In Flushing, the sidewalks on the blocks around the 7 stop at Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue are crowded as local residents and regional visitors return to the shopping, dining and personal care routines that have allowed hordes of new businesses to hot on their heels to reopen a wave of Covid-related closures.
“I was impressed by how quickly we recovered as a community,” said Dian Yu, executive director of the Downtown Flushing Transit Hub Business Improvement District. The resurgence is due to regional visitors and the everyday routines that drive families to hand out dim sum, groceries for the week and various beauty treatments, he said. Since Covid, nearly half a dozen new bubble tea spots have joined several already in the neighborhood. This is where the young people of the district now sip drinks and meet. In addition, steady real estate deals keep a number of law and accountancy firms in business.
The numbers show that the locals stay close to their homes. The number of subway riders has yet to recover over 70% of their pre-2020 levels. Pedestrian traffic on major thoroughfares like Times Square or even relative comeback leaders like the Flatiron NoMad neighborhood is only about 80% as busy as before. According to the latest Partnership for New York City survey, about half of office workers sit at their desks in Manhattan every day.
In contrast, downtown Brooklyn has seen a steady increase in the number of businesses in the area over the past decade, with more mid-sized design and professional firms signing leases every month. That means that even for those Brooklyn pros who are going back to work, commutes can be shorter and time spent close to home is still ample.
Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue is quieter than Flushing’s, but still the steady stream of families pacing up and down has resulted in a successful first year on the Strip for Rolando Balboa’s Brooklyn Fencing Center.
“I don’t need to advertise,” he said. “People just come.”
So many people walk by that the store itself is all it needs, he said, and he has enough momentum to plan to expand into downtown Brooklyn. Balboa had operated in other parts of Brooklyn for more than a decade, but his arrival on Fifth Avenue in May 2021 was part of a spate of new store openings in the area that brought retail vacancy rates down from 15% to 4%. That surge included at least one business crossing the East River from Chelsea: Midoriya, a Japanese grocery store. The influx to Fifth Avenue is reversing a mild depression of the late 2010s, when some local retailers were struggling to make ends meet due to the growing popularity of e-commerce.
Overall, the Fifth Avenue BID counts 55 lost companies between March 2020 and early September this year, said Tallantire, the chief executive officer. But there have been 86 openings, and another seven companies are under construction. About half of the new places are non-restaurants, Tallantire said, including services and activities like fencing, chess and science, reflecting a larger shift. Manhattan saw a net decline of 244 private arts, entertainment and recreation facilities; Brooklyn won 57, according to the city controller.
Restaurants had high sales before Covid-19, but only Manhattan lost net private establishments in the lodging and food service sector, the Comptroller’s data showed.
Twenty blocks north and slightly east of the Fifth Avenue boom, restaurants enliven the empty intersection of Sixth, Flatbush and St. Marks Avenues. There, pandemic-era fried chicken pop-up Pecking House opened its first brick-and-mortar store in early September. Pecking House grew out of co-founder Eric Huang’s efforts to help a family-owned Chinese restaurant in Queens stay in business. Trained at Eleven Madison Park, the chef began offering fried chicken with sides of South American and Taiwanese flavors for delivery in spring 2020. The orders quickly piled up and a waiting list of 10,000 people accumulated. Because Huang and co-founder Maya Ferrante were doing all their own sales and deliveries, they eventually gained access to the price location data.
“We could see that we were doing the majority of our delivery in Brooklyn — Prospect Heights, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn Heights — and it just made sense to us,” Ferrante said. The restaurant no longer delivers. It doesn’t hurt that they live within walking distance of the premises, the co-founders said, or that a build out in Brooklyn would be a lot cheaper than in Manhattan.
On September 9, the co-founders withdrew the paper that had covered the large windows since the previous restaurant closed in 2019. Service begins at 5:00 p.m. Lines formed around 4:30 p.m. each of the first four days they were open, they said. They found that adjusting to the neighborhood and supporting the comeback gave them renewed focus and energy.
“The food is the best ever,” Huang said.
In April 2020, the Tompkins Avenue Merchant Association launched its Open Streets program. Restaurants, clothing stores, and cafes on the shopping strip gathered with entertainers and residents for a block party that drew New Yorkers from all five boroughs. Nearly 2,500 attendees will attend an open streets day, said Blondel Pinnock, president and CEO of Bed-Stuy Restoration Plaza, which promotes economic development in the area.
The streak, which includes more than two dozen small businesses, is one of several thriving in Bed-Stuy, where vacancy rates in certain business corridors have fallen by as much as 10%, said Oma Holloway, chief operating officer of Bridge Street Development Corporation in Bed Stuy.
On Tompkins Avenue alone, the Oddly Enough bar quickly took the place of the Eugene & Co. restaurant when it closed in recent months; Longtime restaurateur Myriam Nicolas has added a second location to her Brooklyn Brown Butter cafe, where she sells ice cream; and Greedi Vegan began selling meat-free comfort food. At the southern end of the corridor, near Fulton, the Met Fresh supermarket opened in the summer. Another mainstay, Peaches Hothouse, had enough momentum for Tompkins to open a second location in downtown Brooklyn. The list of entertainment and arts venues surrounding Bed-Stuy includes the Billie Holiday Theater and the recently opened arts space, The Laundromat Project.
“What I’m seeing is community-based organizations partnering and collaborating to improve business corridors,” Pinnock said.
The city added two new official business improvement districts earlier this year, bringing the total to 75. But that’s not counting the unofficial trade organizations that have worked hand-in-hand with businesses over the past two years to help them build a social media presence, apply for pilot city programs like e-scooter rentals, or apply for state and federal grants . Almost every brick-and-mortar business in the Bronx that comes to Lehman College’s Small Business Development Center has questions about how to boost their e-commerce with the goal of keeping revenue high enough to afford the rent, said interim director, Jackeline Rosero.
Other efforts are on the surface.
At Morris Park, Camelia Tepelus, general manager of Morris Park Business Improvement, is cleaning 126 tree hollows and installing more than 50 plantings.