Clayton’s Corner: Rivington’s Falafel Guys Fighting City to Survive
I understand many people believe New York City is a nicer, safer place now that international corporate capitalism has homogenized, standardized, and washed away so much of what made it edgy. They applaud such sentiments on the Lower East Side, where drugs and crime have largely been eliminated from public view. I am not one of those people, however. Not that I want to see the drugs and crime return, but the downside is the accompanying gentrification has made the city too expensive. Gone are the affordable rents that allowed ordinary people (and small business) the chance to live an inexpensive but culturally rich lifestyle.
Yes, the Lower East Side was dangerous, but people acclimated and learned to safely navigate the perils of the street. And once adjusted, they could get down to the business of creating art and developing their talent, or just live their life. And this space for budding creators and entrepreneurs, made the city the home to cutting edge culture. Much of what made the city great came from those struggling from the bottom. It nurtured the creativity by welcoming those living on a modest income. Well, that’s over.
Big-money interests drive out the innovators and trend-setters that made the Lower East Side a magical creative crucible. Gone also is much of the ethnic and small business diversity that was found on our turf. A lot of these establishments have fallen by the wayside, as the bottom line becomes the only yardstick by which landlords evaluate their commercial tenants. That’s turned our neighborhood into an entertainment zone filled with bars because those are the businesses which will pay the highest rent. This money-before-anything, cutthroat environment makes it near impossible to start and survive as an independent, self-sufficient, small business.
I bring this up now because a young Bangladeshi man trying to run a small falafel business on Rivington Street recently approached me for help. We go way back; I’ve known him and his Bangladeshi friends and relatives since he was in elementary school.
I had taken this young man’s picture over the years, documenting him as he grew up. He and his friend Nizem were always good guys. Nizem and his father, before he was gentrified out, ran the small grocery, north of my house on Essex. Good neighbors, good people, but their line of work could be dangerous. A worker got slashed and a few other situations happened and they could not always rely on the cops. We relied on each other. The most egregious fine I witnessed was when an ATF agent charged them with selling black market cigarettes without the tax stamp on them. Having hung around the business enough, I never saw any evidence of them selling untaxed, discount, cigarettes. It was a survival business, run on hard work and long hours, never saw any shifty sliding. They were transparent in their honesty. They went to court. I went as a witness, but it was somewhat awkward because they couldn’t afford a lawyer, and the father was deathly sick at the time. He lost. I felt they had been targeted because his traditional Muslim faith.
Nizem and his father were hardworking, honest, and ran a totally legitimate business. Good neighbors my wife Elsa and I could depend on.
I believe that Masud and Kammal Mohammed and Karin Nur are the same kind of good neighbors. In early April, the trio took over the license of the Falafel Guys shop 127 Rivington. No sooner were they set up then the Health Department arrived, levying a heavy fine because the employee toilet, although in the employees’ working part of the business, is down a flight of stairs. To reach it, you have to walk out of the kitchen, turn right, descend the stairs to an enclosed space between two buildings, and through another door.
To correct the problem they must pony up $10,000 (two stacks for plans and 8 stacks for the construction) to put a toilet in the small, customer-facing public space. Plumbing pipes must be moved and then, build a very small closet sized toilet room. There wouldn’t be much room to sit down, only enough space for the tiniest of sinks, and to use the john, the employee must walk past the waiting customers, and then shut the door. Privacy? Forget it. And it may be psychological but it seems distasteful for the employee to walk out of the bathroom, past the customers, and back to making them a sandwich. Hmm. Moreover, this part of the LES has become known as Hell Square because of the residual effects of an entertainment zone built on money made from getting young people drunk, A repeating problem will be drunks wanting to use the bathroom. They will want to use the toilet since it will be in their full view. No matter it is not for customers, it will be the focus of many arguments, it is a plan built for a disaster.
The deck is stacked against them.