On One Block in Brooklyn, the City’s Economic Turmoil Is on Full Display


The roots of one store on the block extend to Mexico, from where a 13-year-old boy left for the United States decades ago and found his footing in the food industry.

A drugstore is owned by a pharmacist lured to the neighborhood from the Midwest by an acquaintance. Another shop is run by a man from the Dominican Republic who began working there nearly 30 years ago

Now these storefronts in the 4400 block of Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a collection of restaurants, bodegas and mom-and-pop shops largely run by immigrants, are in many ways emblematic of the toll the coronavirus pandemic has taken on New York’s small businesses.

Nearly 90 percent of the city’s restaurants and bars paid none or only part of their May rent, according to a survey by the New York City Hospitality Alliance, a business group. Nearly two-thirds of ground-floor commercial tenants, from bodegas to nail salons to boutiques, did not pay rent in May and June, according to the Community Housing Improvement Program, which represents thousands of property owners.

As the city reopens, many mom-and-pop shops will not return, while others are struggling to survive.

When the pandemic erupted in New York in March, the Soriano family made the difficult decision to shut down its butcher and grocery store for all of April. A relative, as well as friends, had died of the virus, and the family worried about its spread.

A month’s worth of income vanished. The store, which reopened in May, has not recovered. The employees’ schedules have been cut back. The staff of five butchers has been reduced to three. And the store now closes at 7 p.m. — not at 9, as it had before — because the former rush of customers has disappeared.

“A lot of the community is out a job,” said Dennis Soriano, 27, who owns El Rancho with his parents and brothers.

His father, Felix, left Mexico for the United States at 13 by himself, eventually moving to New York and working his way up in the food industry, from dishwasher to head chef of a restaurant in Chelsea.

The family opened the butcher shop about five years ago cater-corner from a Key Food supermarket. But El Rancho specializes in cuts of beef and pork not found at most grocers, like tripe, al pastor, cecina (salted beef) and longaniza, a sausage similar to chorizo.

Even after El Rancho reopened, many customers could not afford the groceries or use food stamps. The store’s food stamp permit expired during the pandemic, and it could not file for a renewal until recently because of the shutdown, Dennis Soriano said.

Since May, the store has yet to make a profit, he said. In recent weeks, the store’s expenses soared when pork and beef prices skyrocketed. A weekly order of meat and groceries to stock the store, which typically cost $1,500, jumped to as much as $4,000. Prices have since started to return to normal, he said.

The family did not want anyone to leave hungry, so El Rancho has extended informal lines of credit to customers, totaling about $8,000 a month Mr. Soriano said. The store has given away boxes of produce and meat to about 450 families.

“It’s a special block,” he said. “It’s a special community. And it’s built by immigrants.”

The conveyor of clothes at Bay Ridge French Cleaners is a time capsule from March 14, its last full day of business.

Pressed button-down shirts hang in plastic bags. Hemmed jeans wait for their owners. About the only items being cleaned nowadays are police uniforms.

The pandemic has turned the economy upside down. Dry cleaners were allowed to remain open as “essential” businesses, but at the same time, they were less essential than ever.

For more than three months, working professionals have traded their collared shirts, dresses and suits for comfortable work-from-home attire. If a customer does show up, it’s usually to say hello.

“The situation is really, really, really bad,” said Alex, 52, the owner, who started working at the front counter in 1992, a few years after he immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic. He asked that his last name not be published.

When Alex turns on the conveyor and watches clothes swing by, he is reminded of the lost income. Customers do not pay until they pick up.

On a recent afternoon, he pulled a plastic bag off the rack and placed it on the counter: Three tailored pants for a man named Victor. He died from the coronavirus, Alex said.

Bay Ridge French Cleaners was started by an immigrant from Cuba in 1980, and Alex bought the cleaners and the entire building in 2004.

