Local Bakery Struggles to Survive Gentrification
At 3 p.m. the bakery’s showcases are empty except for half a dozen pastries and a few loafs of bread. While the bare shelves could be mistaken as the result of a successful business day, they instead tell a story of economic hardship.
Along with only a handful of ethnic mom and pops remaining in the East Village, the Ninth Street Bakery is struggling to survive diminishing clientele and rising rents.
“There are just no customers for our products left. We used to sell twice as much,” Oleg Kucherenko, the bakery’s owner said. “In the past, when it was cold it was really busy and in the summer it was really slow. Now it’s slow all year around.”
The Ukrainian doesn’t bake the goods he sells and relies on suppliers who recently raised prices. Every day at 5 a.m., Kucherenko and his wife Tetyana pick up only as many goods as they believe will sell that day, leaving shelves empty and the future of their store uncertain.
The Ninth Street Bakery is sharing this uncertainty with the few immigrant-owned stores that have not yet been driven out of the widely gentrified neighborhood. With increased expansions of New York University and Cooper Union College over the years, the East Village was transformed from a once popular destination for immigrants and artists to a major nightlife district for college students.
Store owners and community activists say landlords have adjusted to this change by increasing rents as soon as the entrepreneurs’ leases expire. Almost 300 bars and restaurants throughout the East Village have displaced many of the ethnic meat and pastry shops on first and second avenues.
“The landlord can make more money if he rents out to a licensed establishment,” Anna Sawaryn from the Coalition to Save the East Village said. The lifelong East Village resident said in the past six months alone three butcher shops had to close after their leases expired.
Rob Hollander from Lower East Side Residents for Responsible Development made similar observations. The activist said he knows of instances when rents were increased by 600 percent to force store owners out.
“They have long leases. But once they expire they all will be replaced with bars and restaurants with full liquor licenses. It’s just a matter of time,” he said.
Kucherenko’s lease will last five more years. He is not sure what will happen after it expires but hopes his $2,000 rent will not increase too much. “On the avenues it’s the rent. On the streets it’s the disappearing customers,” Kucherenko said about the threats for small businesses. “Around the corner the rent can be $10,000 a month,” said Kucherenko, who considers turning his bakery into a café to attract the increasing number of young residents.
Hollander said the bakery benefits from its size. The store is not big enough to house a bar or restaurant. Therefore, Kucherenko is less threatened by rent increase than most other ethnic store owners on the avenues.
Several of these vendors complained about skyrocketing rents but refused to speak out publicly or give their names when interviewed.
“They [the landlords] put everybody out of business. They have become greedy,” said an employee of Polish G.I. Delicatessen on First Avenue, who identified himself as the owner but refused to give his name. “They don’t give a damn about you.”
Other store owners denied to give their opinion entirely, claiming they didn’t have time to speak, weren’t intelligent enough to comment on the issue or not capable of clear thoughts during a time of fasting.
“They are afraid of the landlords. They don’t want to piss them off,” Sawaryn said.
Hollander said “they don’t want to talk because they are probably in the process of selling out and don’t want to jeopardize their deal.”
Selling out is the only option these owners have if lawmakers don’t respond to the problem, Sawaryn said. “There’s always been talk about commercial rent control but it has never been acted upon,” she said.
While Sawaryn still regards the neighborhood as an immigrant community, Kucherenko disagreed. Standing behind his almost completely emptied showcases he said, “In my opinion, there’s no reason for entrepreneurs to immigrate anymore.”