Interview: Will The Soul of New York City Completely Disappear?

A conversation with the husband and wife photographers documenting the disappearing institutions that make New York City, New York City. 

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"Over 80% of the 325 stores we had photographed for our first book on the subject, "Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York", published in 2008, have already disappeared."

James and Karla Murray's critically acclaimed photography books Storefront: The Dissappearing Face of New York and Storefront II: A History Preserved The Disappearing Face of New York ultimately poses the question, "Is the fate of New York City to become the world's largest strip mall?" The impetus for such a scenario would mean the continuing dissolution of the institutions - the mom and pop businesses that form the seams of the patchwork communities throughout the 5 boroughs.

Even the most premium fashion brands in the world have fallen prey to rent hikes, creating a widespread sterilization of commercial homogeny that has us worried for the future of NYC culture.  Through the documentation of the local businesses and in meeting with their owners, we were eager to chat with James and Karla to understand their perspective on these trends..

What did you hope to message to your followers with your Disappearing Face of New York project? 

We hope our project will bring awareness to the unique character small mom-and-pop businesses add to the streets and neighborhoods of New York City and the sense of community they provide. . We also hope that viewers will frequent small businesses so that they will continue to survive for many more years.

Why are these businesses so important to a local neighborhood and to the city as a whole? 

Many traditional "mom and pop" neighborhood businesses, including ones that have prevailed for a century or more, are rapidly disappearing in the face of economic pressures, cookie-cutter franchises, and rapidly changing demographics. This process is happening with extraordinary speed in New York City, and the once unique appearance and character of the neighborhood's colorful streets are suffering—as is the community that the businesses once brought together.  

Many shops are lifelines for their communities, vital to the residents who depend on them for a multitude of needs. When these small independent businesses close, the whole look and feel of the neighborhood changes, often losing its individuality and charm. These neighborhood storefronts have the city’s history etched in their facades. 

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Storefront signs seemed to be so much more ornate and detailed with messaging as if they were trying harder to attract customers. Do you think social media and the internet play a role in simplifying the need for creative and instructive storefront signage where it still exists? 

In New York City, there are many rules and regulations governing what you can and cannot put on storefront signage and they even dictate the size of the signage. Many owners told us about New York City’s rules and regulations concerning store signage and awnings, and the aggravation and huge expenses these cause. We had no idea permits and fees were required for neon signs or large overhanging signs, and that the city is no longer issuing new neon permits in most neighborhoods.

In fact in many areas of the city, strict zoning ensures that storefront signage and awnings remain discreet and not hang over 18 inches from the sidewalk. Older stores are often forced to comply with these newer regulations and must modernize despite the owners’ wishes. 

Years ago, your storefront sign was all you had as a form of advertising to attract new customers (and of course good old fashioned word of mouth) since there was no social media or Internet to help drive traffic. We speak with many owners and find that those who have the younger generation (teenagers, people in their 20s and 30s) working with them, tend to embrace social media/Internet and use it to their advantage. It is definitely important to use every toll available to help your business thrive and grow. Perhaps exterior signage is a bit less important these days, but we still believe that "a business with no sign, is a sign of no business" and we really admire business owners who lovingly maintain their original storefront signage including original neon signs from the 1930s and 1940s. 

James and Karla Murray

Egregiously high commercial rents are changing and in many areas, decimating the small business footprint. What, if anything do you think can be done to curtail this? 

James and Karla Murray

Over 80% of the 325 stores we had photographed for our first book on the subject, "Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York", published in 2008, have already disappeared. (When we wrote our introduction to the book in 2008, only 1/3rd of the businesses had closed). Even in our latest "Store Front II-A History Preserved" book which was just recently published in 2016, over 30 percent of the small businesses we documented have closed.

Despite this, we like to think of our Store Front books as a celebration of small mom-and-pop stores and businesses. Similar to an Irish wake, where we celebrate the memories of the ones we have lost, while at the same time recognizing the ones that are still here. 

We are happy that people in NYC are trying to change things politically to help store owners negotiate new fair rents and help put other regulations in place limiting chain stores in certain neighborhoods but political action can be a slow process so we believe that the best thing we can do in the meantime, is to actively support small businesses and advocate to shop small and local. We don't expect that all the forces that cause these stores to close can be stopped but supporting small mom-and-pop stores by shopping in them definitely helps stem the tide. 

