New York, NY —
Victory Boulevard’s history is like a lot of American main streets. Constructed nearly 200 hundred years ago, when free ferry service to Manhattan first started, it was part of a thriving downtown area. But the middle class community moved inward after the building of Verrazano Narrows bridge in the sixties spurred development in the south of the Island.
Thirteen years ago an article in the Staten Island Advance described the northern end of Victory as a place where “small business fight for survival, store fronts are boarded up and the shoppers are few.” WNYC has chosen this strip as part of its Main Street series. We’re checking in on streets all over the city to find out how they’re faring. Aswini Anburajan from the Feet in Two Worlds radio project brought back this portrait.
REPORTER: Taking a walk up the first few blocks of Victory Boulevard is like taking a world tour. You pass Mexican grocery stores and package stores, Jamaican restaurants, restaurants from Trinidad, the Caribbean, El Salvador, Sri Lanka, Poland. There are Italian bakery and pizza shops.
There are African restaurants across the street and homeland stores. There are people from every single corner of the globe populating this short six block stretch. In 1990 immigrants were one out of ten residents on Staten Island… now they make up one in four. Ten percent of them own their own businesses. Karen Moon inherited the building her cellular store is in from her parents 17 years ago.
MOON: This neighborhood has really cleaned up as far as you know neighborhood quality is concerned, but as far as business is concerned - no. I used to have a deli on the same spot and I used to see lot of people waiting for the bus at least forty people but now I don’t see that many.
REPORTER: Moon echoes what most the business owners here say. Business is way down.
ADAM: Business is not good.
REPORTER: Adam is a Senegalese immigrant who owns A&C Beauty Supply. Targeted to the Island’s African immigrants, the heads of mannequins with wigs of every shape and size line his store’s shelves.
ADAM: More than one year right now it’s suffering that’s all I could tell you. I think they don’t have the money. That’s all I could say. Usually I see so many customers and now I don’t see non.
REPORTER: On the second block of Victory, is Island Roti – a Caribbean takeout joint.
KELVIN HANAF: Business is terrible right now. Like you can see nobody’s coming in.
REPORTER: Owner Kelvin Hanaf says business dropped off six months ago, and he can’t get it to pick up.
HANAF: I dropped everything by 50 cents. Still nothing. Nobody could ever complain about the price. People they come to buy chicken roti so they buy the roti and they cook their own chicken.
REPORTER: Moe’s Mediterranean Café sits on the corner of Victory and St. Marks St, owner Moseh Ibrahim had to turn to his bank to help him stay afloat.
IBRAHIM: I spoke with bank about business loan and I made some kind of modification. I mean it wasn’t easy. I was negotiation on phone over two hours. But we had some kind of break with them thanks to God. They extended the age of the mortgage, 1500 a month to now 1200 a month. Not that much but everything will help.
REPORTER: For the past five years business was booming, but now penny pinching by the Island’s residents is taking a toll.
IBRAHIM: I believe more than 80 percent of the people they had stopped dining outside. It’s going to affect the food business. A larger percent of them to get their lunch from home. Which is like .
REPORTER: But that’s your bread and butter.
IBRAHIM: Yeah but I can’t blame them. Some of them were coming for breakfast, lunch and snack between. Now hardly to see them once or twice a week.
REPORTER: Two miles into Victory, the businesses owners are largely Italian and serve a middle to upper middleclass population. But even here, they’ve have had to go the extra mile to lure customers.
ANDREW SCADERA: We just entered a pizza contest in Las Vegas. We came out number one again. We’ve always seen a tremendous spike in sales whenever we come back from a contest cause we get so much publicity. We did a seafood pie shrimp, crabmeat, and lobster meat with a Chambord cream sauce – a blackberry branded cream sauce. Fresh coconut, fresh dill.
REPORTER: Andrew Scadera is a part owner of Goodfella’s Pizza, a chain of four restaurants on the Island. Scadera’s clientele is willing to spend $17.95 on an individual-sized seafood pizza, but that doesn’t mean the crisis hasn’t hit home.
SCADERA: We talk to people here all day long who are losing their jobs, nervous about losing their jobs My fiancé, she was just recently laid off from her job on Wall Street so talk about hitting home.
REPORTER: What Scadera sees reflects the growing unemployment rate. A year ago unemployment was under 4.8 percent on Staten Island, it’s now at 7.6 percent. But for every business doing poorly on Victory many are hanging in there. Bissou, a Senegalese immigrant, is busy braiding hair as she talks. She’s run her own salon for five years.
BISSOU: I can say the economy is getting a little bit better because a couple of months ago we were sitting here doing nothing. REPORTER: Immigrant entrepreneurs usually serve their own communities, and in Staten Island the recent growth in population has come from Mexican immigrants.
WORKER: That is a pepper, Mexican candy and a tortilla Telcingo Travels is a Mexican pacqueteria next to Moe’s café. It facilitates the shipping of care packages and remittances between Mexican immigrants in Staten Island and their families back home. It’s doing well and so are other stores that serve the Mexican population because even though individual customers are buying less their pool of customers is constantly growing.
WORKER: Two months they slow now they go up again because all the time the people they send the present for the family and is not too slow. Business is good.
REPORTER: No one’s more aware of population changes than Kevin Barry, the chair of the Downtown Economic Council. He’s spent the last fifteen years cleaning up the first few blocks of Victory.
BARRY: We had a very bad deli over here selling beer to the homeless population…contributing to the problems on the block. I bought that building, spent a year evicting them now we’re going to put a pool on the roof, two more stories new apartments and again it repopulates the block.
REPORTER: Barry dreams of turning the northern part of Victory B
BARRY: Or the million new people who are projected to move into New York in the next fifteen years. They can’t afford Manhattan. Periphery alternatives become attractions. Staten Island, specifically the St. George downtown area, should be one of those attractions
REPORTER But Barry’s investments on Victory may be just as precarious as the businesses of some of his tenants. Victory Boulevard’s future is teetering on an economic seesaw. And a street that’s only recently turned the corner may or may not be able to live up to its name.
This is Aswini Anburajan for WNYC.
This report was produced with the help of Feet in 2 Worlds a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.