Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sunnyside Restaurants Feel Pinch as Residents Cut Back

When politicians blame Wall Street greed for the financial crisis wreaking havoc on Main Streets across the country, news watchers may think of New York City as synonymous with high-flying corporate executives. 

Within 30 minutes of boarding a subway train at the Wall Street station, however, riders can find Main Streets throughout New York itself.  The elevated 7 train runs above one of these streets, Queens Boulevard in Sunnyside, Queens. Here, Korean, Colombian, Irish, Mexican, Romanian and Turkish restaurants are squeezed between fast-food chains, banks and barbershops.

Made up of working and middle-class residents, Sunnyside is not a community filled with people losing financial sector jobs. Nevertheless, restaurant owners throughout the neighborhood attest to a sharp drop in business over the last two weeks.

“People hear news about how bad the economy is right now and they don’t want to go out,” said Bruno Robles, 32, owner of Moment’s Steakhouse & Lounge on Greenpoint Avenue. “Business has been slower than usual since March, but in the last few weeks it has been even worse.”

Even proprietors who felt their restaurants were thriving earlier this year say their businesses hit a wall in late September as Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual and other national firms began collapsing in what felt like rapid succession.

“I haven’t seen it this bad in the whole time I’ve been open,” said Aziz Dogan, 32, owner of the five-year-old Turkish Grill on Queens Boulevard, where entrees cost between $10 and $16.50. “In the last two weeks our sales have dropped about 20 percent.”

A few blocks away on 42nd Street, Dorina Suciu, the owner of Transylvania Restaurant reports a similar sharp decline in business.

“We had a very good August,” said Suciu. “Now business has dropped a lot, probably about 30 percent from last month.”

Diners who are still eating out are likely to be cutting back.

“Now our busy days are less predictable,” said Tim Chen, 42, who owns Skillman Avenue’s Quaint where entrees range between $11 and $21. “And, instead of ordering an appetizer, entrée and dessert people will just get the entrée or skip the dessert.”

While frugal residents might be expected to spend more money at the neighborhood’s grocery stores, Leo Gutierrez, manager of the Associated Supermarket on Greenpoint Avenue, said his store at least has not seen any evidence of residents stocking up to eat at home.

“We’ve had sales decrease about 10% in the last two months,” said Gutierrez, 42. “Prices are increasing on everything and we have seen people cut back all year, even on cheaper items. Last year we sold 10 trailers of rice, so far this year we’ve only sold two.”

Sunnyside is hardly the only neighborhood in the city where restaurants are feeling the pinch of cost-cutting customers. According to E. Charles Hunt, executive vice president of the New York State Restaurant Association, eating out is one of the first things budgeting consumers cut back on.

“If you want to buy a pair of shoes, even if the shoes are too expensive, it is unlikely you have the ability to make the shoes at home instead,” said Hunt. “If someone can’t afford to eat out, they have the ability to make meals in their homes.”

At Turkish Grill, fewer diners for the foreseeable future means cutting back and putting plans on hold.

“We’ve cut down on labor and are trying to buy in bulk to cut down on other costs,” said Dogan, who until recently had plans to expand his business into Manhattan by opening a second restaurant there. “We applied for a loan to but haven’t received word about whether we’ll get it. Now, with the way things are going, I don’t think we are going to hear anything.”

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Kennedy and Quindlen attend fundraiser to mobilize pro-choice vote

Calling the upcoming election the most important in a lifetime, Caroline Kennedy addressed attendees of NARAL Pro-Choice America’s annual National Power of Choice Luncheon today. The afternoon’s keynote speaker, Anna Quindlen followed up by telling the audience fostering open debate is the key to winning over undecided voters.

As the national media studies the mounting get-out-the-vote effort being coordinated by Sen. Obama’s presidential campaign, today’s luncheon in Rockefeller Center’s chandeliered Rainbow Room seemed like a voter-mobilization primer for the well-heeled. Luncheon attendees paid between $150 and $500 for individual tickets and up to $25,000 for tables and were eager to pitch in to elect a pro-choice candidate.

“Being here today is important because of McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin, who is so against abortion,” said Dr. Sheila Erlich, 54, who has donated to NARAL, a pro-choice advocacy organization, for years but was attending the luncheon fundraiser for the first time. “It’s frustrating. Choice should be a personal issue and it has become a political one. When it is made political, we should have the money and resources to fight back.”

For luncheon attendees a sense of urgency surrounding the upcoming election stemmed from fear that the Supreme Court’s support for Roe v. Wade, the decision prohibiting state laws that unduly restrict access to abortion as a violation of women’s privacy, is in danger.