The business has never made Alex particularly wealthy — he is the only full-time employee — but he made enough over the years to buy a three-story home for his family about 150 feet from the store.

The shop had been in decline for years, he said, as office workers who had lived in the neighborhood retired or moved. The new residents, he said, cannot afford to have items dry cleaned as often and, in a sign of modern work culture, they increasingly wear clothes that can be washed at home.

Alex said he has spent the past months thinking a lot about the future of Bay Ridge French Cleaners. If he did not own the property, he said, he would have had to close it long ago because of rising rents. A vacant storefront down the street is for lease for about $8,000 a month.

“I have no choice right now,” Alex said about keeping the store open. “But if I had the chance, I would close.”

In 1984, Gopesh Patel bought a one-way ticket from Chicago to La Guardia Airport and hopped in a car for Sunset Park. It was his first time in New York City. At the corner of Fifth Avenue and 44th Street, Dr. Patel met a friend of a friend who had bought a drugstore there.

  • Updated June 24, 2020

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      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

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“He handed me the keys and said, ‘You got to run this store,’” recalled Dr. Patel, who grew up in India and moved to the United States in 1980. “We didn’t know each other that well, but we always believed in trust.”

Since then, VLS Pharmacy has transformed from a neighborhood store into a pharmacy that ships to 20 states and has a state-of-the-art sterile compounding lab, a rarity in mom-and-pop drugstores. But all that seemed at risk in March.

In an instant, customers stopped shopping its aisles and picking up their medicine. Masks, gloves and hand sanitizer flew off the shelves. New supplies were harder to come by. Shipments to customers were delayed.

There was a personal toll, too. Over the weeks, 25 longtime customers died from the virus, Dr. Patel said. In late March, Dr. Patel himself contracted the virus and went into quarantine for two weeks.

Through it all, Dr. Patel pledged to his staff, which had grown to 25 workers from just four in 1984, that no one would be let go. “Not in the pandemic and not ever,” he said.

In recent weeks, business has picked up. The pharmacy started manufacturing a hand sanitizer in its lab and increased delivery of prescription medication so customers did not have to venture outside. But the number of customers who go to the store, which makes up a majority of the company’s business, is not what it used to be.

“People are afraid to come out,” Dr. Patel said, “so it’s becoming very difficult.”

The barber shop has stood on the block for decades. Today it is shuttered, not because of the pandemic, but because Felice Garofalo decided it was time to call it quits. Still, an empty storefront will most likely be harder to fill.

Mr. Garofalo moved from his family’s home in Italy when he was about 15 and skipped around Europe, cutting hair for a living in Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere. In 1963, he landed in Brooklyn and soon took a job at the Park Barber Shop, which locals say opened about a century ago.

Mr. Garofalo charged less than $1 for a haircut. His customers were also immigrants, mostly Scandinavians who had settled in Sunset Park.

Mr. Garofalo bought the barbershop in the late 1960s, started going by Tony (no one could pronounce Felice) and barely raised prices; a haircut today costs $10.

The neighborhood is still filled with immigrants, but now they are from the Dominican Republic and other parts of Latin America.

At 84, Mr. Garofalo decided in early March to retire so he could care for his wife, who has cancer. His family had begged him for years to hang up his shears. He would not budge.

“My father just loved that neighborhood,” said his son Joseph Garofalo, who worked alongside his father on weekends for about 16 years. “He learned to speak Spanish fluently. He speaks better Spanish than Italian right now.”

Joseph Garofalo said his father’s retirement was fortuitously timed. Barbershops and salons would be closed for weeks and were only allowed to resume business on Monday, when the city entered the second phase of its reopening.

Mr. Garofalo, whose father owns the building, said that the family is not in a rush to clear out the shop, which features oversized barber chairs and teal cabinets, or to take down the faded sign out front.

“It’s extremely sad for us,” Mr. Garofalo said. “It was time, but it’s definitely bittersweet.”

Alain Delaquérière contributed research.



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