Volume 18 • Issue 32 | December 23 - 30, 2005

Strike derails Downtown shops

By Ronda Kaysen

The throng of New Yorkers pouring over the Brooklyn Bridge into Lower Manhattan on Tuesday morning hurried by the United Federation of Teachers coffee stand. Few bothered to stop in the 20-degree weather for free coffee.
“I hope the mayor doesn’t catch me doing this,” said a police officer pouring a cup of coffee on the first morning of the Transit Workers Union strike. “It’s the poor people I’m worried about. They’re the ones who are going to suffer the most.”

“They sure weren’t thinking about us when they did this,” grumbled the teachers’ union worker manning the large, brown thermoses. Although the teachers handed out coffee in support of the transit union, the union worker’s support appeared reluctant.

Transit workers walked out of the job at 3 a.m. on Tuesday morning in defiance of state law after the Metropolitan Transportation Authority made a final offer requiring future employees to contribute 6 percent of their wages to their pension fund, which allows them to retire at 55.

Most New Yorkers paid a heavy toll for the shutdown of the city’s buses and subways. Despite the sudden influx of Brooklynites streaming into Lower Manhattan across the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges, the nearby shops and restaurants sat nearly empty on the Tuesday before Christmas.

“It is very terrible, you know. Almost nobody came in,” said Spencer Chan, owner of Sweet ‘N’ Tart, a Chinese restaurant on Mott St., two blocks from the Manhattan Bridge entrance ramp. Workers trekking to and from Manhattan over the bridge did nothing to make up his losses, he said. “Everybody is trying to rush to work and after they finish up, they try to go home earlier. Not much people stay on the street.”

“It’s like Sunday down here, it’s so deserted,” said Judy Duffy, assistant district manager for Community Board 1, whose office is near the Brooklyn Bridge.

The strike crippled most Downtown retailers the week before Christmas. On Tuesday afternoon, few cars or pedestrians ventured down the streets of Tribeca.

“I am so angry,” said Sharon Hershkowitz, owner of the Balloon Saloon on West Broadway, standing inside the small novelty shop she’s owned for 28 years. A sandwich board on the sidewalk outside read, “Stocking Stuffer Sale. Great Gifts!” While Downtown Express spoke with Hershkowitz, only one customer entered the store.

In addition to the Christmas sales, which make up a quarter of her annual business, the company’s delivery service generates 50 percent of her business. But with the strike, Balloon Saloon’s delivery trucks idled, unable to move under the stiff traffic restrictions imposed by the city in response to the strike. “You know you’re not going to recoup it [the losses], because it’s over. People aren’t going to shop after Christmas.”

A block north at Boomerang Toys the impact of the strike was less obvious. Customers crowded the store, browsing board games and stuffed animals. But owner Karen Barwick voiced concern. “We’ve had some business, but I feel that three days before Christmas it should be insane,” she said. Boomerang generates 45 percent of its year’s business in December and most of that in the week before Christmas. “This week is our biggest week of the year, without a doubt.”

On Wednesday, Barwick told Downtown Express that she sold 60 percent less on Tuesday than she expected to sell this time of year.

The economic impact ranged “from severe to devastating,” Mayor Mike Bloomberg said at a Tuesday press conference. “Retail, especially in Lower Manhattan, has been hit the hardest.”

At the western edge of Canal St., between Avenue of the Americas and Wooster St., the usually bustling swath had the eerie feel of a ghost town. Few tourists wandered through the myriad shops lining the street. “They kill the whole business,” said David Wong, a Canal St. shopkeeper. “I’m 100 percent against it [the strike.]” Asked what would happen if the strike continued through the holiday, Wong said, “We’ll be dead.”

Like many Canal St. shops, Wong’s store, which sells a hodgepodge of handbags, luggage and perfume, opened late because employees had difficulty making their way to work. Wong planned to close early and said the store might not open at all on Wednesday if the strike continued.

The handful of tourists wandering along Canal St. did not appear to be in the mood for shopping. “This sucks big time,” said Tricia Bargoot, who was visiting from Boston with her husband, Danny, and five-year-old son, Patrick. The Bargoot family spent $70 on a taxi from Times Square to Canal St. They were charged per person by zone, Bargoot explained. “The cab killed us,” she said, adding that she doubted she’d be spending much more money with cab fares so high.

“Chinatown depends on people coming by public transportation,” said Bonnie Wong, president of Asian Women in Business, a partner in the Explore Chinatown campaign. “It’s very convenient by the trains, which is not here anymore.” Those who manage to make their way by foot to Canal St. would be reluctant to buy much of anything, she added. “Are you going to carry heavy things? No!”

Downtown’s restaurants suffered, too. Of the Tribeca and Chinatown restaurants Downtown Express visited Tuesday afternoon, only the Excellent Dumpling House on Lafayette St. was busy. The rest, especially the upscale eateries catering to corporate lunches, sat nearly empty.

“Let’s face it, it’s really crippling,” said Martin Shapiro, a Myriad Restaurant Group partner, standing inside Tribeca Grill, which was nearly empty. Myriad’s other Lower Manhattan restaurants, Nobu, Next Door Nobu and Montrachet, faced a similar slowdown. Business dropped by 85 percent, Shapiro estimated, a figure echoed by the other restaurateurs in the area.

Several bouquets of flowers for a Golf Digest holiday party that evening sat unwrapped near the entryway. With the transit strike sending most workers rushing home early, the turnout for an office party was unpredictable.

“It’s almost the same as Sept. 11,” said Rocco Cadolini, owner of Roc on Greenwich St., standing inside his empty eatery. Until the strike, this holiday season was one of the best in years, he added. Restaurants do the bulk of their winter business during the holidays, slowing down considerably in January and February. “You’re kind of like a bear, getting ready to hibernate,” he said.

One shop was thriving in the strike: Gotham Bikes on West Broadway. The store opened two hours early on Tuesday and had been preparing for an influx of bikers since the weekend. “The longer this goes on, the more people are going to start coming in,” said Richard O’Connor, a Gotham employee. The store was busy with customers buying equipment. Although two customers purchased bikes on Tuesday, most bought accessories. “People who don’t already own a bike aren’t going to buy one in December,” said O’Connor. “Unless the strike lasts long enough.”

Day two of the strike started out much the same way as day one had, with commuters hoofing over the Brooklyn Bridge and emptying out into Lower Manhattan to cups of piping U.F.T. coffee. Few people paused long enough to indulge. How long does the teachers union plan to stay? Downtown Express asked the same U.F.T. worker manning the thermoses. “As long as the coffee lasts.”



Downtown Express is published by
Community Media LLC.
Downtown Express | 487 Greenwich St., Suite 6A | New York, NY 10013

Phone: 212.242.6162 | Fax: 212.229.2970
Email: news@downtownexpress.com

Written permission of the publisher
must be obtainedbefore any of the contents
of this newspaper, in whole or in part,
can be reproduced or redistributed.