Walking down Jersey City’s Grove Street you could forget there's an economic crisis. On any given weekend, people happily mingle in the Grove Point courtyard at Grove Street’s Path Station, and crowd the sidewalks as they move in and out of local stores.
And if you want an outdoor table at any of the café’s, get there before 11 or you'll have to wait. As part of our Main Street series, WNYC’s Jenna Flanagan takes us back to New Jersey.
REPORTER: Less than two miles long, Grove Street feels like a dividing line between Jersey City’s old and new downtown neighborhood. Grove crosses Newark Ave--with its uneven pavement, empty store fronts, distressed awnings and dollar stores.
Neighborhood foot traffic tends to stay on Grove, where new high rise luxury developments and 19th brownstones attract a consistent number of consumers who still feel they have a little bit of extra money in their pockets to go shopping. And when they step into one of the small businesses that have defined this area since the late 1990's, its likely they'll find the owner behind the counter.
SCALIA: Jersey City’s really special, because we are kind of a small little community, so you see a lot of shoppers who are very loyal to the small business’ here.
REPORTER: That’s Kristen Scalia, owner of Kanibal Home, the hip clothing and home goods store on the end of the Grove Street shopping strip. She moved her online business to real life during the height of the recession in April of 2009. Scalia says her personal touch and attention to details has helped attract customers in and kept them coming back.
SCALIA: I have people coming in buying sweaters, people buying coats, in preparation for the fall, where I think last year what I heard from some of the other retailers is, people were waiting until November to start making those purchases. So people are buying you know hundred dollar bags, they are spoiling themselves on a couple of really nice ticket items.
REPORTER: She says her landlord a fellow business owner on Grove has also helped her store thrive. Scalia rented the space on the corner of corner of Grove and Montgomery, her landlord gave her below market rate for her 650 square foot store. Scalia says she knows she’s lucky.
SCALIA: Some businesses fail because their landlords aren’t being flexible and allowing them the growth and the, probably the time it takes to kind of establish yourself here.
REPORTER: One landlord who is trying to make sure Grove remains vital is developer Eric Silverman of Exeter Property Company. He and his brother have been developing and rehabilitating historic buildings for almost 30 years. They own five on Grove Street.
Silverman says for a neighbourhood to thrive it needs to have the unique feeling that creative independent retailers bring. As a landlord, his company is willing to rent below market rate which can run as high as $40 a sq foot. Silverman says he'll go as low as $25 a sq foot for the right tenant.
SILVERMAN: So it was really just finding people we liked, sitting them down and saying what can you afford? And making a deal with them.
REPORTER: Silverman says if you go to any ‘happening’ city in the world, it's the neighborhood businesses that create the buzz on the street.
SILVERMAN: It’s the quality of the merchants that’s key. You know Starbucks is great, but you know, every Starbucks is the same. So if you can find a unique experience, I think that’s what will attract people here and it makes residents feel good about their neighbourhood.
REPORTER: But it's not as if the economic downturn hasn't hit the Grove St. Blogger Ian MacAllen, who edits, publishes "New York’s 6th", a blog about Jersey City says the nearby Newport Mall has felt much more of the major volatility of the recession.
MACALLEN: The national chains have looked to their bottom line and immediately started cutting down on low performing stores. The independent businesses are a little more flexible, with lower profit margins to begin with.
REPORTER: Back on Grove Street, Skin Organix owner Michelle Williams says customer support has been keeping her business going through the recession. But she says her landlord doesn't seem interested in keeping her small business on Grove.
WILLIAMS: He approached me recently to find out if I would be willing to give up my lease. And I’m like, ‘is that what you want?’ You know yeah things are tough, and I’ve struggled with the rent. But for the past four years, I’ve been the perfect tenant. Has he stepped up to the plate and said let’s work this out, let’s see what we can do? Nothing.
REPORTER: Williams refuses to be shaken.
WILLIAMS: This is my business and I’m gonna make it work.
REPORTER: She says surviving the tough economic climate means re-assessing her approach to business. Her organic beauty and grooming supply store has started offering new services like facials, waxing and massages. She's rearranged her basement level store to make room for these new services. Williams says small changes like those don’t cost her much, but for her customer relations, they're priceless.
WILLIAMS: That’s the value of us being here. YOu know, I could go out of business and a Sephora could move in or some other big chain something or another, but ho-hum. That’s just like any other neighborhood. And when the customers walk through the door of Sephora, is the owner gonna know their names? Know what vacation they’re just returning from? I don’t think so.
REPORTER: City officials are hoping they can expand Grove Street’s customer driven success on to Newark Ave. John Reichert, President of the Downtown Special Improvement District says plans are already underway to make Newark Ave more welcoming to shoppers.
REICHERT: We've redone almost all the sidewalks on Newark Avenue, There's new street lights going in, street furniture, trash cans.
REPORTER: Grove Street’s success is partially due to it’s growing consumer base. Nearly two years ago, Grove Pointe towers introduced nearly 2,000 new residents to the Grove Street and it will soon be bookended as constructions workers are putting the finishing touches on another luxury development, Liberty Towers.
It is set to open this spring, and attract another 3,000-4,000 people who eventually will all need to shop. For WNYC, I’m Jenna Flanagan.
REPORTER: Federal stimulus funds are also helping the neighborhood. Downtown Jersey City received more then $600,000 in stimulus funds to clean up a contaminated lot near the waterfront, support the Jersey City Museum, and a small dry cleaning business.
For pictures from Jersey City's Grove Street, and more on WNYC's Main Street project, check out our news blog.