If you look far enough back in time, all of New York City was covered by nature. Back in 1609, Avenue A between 3rd and 4th streets was likely filled with red maples, meadow voles, hawks, and a variety of wild mice (“Welikia 1609 Map”). Besides the few mice that are probably running around in people’s buildings there today, this block would be unrecognizable to anyone who’d known it in 1609. Today, it’s just another small piece of the great New York City.
And now, this small block of NYC contains something else. From the outside, it looks like just another small store. But when you walk in, a burst of color hits you. Shelves on the walls hold a rainbow of yarns.
Photo credit: Truly Johnson
This is Downtown Yarns, a small shop owned by a woman named Rita. It has been around for 15 years, on Avenue A between 3rd and 4th streets. It may have not been around since the meadow voles ran rampant, but it has survived for fifteen years, a long time when you think of all the small businesses that close within their first year.
Then there’s Obscura Antiques and Oddities. Obscura is about as far away from an ordinary store as you can get. Walk into this shop on Avenue A between 12th and 13th street and you’ll see a two headed cow, a Ouija board, and a basket of old dolls, among other things. They have been in the area even longer than Downtown Yarns: 25 years.
Photo credit: Truly Johnson
I had heard that most small business owners actually don’t live in the same neighborhood their business is located. Co-owners Evan Michelson and Mike Zohn of Obscura live all the way in New Jersey, for instance. So it was surprising when I asked Rita if she lived in the city and she replied “I actually live upstairs”. As it turns out, Rita originally owned a flower shop in a different area for almost 20 years. But it was a difficult job. “I just didn’t want to work that hard anymore” she said. Not only that, but the location was farther away, so she had to leave her dog at home to go to work, which she didn’t like. So when she saw the store right below where she lived was for rent, she jumped at the opportunity and chose to open a yarn store. “I was getting to love knitting, so I decided to give it a try” she told me.
That decision seems to have paid off for Rita. “It isn’t a super lucrative business, but it’s a nice, easy, pleasant life”, she said, seeming content.
Life on Avenue A hasn’t always been easy. The first record I could find of the address 45 Avenue A was a small newspaper article from September 28, 1886 with the dramatic headline “TAKEN SICK IN THE STREET”. It describes the story of Mrs. Louisa Gunzer, a 55 year old woman who lived at 45 Avenue A. On the way back from visiting a cemetery, she had a hemorrhage of the lungs. Thankfully though, she was taken care of by an ambulance surgeon.
The brushes with danger don’t end there. Less than a year later, on May 8, 1887, a fire broke out at 45 Avenue A. At that time there was a business there, the Klingenstein Brothers’ Clothing House, which was immensely damaged by the fire. Most of the Klingenstein brothers’ goods were destroyed and they estimated that they lost $60,000. In addition, a nearby photograph gallery and an apartment took damage, and a young child had to be carried out of the apartment so he wouldn’t be suffocated or burned (“$50,000 Fire In Broadway”). All this research makes it seem like Avenue A was quite the dramatic place back in the 1880s.
But that doesn’t mean there are no challenges for Downtown Yarns in the present. New times bring their own problems. The main struggle, Rita says, is a challenge “for any small business… just competing with the web”. Nowadays, many people are turning to online retailers for many of the products they want and need, including yarn. So Rita had to find ways to keep people coming into her store. Her main strategy? “We try to be as nice as possible” Rita said. This includes giving out patterns for free when people buy yarns in addition to just having a friendly attitude. Downtown Yarns also has knitting classes for those interested in learning the craft, something which would be hard to get online. But for those who do spend significant time on the internet, Downtown Yarns has a social media presence on Facebook and Instagram. With these various tactics, the shop has managed to do well as a small storefront, even during a time of increased online buying.
Fortunately for Rita, paying rent is not as much of an issue to her as it is for others. “I actually just renewed my lease” she informed me, “I asked them to keep it the same, you know, because I couldn’t continue if they were gonna raise the rent. And they agreed.” But unfortunately, not all of the city’s landlords are as nice as Rita’s.
“Back in the early 90’s rent was cheap” said Evan Michelson, co-owner of Obscura Antiques and Oddities, when I asked why she and the other owner, Mike Zohn, had started the business, “It didn’t make sense not to”. To put it in perspective, their original storefront on 10th street was only $250 a month to rent. They had rented the storefront after another owner of a similar business left.
Of course, then the neighborhood had other issues. “You’d actually hear gunfire and drug dealing on every block” they told me. The only businesses in the area were Obscura, a bathhouse, and a few drug fronts. But as Obscura became more established, other legitimate businesses began to move in. As Evan put it, Obscura “helped anchor the block”. And so, after maintaining a business in a dangerous neighborhood for 15 years and helping to slowly improve that neighborhood, what did Evan and Mike get in return? Their landlord quadrupled their rent.
