What happens when it’s all, you know, over?
It’s hard to think of life after the pandemic, but it feels like we must. Mom-and-pop shops have relied on community support and government funding to keep their doors open. We need sustainable solutions moving forward.
We spoke to Larisa Ortiz, the managing director of research and analysis at Streetsense, a global strategy and design collective. She’s the author of the report “Fall 2020: Insights for the Public + Non-Profit Sectors,” which covers retail, real estate and travel. The community development expert spoke with Epicenter-NYC writer Jade Stepeney about what the future holds for city businesses and addressed why boroughs and outposts beyond Manhattan might be faring better. This Q&A is lightly edited for context and clarity.
First, can you tell us what got you thinking about life after the pandemic while we’re still in the middle of it?
Larisa Ortiz: My background is business districts and downtown revitalization. It immediately became apparent with the shutdown that small businesses were going to be significantly impacted. With the loss of small businesses at scale, we quickly recognized that the work we do would be at risk. We really began tracking and thinking about what we need to be planning, for now, that will impact us post-Covid. So, I always try to understand who might benefit from the changes in spending and living that are coming out of this. Policies, programs and resources take a long time to put together, so we always have to be thinking ahead in the public sector.
How has Covid-19 impacted the industries in your report? Let’s start with retail.
Ortiz: Essential retail businesses, many that remained open during the forced closure, were doing very well. Obviously, businesses that had to close did not. Businesses that did not have omnichannel sales, the ability to sell online as well as in person, were significantly impacted. There is uneven impact, and we’ve seen devastation in some elements of the industry. Sit-down restaurants that didn’t necessarily have the mechanisms to do takeout struggled.
What about travel?
Ortiz: Things have evolved as we cautiously emerged from a fall shutdown. Travel and tourism and businesses that service activities that can be done in a socially distant way have really benefited. There was a time in May when there was not a kayak left in the Northeast! People hadn’t necessarily known that these local resources were around so we had to dig deep to find them.
You mentioned omnichannel retail. What’s that?
Ortiz: It means having a diversified strategy for connecting with customers. You know, being able to buy online through a variety of mechanisms. Some small businesses sell on Amazon, Facebook Marketplace or Instagram. Others you have to go through a website. Connecting with your customers in online forums and enabling them to purchase and have the thing delivered is a second channel. There are multiple channels that you can connect with online in addition to in person.
What role does the local government in NYC play in helping with that recovery?
Ortiz: The city plays a significant role in terms of enabling recovery. Take outdoor dining. A business needs to be at about 75% capacity to survive. So, what happens when you can only have outdoor dining or 25% indoor dining? The city setting rules of engagement early on and making it easy to follow those rules helps. There are still problems with the program that the city can fix because it isn’t that coordinated. The local government needs to make it clear and easy as to what (businesses) should do. We need to offer solutions that keep people safe but also allow businesses to sell their products and goods.
Safety will be a huge concern for consumers moving forward, long after the pandemic is over. How can businesses work to meet the rising concern of safety and sanitation?
Ortiz: You know, we’ve come so far. Now that we know the virus is airborne, that changes the rules and expectations. It gives businesses more clarity on how we can lower rates of transmission and keep our economy functioning. In the piece I wrote, we talked about “Sanitation Theater,” but it can’t just be about theater. There can’t just be the perception of spaces being clean, it needs to be a reality.
There has been a trend of people moving from urban, metropolitan areas to more suburban areas. What does a fleeing urban population look like for local small businesses in NYC?
Ortiz: Within a metropolitan area, there are stronger districts and weaker districts. It comes down to the question, are your customers still there? In Midtown Manhattan, we can look around and see that when everyone was working from home, the customers disappeared. And we saw that no amount of placemaking or outdoor dining would bring them back. (Customers) are slowly returning, but it’s still not enough and we’ve seen that in the Midtowns of the world.
But I’m really surprised at how resilient the neighborhoods are. In Jackson Heights, businesses have seemingly been doing well. When you walk down the street, there’s a level of activity and vibrancy that you don’t get in Midtown because Jackson Heights is a residential neighborhood. I don’t think the narrative that “New York is going to hollow out,” is representative of the city as a whole. For Midtown Manhattan it’s a concern, but we have to make the distinction between the different kinds of neighborhoods within the city. For people who are leaving, the Catskills come to mind. It all comes down to are you losing or gaining customers? And that community is gaining customers.
