking. You know, have you ever been to the rubber stamp shop?
Interviewer: No, I don’t think so.
Jamie: It’s on 13th or 11th. I think it’s on 11th. Yeah, it’s on 11th between second and third, that sounds right. Anyway, it’s called KC’s rubber stamps. I highly recommend you go. It’s ridiculous. KC is this Irish guy who’s been here for a very long time, and he makes rubber stamps and that’s what people buy there. You can have custom rubber stamps made. I have them made for my coffee shop. But he would be a really interesting person to talk with, if you can find him, on, you know, the nature of a truly — because his, to me, is a shop that like would never be opened today. It makes absolutely no economic sense to open a rubber stamp shop but he manages to survive. He has a following and people go there for rubber stamps. When he goes, I’ll be very sad and I’m highly doubtful that anyone would take over his business. The other half of this too, is that people who aren’t in small business don’t truly appreciate, I think, the temporal nature of small business in the sense that it is not something that people generally pass on to their children. It can happen but usually, people start their small business to then provide a future for their children that’s outside of those– of that business. They– and neither the parent or the child wants the child to take over. The parent’s perfectly happy to retire and close up shop and say, “I put in my forty or fifty years and I’m done and not get too emotional about it.” I think emotion actually is more on the part of the would-be consumer than it is on the actual business person themselves. I mean … and I also know from the standpoint of someone who’s opened and closed businesses that it’s very sad when you develop a following and you have a clientele and they’re loyal to you and then you tell them, “Sorry we’re closing,” but ultimately, what’s more sad is the fact that you’ve lost a ton of money. And that you’re not willing to loose anymore and that you don’t see a successful exit so you have to cut your losses. So there’s practicalities there, right? The business owners are much more conscious of that than I think the news media and all the kind of the… all that’s written about it. It kinda doesn’t address that. Business owners are practical people. We open businesses for our own economic purposes. We keep them open, I’ll say, not for nostalgia. Sometimes out of inertia but certainly not nostalgia and to somehow keep something going at all costs.
Interviewer: What would you say though about, in the face of the growing global internet age, the place of more niche shops? I spoke with Bonnie Slotnick the other day who’s a great example of someone who’s really knowledgeable in a very specific topic and definitely unique in her role in the community. And even though that might not provide super pressing services for any given community member, it does create this sort of uniqueness to a neighborhood that we’ve talked about creating a value that people are drawn to. So, in the face of our growing dependence on the internet, do you feel like we need to do extra measures taken to protect more niche business?
Jamie: Absolutely yeah. The world shouldn’t be just one hardware store, one coffee shop, one restaurant. One of the beautiful things about retail is that the barrier to entry is low enough where if you really are passionate about particular thing. Like you wanna sell just sweatshirts. Look I only want to sell sweatshirts. That’s all I wanna do. You can open a sweatshirt shop. As long as you find the capital, you have a passion and a drive and you can put together an intelligent business plan that lays out in a way that’s gonna make you money. It’s possible to do it. Retail are the laboratories of where public opinion, public organizations where consumers are going. Even more so than the internet because it’s a real time thing. Right? So no. I think there’s absolutely a place for those kinds of shops. I think where we… Again where we as a society need to adjust our expectations. This idea that the only value that… the only monetizable value that a store creates is the purchase itself, is the transaction, when someone comes in and buys the good. When in fact the value is something less tangible and that’s where a lot of my… One of the struggles of coffee shops deal with as you probably know is you go to a coffee shop full of people on laptops, at most each one of those persons– people probably spent like five bucks. So it’s my job to constantly be thinking, “How do I get more people to spend more money on something that they value?” And I don’t have the solution to it but there are ways of doing it that are legislative and that are also just more business oriented. So we’re getting there. Yeah.
Interviewer: I would love to hear you describe your daily path through your neighborhood. Who do you see, what are the friendly faces that you encounter that are important to you?