As businesses disappear in one place, we’ve seen creative entrepreneurs spread outward to the brims of the 5 boroughs, and often heading for other cities altogether. Where are some good examples of areas you’ve seen local businesses continuing to thrive? What do you think the future holds for these areas? 

Although many of the stores which appear in our publications have sadly closed, we definitely want to stress that many of the small mom-and-pop businesses we photographed are thriving, including "Morscher's Pork Store" in Ridgewood, Queens. Morscher's Pork Store is thriving because the 2nd -generation owner Herbert Morscher told us that" We have upgraded our kitchen throughout the years to keep up with the times. This is very important to our family, to maintain the old standards, but to able to function in the 21st century...."

The "House of Oldies" in Greenwich Village, which has sold only records since its opening in 1969 is also thriving. The owner Bob Abramson told us that "business has increased for me in the past few years because kids are now buying vinyl. Vinyl is back!" 

What are/were some of your favorite storefronts in NYC? 

We were at first visually attracted to the mom and pop shops original signage, including both hand-painted signs and neon signs, architectural adornment, and hand-made window displays.  But even though the project was initially primarily driven by visual aesthetics, after speaking with only a handful of the storeowners, the scope of the project became larger as we discovered that many of the shop owners had fascinating stories to share about the joys and struggles of surviving as a family business in New York City. 

One of our favorite neighborhoods to photograph facades and storefronts would be the East Village and Lower East Side of Manhattan. It is definitely hard to narrow down a single street because there are quite a few, but if we had to pick two, they would be East 11th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue as it still has many beautiful old tenement buildings and small mom-and-pop shops and has two old Italian food businesses, each well over 100 years old, that stand next door to one another in a rather symbiotic relationship, Russo''s Mozzarella & Pasta and Veniero's Pasticerria.

The other street would be East Houston Street between Ludlow and Chyrstie Streets. Even though this street is more well known it is worth seeing the juxtaposition of the centuries old businesses including Katz's Delicatessen (since 1888), Russ & Daughters Appetizers (since 1914) and Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery (since 1910) vs. the shiny new multi-story glass towers that have been erected recently.

James and Karla Murray

What is the general sentiment of these business owners and what do you think the ones that continue to thrive are doing differently, or does it just come down to owning the building or being lucky with a great, long term rental agreement? 

In our interviews, we learned so many fascinating details from the owners about the struggles of surviving as a family business in New York City. One of the most common things we heard was how their neighborhoods have changed over the years and how this has affected their business. Gentrification and skyrocketing rents were huge concerns.

We noticed very early on in the project, that if the owner did not own the entire building, their business was already in jeopardy of closing. The owners themselves frequently acknowledged that they were at the mercy of their landlords and the ever-increasing rents they charged. So this definitely is the NUMBER 1. reason why businesses continue to thrive, while others close. Due to the commonality of high rent increases, after the small business had closed, it was often replaced by a chain-type store or banking institution, which could afford the higher rent or the whole building was converted into a luxury condo. If the location was too small a footprint or the locale was deemed undesirable by a chain-type store, the space often remained vacant, sometimes for years. It does help, however, when an older business maintains their old standards but is able to function in the 21st century. 

Owners who were fortunate enough to own the entire building where the business was located still worried about the future. In some cases they had no one in their family who wanted to take over the business when they retire, bringing to an end a long line of family tradition. This especially seems to be the case in food-related businesses where there are long hours and labor-intensive work to do.

Can you tell us a little bit about your new project in Seward Park this summer?

For our "Mom-and-Pops of the L.E.S." installation at Seward Park in the Lower East Side this June, we are installing an 8 foot height x 12 foot width rectangular wood-frame sculpture consisting of near life-size photographs of four mom-and-pop neighborhood stores of the Lower East Side, which are no longer in business and have sadly disappeared from the streetscape; a bodega, a coffee shop/luncheonette, a vintage store, and a newsstand.  Each of these shops represent small businesses that were common in the Lower East Side and helped bring the community together through people’s daily interactions.

When viewing the near life-size photographs one can get a visceral sense of the impact of the losses, on our experience of the city and on those who once depended on the shops that are now gone. The installation is a plea for recognition of the unique and irreplaceable contribution made to New York by small, often family-owned businesses. These neighborhood stores help set the pulse, life, and texture of their communities.

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Thanks to James & Karla for taking the time to approach a topic that is near and dear to our hearts. We are truly appreciative.

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