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OUT & ABOUT
Oktoberfest: Trip to Germany canceled this year? You can still get into the Oktoberfest spirit at the Watermark Bar on Pier 15 with authentic German beer, bratwurst and giant Bavarian-style pretzels as a part of its annual celebration. Something new you’ll see this year are the 5-liter mini kegs, so you can keep the beer flowin’ all night long. Or — at least until last call at 11 p.m. Tickets are free, but entry is first come, first serve. The last day of the event is October 24.Get your tickets here.
Queens Night Market returns, kind of: The beloved open-air food market is back, though no longer located in its namesake. Instead it’s operating as an outpost in Rockefeller Center through November, featuring popular vendors like La Braza (Ecuadorian choclos and empanadas), Joey Bats Café (Portuguese egg tarts), The Fried Kitchen (spicy chicken sandwiches), Treat Yourself Jerk (Jamaican jerk chicken), Mamika’s Homemade (Balinese cuisine) and more. The post will be open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sunset screenings: Museum visitors, neighbors and passersby are all invited to Brooklyn Museum’s “Art on the Stoop: Sunset Screenings” movie series. Films will be shown Wednesday through Sunday at 6 p.m., through November 8.Learn more and check out the lineup here.
An outdoor dining update: Open-air dining is here to stay, even in New York’s coldest months. The city last week finally released its guidelines for outdoor heaters. Electric heaters are allowed for use with sidewalk and street seatings, whereas propane and gas heaters are restricted for sidewalk and other ground-level seating.
Restaurants that can’t afford outdoor heaters are eligible for a $5,000 grant through Doordash’s Main Street Strong Initiative. To qualify, restaurants must have three or fewer locations, $3 million or less in 2019 revenue per location and employ 50 or fewer people. Be sure to spread the word to your favorite local restaurants. The deadline is November 6. Apply here.
Restaurants and bars are also now able to add a “Covid-19 Recovery Charge” of up to 10% of the total bill, thanks to legislation passed by City Council last month. The surcharge will be permitted until 90 days after indoor dining has resumed at full capacity.
In case you missed it, we launched a spin-off newsletter, The Unmuted, last week, which focuses on everything schools. It’s written by two veteran education journalists who are going to accompany you on this crazy journey that is pandemic-era schooling. Make sure you get on the subscriber list. And please, let us know how we can best help.
Supporting your child’s education during a pandemic: Nonprofit Sakhi for South Asian Women is holding a free virtual training for parents that covers remote learning options, accessing public resources and childcare, language interpretation, enrollment and more. The training will be held on Thursday, October 22, at 6 p.m. in both English and Bangla. Register here.
Google Classrooms in Creole: The New York City Department of Education is offering a workshop on how to navigate Google Classrooms in Haitian Creole, which is one of the most widely spoken languages in New York City. The virtual event is this Wednesday, October 21, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Sign up here.
And some good news: Because parents, we know you need it. After multiple delays, New York City public schools finally resumed in-person learning three weeks ago. Early data from testing has produced fewer cases than expected: In the first round of targeted testing, results for 10,676 staff and students yielded just 18 positives. Considering New York City is the largest district in the country to resume partial in-person learning, this bodes well for getting children around the nation back in the classroom.
GIVE & GET HELP
Early voting: Cast your ballot early beginning Saturday, October 24, through Saturday, November 1. You do not need to apply to vote early. Find your local poll site here.
Healthy soil: Astoria Urban Agriculture Allianceis holding an event to teach residents the benefits of composting. It will also be giving out free seeds. Stop by the alliance’s “sitting area” on Hoyt Avenue between 19th and 21st streets on October 24 between 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Learn more.
Drink for a cause: North Brooklyn Mutual Aid is hosting a socially distant happy hour on Wednesday, October 21, to raise money to weatherproof the Greenpoint and Cooper Park community fridges. The event will take place at 6 p.m. at the Lot Radio on Nassau Avenue.
Winter gear wanted: Astoria Mutual Aid Network and The People’s Bodega are hosting a biweekly “free store” to help those in need prepare for the cold weather ahead. They are collecting coats of all sizes, boots, hats, gloves, blankets, socks, thermometers, tote bags, bins with lids and racks. Drop off at 28-14 Steinway St. on Thursdays from 6 to 8 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The Queens Liberation Project also has coat drop-off locations around the borough. Check them out here.
