Our Research 

In pairs, students interviewed four small business owners in an area of the city that they chose in consultation with their professor. They gathered oral histories, over 110 in total, that ranged in length from 20 minutes to well over 2 hours. In the process, they covered a wide range of topics, from the business owners’ personal biographies and backgrounds, to the primary challenges and opportunities confronting small business owners, to changing neighborhood demographics or economics.

After interviewing business owners, students used a variety of archival sources to research the history of the block, the street, or the neighborhood in which the business is located, drawing links between specific people and places of consumption with the larger narratives of social, political, and economic change in which they are embedded.

In most cases, students chose to interview owners of businesses that have been in operation for more than a decade – merchants who have successfully navigated the troubled waters of commerce in New York City for a long time, relative to many of their peers. But even owners of younger businesses had interesting and important stories to tell about how they had managed to stay in business and, in many cases, to thrive, in spite of the formidable obstacles standing in their way. The stories are those of Storefront Survivors, whose experiences, we hope, will help to shed light on the perils facing small business in contemporary New York City.

By collecting oral histories from small business owners across the city, students gained a window into the contemporary struggles faced by small business owners. But these interactions resulted in more than just an interview transcript. Students gained direct, experiential insight into the topics covered in the class: immigration, diversity, pluralism and multiculturalism, as well as gentrification, ethnic succession, and neighborhood change. And in many cases, they connected with small business owners based on common interests or shared heritage, forming a bond that transcended classroom learning and pedagogy altogether.

Meanwhile, in our classroom at Hunter, we returned to the role of small business owners as protagonists of cultural and social change and focal points for controversy throughout the history of New York City. We discussed the importance of Irish and German saloons to the political organization of Five Points in the mid 19th Century. We talked about the glorious and troubled history of street vending in the city, from Hester Street merchants in the Jewish Lower East Side, to contemporary Halal carts in Astoria. We then pursued this discussion up to the present, considering the fate of small businesses in areas of the city undergoing redevelopment, from the repair shops of Willets Point to the independent merchants of Fulton Mall.