Jamie: Well an interesting thing happened to me this morning. I was on my way to meet with an executive director of a non-profit in our neighborhood. Really wonderful guy and a wonderful organization and I had a great conversation with him about all the work they’re doing. But on the way there, I saw a man walking very slowly down the street and I recognized him. He’s a man named Moe. And Moe is probably about eighty seven years old. He… When we had our coffee shop on East Broadway and Clinton, he would come in every day, every single day, he would get a coffee and a muffin. And he’d walk in and he’d go “That’s a damn good muffins yeah.” Then he’d sit down and he’d eat the muffin and then he’d like point at me and be like “Did I ever tell you” and then he’d tell me a story. And usually I’d already heard the story but it was nice to hear that story again. ‘Cause it would be about some experience he had in the neighborhood. Like at an old restaurant that didn’t exist anymore or at a, I don’t know, at a park he used to go to or a friend he used to have. And then he would say “Thank you very much” and he would leave. He would come back the next day and next day. And I saw him today and I hadn’t seen him in years because we closed our store. By the way, we did close our store in East Broadway. I forgot to mention that. We… An interesting thing happened to… that I discovered in small business. When you have a store… There are different reasons why people come into your business and shop there, right? There’s convenience which, if you’re in coffee, that’s the ideal. You want your coffee to be as convenient as possible. And I’ve learned that since. And I only build coffee shops in places where I truly believe they’ll be convenient. The problem with the coffee shop we had was that it wasn’t convenient to get there. It was a couple of blocks from the subway, not in the way to anything, didn’t really– there wasn’t a very dense population there. And when the business owner’s in there it’s like this powerful thing. Like “Oh the owner’s there. You can talk to him. He’s great.” And then as soon as I opened my other stores and I had to split my time, the business started to decline. And it declined back to the point at which the revenue level which I bought it where it kind of stayed which was not profitable. And so I had to make a decision do I run an unprofitable business that people love but not enough people are buying coffee at, or do I leave and, as I said, we’re practical people. We’re not sentimental. If it means we’re gonna go out of business. But so I haven’t seen Moe in about two years. And I thought about talking to him. I’m sure he’d recognize me but I realized I just wanted to… and this is gonna sound a little creepy, but I just wanted to watch him walk down the street. I missed him and I missed his stories but really I was just so glad that he was still there. He’s been there for eighty seven years and… that’s… When you can age in place and call a place you’re home for almost nine decades, that’s incredible. So that’s I think a lot of why I put in the time I do for this neighborhood it’s because of people like that. It’s because that’s really special. To have that kind of depth of history and of experience and… We’ll lose that unless we fight for it. That’s why I choose to take on this role of chair of the community board and I’m gonna put in my time.
Amy runs Amy Li projects, a gallery which she opened in her father’s Chinatown button store in 2013. Her father opened his store at their location at 166 Mott Street in 1982.
Interviewer: How has the neighborhood changed since you were little?
Li: It was mostly just residents. There were no tourists at all. And in the past, people would hold parking spots here by just putting chairs out and there was no one walking around. It was mostly people that worked around here or lived in these tenement buildings. So I was worried about having–starting a gallery here because, from what I remember growing up, it was so quiet. I was worried about starting a gallery here because, from what I remember growing up, it was desolate basically. But I discovered, in 2013, when I started, that it was so popular and there was so much walking traffic. I was really surprised.
Interviewer: Since you grew up on this block, do you remember who your old neighbors were?
Li: Yes, many of them are still here. The hair salon across the street, the grocery store and the bakery across the street, so I still see the same faces.
Interviewer: Does it feel like a community on your block?
Li: More so in the past. But lately, all these clothing stores moved here across the street and next door. They moved from SoHo because the rents are higher compared to here.
Interviewer: What were sort of the businesses that you frequented growing up?
Li: It was very convenient here. All the grocery stores are a block away and just most of anything that you need living here. Yeah, there were no problems with access or transportation.
Interviewer: Are you worried about the changing neighborhood? Do you have reservations about it? I mean, it probably supports your business…
Li: Yeah, I’ve been trying to answer that question for the past three years because everyone is curious. But I think there is a good side and a bad side because I feel unstable here just seeing what’s going on on Bowery Street. Sometimes I feel like being here, it’s day to day. Like, I don’t know if the block will be sold next week. So just–I’ve been reading a lot about Manhattan in the news. Even Inwood is protesting changes. But at the same time, all these visitors have helped me and my business.
Interviewer: I read some of your previous interviews and you described the confusion that people have when they come in here and then they meet your dad and they see the buttons. How do you navigate that?
Li: It varies because many tourists think that–they look at what’s in the window and they think it’s a tattoo shop or they think it’s a gun shop. So it’s been entertaining for me just-it’s a button store. Most of them have never seen one before.
Interviewer: I’m sure you get during openings, a lot of artists and different people. Does your dad attend? Does he participate in the gallery at all?
Li: During my openings, he stays in the back and he watches everyone. So he pretends that he is working, but he is actually seeing if anyone is misbehaving because I do serve wine. And he is supportive and he is helpful. If someone has had too much to drink, he would just push them out. And people love seeing him. They think he is sweet.
Interviewer: He is sweet. There is also a very big TV back there.
Li: Yeah. He got it just to watch soccer.
Interviewer: Could you talk a little bit about community responses to the changing neighborhood? Do you have any stories about people who you personally know, who’ve been maybe negatively affected the gentrifying process that’s happened?
Li: No. I don’t know of anyone he knows that was affected negatively, but he does have friends that were once landlords. And they just–they sold their buildings for a lot more than what they bought it for. It was their way of just adapting to the change that they don’t want to deal with. The constant speculation by developers, they just–they are old and retired, they just sold it and moved on. And I can’t think of anyone that lost their jobs, but most of his customers and his friends, they work here, but they live elsewhere.
All photos accompanying Amy Li’s interview by Isabel Dietz Hartmann.
This post is part of FABnyc’s summer-fall oral history project undertaken by former FAB intern Molly Taylor, an NYU student from California, who has worked with FAB numerous times over the years. You can see the her part 1 of this blog series here.