Beacon, New York, is aptly named. The Oxford Dictionary definition: a fire or light set up in a high or prominent position as a warning, signal or celebration. I’m drawn there mainly by two things that challenge the mind and the body, the Dia Beacon museum and the hiking trails of Hudson Highlands State Park Preserve. This past week, I had a first, attempting both on the same day. Achievement unlocked. We took the hike first, arriving early to avoid crowds on Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Breakneck Ridge route ranks as one of the top 10 in the country so it’s extra popular. We opted to try the Wilkinson Memorial Trail for a change of pace. The Wilkinson summit was closed for conservation efforts so we picked up Breakneck at an intersection. A map came in extra handy — be sure to grab one at the trailhead. The combination of trails we covered gave commanding vistas of the Hudson River, the Bannerman Island and castle, and a brilliant autumn palette.
Speaking of palettes, we did make it to the Dia, after four hours of steep ascents and challenging rock scrambles. Our tickets were for 4:30, giving us 90 minutes until closing. Dia Beacon is an outpost of the Dia Foundation, known for its commissions of ambitious site-specific works, land art and minimalist works. Beacon houses its permanent collection, and I came this time around to see some new additions that quite literally brought more color (people of color, that is) into the Dia mix. Carl Craig, a pioneer of the Detroit electronic dance music scene with his own signature style of deploying minimal aesthetics, has created an immersive sound and light installation in the entire sprawling basement that’s at once calming and existentially awakening. —Nitin Mukul
Another recent addition that’s also close to my heart are early works by Sam Gilliam, a crucial figure in American abstract painting and a true innovator. Like many of the Dia’s works, these shows need to be experienced in person to really “get” them. Timed tickets sell out quickly and must be booked in advance.
Shelly Bahl, The Sweetest Gift, II, Mixed-media interactive installation, 2018-19. Commissioned by the Asian Arts Initiative for its 25th anniversary project, “Then and Now”
We want to see, hear, feel, support your art and response to this moment. To submit a poem, short story, artwork or any shareable experience, email us.
This week, we welcome artist Shelly Bahl, an interdisciplinary artist born in Benares, India. She spent her formative years in India and in Toronto, and is currently based in Brooklyn. Her art projects have been presented in a number of solo and group exhibitions in North America and internationally.
Her art practice explores the strange and surreal aspects of cultural hybridity and old and new forms of colonization. She is interested in the global transmission of iconographies and other forms of visual culture. Bahl also investigates the surrealistic experiences of women who lead enigmatic transcultural lives. These narratives are based in facts and fictions rooted in specific cultural histories, which she then recontextualizes and reimagines.
She has also worked with numerous arts organizations as an educator and curator, and is currently teaching at Saint Francis College in Brooklyn. More of her work can be viewed here.
Shelly Bahl, The Sweetest Gift, II, Mixed-media interactive installation, 2018-19.
Shelly Bahl has created a fictionalized environment of a “Peace Force Security” office within galleries at the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia and at New York University’s Commons Gallery. A small temporary office area is custom-wallpapered with a repeat pattern and is surrounded by security cameras.
For the wallpaper design, the artist has transformed a well-known pictogram — a road sign graphic of a running family used to warn motorists of undocumented immigrants crossing highways near the US-Mexican border — into the company logo of “Peace Force Security.” Viewers are instructed to sit and fill out a form to receive a gift of Peace Force Security-branded candy. The goal is to create a visually overstimulating and claustrophobic environment, as well as to lure the gallery visitor into a momentary performance of power dynamics that echo our contemporary obsessions with national border controls and security.
Shelly Bahl, The Sweetest Gift, II, Mixed-media interactive installation, 2018-19.
Bahl has turned the idea of an immigration policing unit into one that tests our past and current perceptions on authority and our interactions with the other. The viewer is asked to participate in an exchange of candy, which calls up memories of the US phrase indoctrinated into every child, “Don’t take candy from strangers.” Highlighting structural indoctrination and relationship formation with the other, racial profiling and how immigrants live their everyday lives, the artist asks us to question our current positions while affecting an underlying unease of what might come at the end of our exchange. The Peace Force Security questionnaire asks us about our “worst nightmare,” but also if we “dance in the dark,” perhaps asking us to see possibility and alternatives to our current interpretation of borders, in a hope for peace. — Alexandra Chang, guest curator, Asian Arts Initiative