Last night I attended a small-business forum organized by Manhattan's Community Board 4 that addressed the problematic future of New York's small businesses. The meeting was held in conjunction with a screening of Virginie Alvine-Perrette's documentary, Twilight Becomes Night, in which she recorded the gradual disappearance of several mom-and pop stores in the city. I first met Perrette while interviewing her for an Inc.com article (you can read it here).
The panel discussion included council members, academics, and high-ranking representatives of various organizations serving the city's small businesses. The occasion may have been neighborhood-centric, but most panelists agreed that New York, with its bodegas and small boutiques, could be the last frontier for independent business in the U.S. More than 200,000 small-businesses still exist in New York. But as chain drug stores and banks begin dominating Manhattan's avenues—it's no longer unheard-of to spot two branches of the same bank in one block—this frontier may be closing soon.
"There's a potential loss of the city's uniqueness," said Jonathan Bowles, director of Center for an Urban Future, a local think tank.
As with national bailout plans, any rescue incentive for mom-and pop ventures is bound to awaken the question of government responsibility. To what degree should politicians interfere, and how much should be left up to the community? Would a rent-abatement law be a feasible solution?
"This is almost a mini-version of the conversation that's going on in Washington," said Ester Fuchs, Columbia University professor.
Perrette's documentary may span the first half of this decade, but the film takes on a new degree of poignancy in today's economic climate. If the big, bad banks are in need of government help, shouldn't the bodegas be asking for their share?
Twilight Becomes Night will be shown tonight at the Richmond Hill Historical Society in Queens. For a schedule of future screenings, go to http://www.twilightbecomesnight.com/.