“Since 2004 two new Supreme Court judges have been nominated who are hostile to Roe v. Wade and we know there will likely be three more nominations during the next administration,” said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, in her opening remarks. “The four that will be left after that tend to be the more moderate and liberal justices.”

Kennedy, appearing as a surrogate for Sen. Obama, said that the upcoming presidential election will be the most important in a lifetime.

“Only when we re-engage this generation will we be able to make the changes this country needs,” she said. “We know what needs to change. We need the kind of president that will lead us and challenge us to make those changes ourselves. That is the kind of president Barack Obama will be.”

Quindlen, a regular columnist for Newsweek and author of several books, focused on the message of the pro-choice movement and reaching out to people who are undecided about whether abortion should be legal.

“If we become the people who invite discussion and debate about these difficult questions, we will attract people who are tired of being told that someone else knows best,” she said, referring to Washington politicians. “Winning means bringing the undecided to our side. This is work that has to be done in the messy gray zone of individual conscience.”

Few political issues elicit the heated emotions abortion does, both from those who oppose it and those who work to keep it legal. Some argue, though, that activists’ focus on Roe v. Wade is little more than political theater.

“It is unlikely any president would nominate a justice that would overturn Roe v. Wade,” said Jamal Greene, assistant professor of law at Columbia University School of Law specializing in constitutional law. “It is a very popular decision and a flat out prohibition of abortion from Congress would be unconstitutional.”

Whether politicians’ stances on abortion are a matter of true conviction or convenient pandering probably does not matter to women like those attending this afternoon’s luncheon. As Quindlen put it, these women are interested in ‘winning.’ 

Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Artisits

Stepping from the grimy hallway into the large room with white walls, floor and ceiling and large glass block windows that let light pour into every corner is like entering another world. Jo Q. Nelson calls it Softbox.

Softbox is a live/work loft occupying part of a warehouse’s third floor on the western edge of Sunnyside, Queens. Nelson’s neighbors are mostly textile businesses and her residential use of the loft is legally questionable. Despite this, Softbox will be open to the public for the first time this Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

This weekend’s open house is part of Living Room, a 10-site art show organized by Flux Factory, a Long Island City artists’ collective. Designed as a changeable space, Softbox is a sculptural experiment able to host not only artists’ work, but artists themselves.

“I wanted to create a place for artists who are first moving to the city or visiting for projects to stay,” said Nelson, 31, a part-time master’s student at “Studio space is expensive and hard to find. This way someone can arrive in the city and have a place to live and work right away.”

The loft contains two “pods” constructed of wood planks and corrugated, translucent white plastic. Both are set on rolling platforms, which glide easily despite weighing about 400 pounds. One pod is Nelson’s bedroom and work space while the other will be used by visiting artists, whom Nelson will charge a small fee.

“The pods are discrete in terms of live/work spaces,” said Nelson. “Having another artist here doesn’t take over the space – you can still use this corner for a show or move the pods to make room for a new piece.”

Examining spaces and how people interact with them is the focus of most of Nelson’s work, which made her, and Softbox, a natural fit for Living Room. The project’s 10 sites in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn are normally private spaces such as homes or apartment building rooftops. The show was organized in conjunction with openhousenewyork’s sixth annual OHNY Weekend, an event that celebrates New York City’s architecture and design by opening about 200 sites in all five boroughs to the public.

“A lot of Flux’s projects are about what it means to inhabit a space and live there,” said Chen Tamir, 29 and executive director of Flux Factory. “Living Room is about blurring the lines between public and private and encouraging people to engage with and explore their own city.”

Using multiple locations for the project is part of Flux Factory’s effort to cope with losing their living, work and gallery space earlier this year. Their building on 43rd Street was seized through eminent domain by the Metropolitan Transit Authority to make way for the East Side Access project that will connect the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal.

Losing affordable places for artists to live and work across the city was one of the driving forces behind Nelson’s idea for Softbox.

“I’m very romantic about SoHo in the 70’s when artists could have huge lofts for $75 a month, even if people were burning cars outside,” she said. “Then, you could survive by painting one apartment a month and spend the rest of the time working on your art. Softbox is my attempt to keep New York accessible for and networked with the artistic community.”

The light industrial corridor west of Sunnyside, humming with business activity, is unlikely to become an artists’ ghetto reminiscent of 1970’s SoHo. But for Nelson, carving out nooks where artists can live and work cheaply may be the key to maintaining a thriving creative community in the city.