New York is a city of neighbourhoods, and perhaps nothing tells the story of a neighbourhood’s character better than the small, family-owned businesses that operate there.
However, with skyrocketing rent and a crippling commercial rent tax, many of these business owners are struggling to pay the monthly bills. Many of these small businesses end up closing to make way for the larger chains and big-box retailers who can afford the rent. In 2015, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer argued in an op-ed that since the 1970s, “the mum-and-pop crisis has intensified with a fury.”
No two photographers have zeroed in on the issue quite like James and Karla Murray. Together the couple has made it their mission to document the city’s many unique storefronts and conduct interviews with various business owners.
The Murrays began photographing New York City streets in the mid-1990s. Upon returning to various neighbourhoods, they began noticing that multiple businesses had been shuttered in short periods of time, or that shiny, new plastic awnings had replaced old-style signage.
'We made it our mission to thoroughly document the small, unique 'mum and pop' stores of the city when we first began to notice the alarming rate at which these shops were disappearing,' the Murrays told Business Insider.
The storefronts' hand-painted and neon signs, architectural adornment, and handmade window displays attract the eye.
As they began talking to many of the store's owners, the Murrays realised that the scope of their project had to grow.
'The shop owners had fascinating stories to share about the joys and struggles of surviving as a family business in New York City,' they said.
'One of the most common things we heard was how (store owner's) neighbourhoods have changed over the years, and how this has affected their business. Gentrification and skyrocketing rents were huge concerns,' they said.
Owners must also follow city regulations regarding signage and awnings, which can be a huge expense. 'Older stores are often forced to comply with these newer regulations and must modernise despite the owners' wishes,' the Murrays said.
Some owners voiced concern over the future of their shop's legacy. '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,' the Murrays said.
Many of the shops they have photographed, including this one, have already closed. 'Almost two-thirds of the stores we photographed for our first book have already disappeared,' they said. 'Even in our latest (book), which was published in November 2015, over 20% of the small businesses we documented have closed.'
The East Village holds a special place in the couple's heart. Residents of the neighbourhood for over 20 years, they have grown a special connection to the place and the small business owners there. De Robertis Pasticceria and Caffe, pictured here, closed in December 2014 after more than 110 years in business.
'We hope that our project acts as an artistic intervention to help draw attention to and preserve the small shops whose existence is essential to the unique and colourful atmosphere of the city's streets,' they said.
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