Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Boom in the Midst of a Malaise

It’s Friday afternoon and the sidewalks at Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, Queens are saturated with bargain hunters.  Awning-draped storefronts and their street vendor competitors vie for shoppers’ attention while commuters, arriving on the 7 train, veer off the walkway to maneuver around the slower-footed traffic here at New York City’s third-busiest pedestrian intersection.  


The small retailers at the center of the cacophony of commerce form the spine of this largely Asian immigrant community that has seen job growth and new businesses throughout the Great Recession and its aftermath.


While much of Queens flounders with low investment this neighborhood’s retail economy is the force behind its steady expansion. 


“Unlike some other areas we don't have vacant store fronts,” said Grace Meng, Flushing’s representative in the New York State Assembly.  She adds, “I think it is because we have a lot of small businesses and many of them are first generation immigrants who really work hard.”


According to a report from the New York State Comptroller Flushing experienced continuous job gains from 2005 through the end of 2010.  This was the result of a decade of new businesses and entrepreneurs setting up shop.  In 2009 there were almost 40 percent more companies operating here than 10 years before.


While some of this growth is attributable to the entrance of large retailers, such as Target, Old Navy, and Best Buy, this community – where 90 percent of companies have fewer than 10 workers – continues to depend on the energies of its more diminutive enterprises.


But this expansion hasn't come without some growing pains for the existing small retailers. Yung Ngan Cho runs New York Deluxe Fucha Jewelry located just south of Main Street.  Seven days a week he works behind the display counter selling necklaces, bracelets and other adornments. Despite the ostensibly positive qualities of a growth in businesses, he points out that new competition is putting a squeeze on the profits of existing stores.


“My revenues are down 20 to 30 percent from last year,” he said through a translator. Although foot traffic is strong individual shoppers are leaving with fewer items.  “A lot of people are coming, but not as many are buying,” he said. 


There isn't much relief on the horizon for Cho or others wary of continued growth.  A number of new developments that are currently in the planning or construction phases will expand the retail capacity of this neighborhood. Flushing Commons, an $891 million commercial and residential project, is the largest and, perhaps, most controversial of these.  It will add 235,000 square feet of space for retailers in 2014, and with the entrepreneurial-inclined disposition of this immigrant community this new capacity will likely increase the competition for Cho and others.


But a plan to bring more shoppers to the area may ease this pressure.  Peter Koo, Flushing’s representative on the New York City Council, wants to target the shoppers with a high propensity to spend – namely tourists.  “We have a lot to offer but people haven't found out yet,” he said.  He thinks a new branding effort can lure visitors across the bridge from Manhattan to Queens.


“We have to market the Flushing area. We are little Taipei or Little Hong Kong here,” he said.


Whether this would help Yung Ngan Cho’s jewelry business remains to be seen. A constant churn of new businesses has been the reality here for decades because, as a historical transportation hub near two airports, Flushing has been an entry point for industrious newcomers. 


“Immigrants come here and they don't have much capital, so they start off doing small businesses,” said Councilmember Koo.  He came to the US in 1971 from Hong Kong and upon arriving in Flushing witnessed how others employed their commercial impulses – sometimes through just a table on the sidewalk.


“I saw people, they sold stuff on the street and today those people are pretty well off.  They own supermarkets and real estate so it was a good starting point,” he said.


This type of low-capital enterprise is still an option for residents today but, as with other growth in the neighborhood, street vending has become the target of a backlash.  The narrowing of already flooded walkways by racks of DVDs or tables displaying inexpensive clothing irks some neighbors.
 Assemblymember Meng believes a balance should be struck between the interests of commerce and residents’ ability to enjoy their streets.


“You can't just look at it from a small business point of view. People live here too, there are residents that feel they can't walk through the streets, streets are too crowded, too congested,” she said.


Although there is a moratorium on licenses for these vendors, some function outside of the city’s rules. Despite praising the opportunities street vending offers to new arrivals, Councilmember Koo wants to do away with those who are operating in the shadows of the informal economy. 


“We want to discourage illegal street vendors,” he said.


In addition to overcrowded sidewalks and an increasing competitive squeeze on retailers, another less apparent growing pain exists in Flushing.  As residential and retail developments enlarge the footprint of the neighborhood more public infrastructure becomes needed to support the demands of these new buildings. 


“We have a lot of apartment units going up but we haven't had any new schools or any new senior centers,” said Assemblymember Meng.


In normal times public investment would swell in booming neighborhoods like Flushing but, because of a broader stagnant economy, government revenues at the city and state level are depressed and, consequently, their spending is down. 


Meng was first elected to the New York State Assembly three years ago and, throughout her tenure, funds for vital new projects have been hard to access. “Money, since I’ve gone in, has not been available,” she said.


This is the paradox for a booming community in the middle of a larger economic malaise. Empty public accounts stifle efforts to keep infrastructure spending in line with private growth.


Despite the challenges that lie ahead, most residents believe Flushing’s overall future prospects remain bright.  The continual influx of new people fuels a vibrant entrepreneurial atmosphere and attracts investors to construct new developments, such as Flushing Commons.  These, in turn, reinforce the upward trajectory of the neighborhood. 


Allen Azon, a lifetime resident and warden of the local Episcopal Church is content with the path Flushing is on.


“Things are pretty darn good in Flushing compared to the rest of the country, maybe even the rest of the world. We're a hard working bunch of people,” he said.

 Sidebar:  A short report on how politics from China can be seen on the streets of Flushing.

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