Now, at least, they have a new landlord who’s a “decent human being”. That, along with the fact that they are a well established business in the neighborhood has allowed them to survive. However, their rent is still vastly more expensive than it was in the nineties, and despite the mayor expressing concern about this issue, the government still isn’t doing much to help. Additionally, many businesses around Obscura have either been closing or moving. St. Mark’s Books and Trash and Vaudeville, two local businesses, are gone. And another antiques store, Upper Rust, moved to Chelsea for cheaper rent. “When Chelsea rents are cheaper than the East Village you know there’s something really wrong,” commented Mike.
What happened to Avenue A? The same thing that has happened to neighborhoods all across New York City: gentrification. Rents are rising, richer people are moving in, and some places are being priced out. Not only have Rita, Evan, and Mike all noticed this phenomenon, there’s data to back it up too:
This data clearly illustrates how the neighborhood has become richer in the past 14 years. There are many fewer households making less than $10,000, and more households making more than $100,000 dollars. In the area of Obscura especially, Evan and Mike pointed out that the customer base has changed. Obscura always attracted all sorts of unusual people, and its location has helped with that. People all over the world come to visit Obscura, people of all ages, races, and genders. “Everyone you’d expect and people you’d never expect” said Mike, describing Obscura’s customers. “Some people you think ‘oh, this guy shops here’ and other people look like they walked out of a boardroom.”
But is one group of people who don’t come to Obscura so much anymore. “We used to get a lot more starving artists… in the old, old days” said Evan. “They were very good company.” But with the rising rents of the neighborhood, the starving artists are gone looking for a more affordable place to live. “They all starved,” Mike said playfully.This makes sense within the larger patterns of gentrification, considering the amount of rich households in Obscura’s census tract has increased since 2000.
We used to get a lot more starving artists… in the old, old days. Rita
Rita has also noticed changes in the people who come to her business. One of Rita’s favorite parts of owning the business has always been “the people that come in”. She likes that she lives and works in the same neighborhood, that she has become part of this neighborhood. But she does have a few complaints about what the block has become, specifically during the night. “It’s pretty noisy and raucous, a lot of bars” she told me, disapprovingly. “It’s okay to have a neighborhood pub,” she added, “but not a destination for, no offense, college students to just, like, puke all over the sidewalk.”
As it turns out, the data shows that the number of college students in the Rita’s census tract and much of the surrounding area has also increased in the last 14 years:
This trend makes a lot of sense. Since the neighborhood is richer, more people can afford to go to college. And having rich college students in the area increases the demand for pricier businesses, making the neighborhood even richer. It’s a cycle of gentrification that makes it difficult for people and businesses that aren’t rich to stay in the area.
So, what does the future hold for this avenue, once a forest, once the site of fire and sickness, now the site of the other brutal force of gentrification? Will it turn into just another haven for the rich? Rita, for one, is not too concerned about the future of the neighborhood. “There’s a solid core of people who keep things in check… to keep this neighborhood what it is, and what it’s always been” she said.
Part of that core is the East Village Independent Merchants Association, EVIMA. Although Rita is not part of EVIMA, she has been to one of their meetings and found it pretty interesting. She even made a connection with a cookbook store owner who wanted to have some knitting in her backyard. “I’m excited about that,” Rita said.
And other small business owners were not the only people at the EVIMA meeting. Quite a few representatives of government programs arrived too. In fact, “there were more people [whose] job was to help small business than actual small businessmen” according to Rita. “I don’t know how helpful it is, but, you know, it doesn’t hurt” she continued.
Is it enough though? Can one organization really combat the tide of gentrification that has sent changed other neighborhoods so drastically. Not every business in the area even has time to participate in EVIMA, including Downtown Yarns. “Whatever free time I have, I’d rather have with my family” said Rita, and many other small business owners likely have similar sentiments. While EVIMA and similar associations are definitely helpful, there is more the city government could do to prevent small businesses from going under due to changes they can not control, like rising rents. At this point, NYC small business needs as much help as it can get.
Whatever free time I have, I'd rather have with my family. Rita
Hopefully, New York’s small businesses won’t end up with the same fate as New York’s forests of the 1600s. Hopefully, the small businesses of the city will continue to survive and thrive.
“$50,000 Fire In Broadway” The Sun [New York] 8 May 1887. Newspapers.com. Web. 1
“East Village Independent Merchants Association (EVIMA).” East Village Community
Coalition. East Village Community Coalition. Web. 01 May 2016.
“Taken Sick in the Street.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle [New York] 26 Sept. 1886.
Newspapers.com. Web. 1 May 2016.
“Welikia 1609 Map.” Wildlife Conservation Society. Web. 1 May 2016.