Changing neighborhoods, transforming storefronts

The Lower East Side has become one of Manhattan’s trendiest neighborhoods in recent years. Bounded by a sprawling Chinatown and the significantly more expensive SoHo and East Village, the area has attracted a critical mass of young gallerists, restaurateurs, and retailers looking for a convenient location, relatively low rent, and diverse setting. As New York Magazine put it, “Few other neighborhoods offer such a complete New York City experience at this price point.”

This process has become familiar in cities across the world in recent decades, with formerly low-income, often ethnic neighborhoods turning into centers for high-end consumption. In New York in particular, where rising costs continue to push the poor farther and farther from the city center, gentrification provides fertile ground for investigation by policymakers, academics, designers, and others.

Architect Eric Ho has been attempting to wrap his head around these issues for the past 18 months, leaving a job at a New York firm to focus full-time on the organization he helped found, Made in Lower East Side (miLES). His goal: to devise a strategy for providing value to communities undergoing gentrification — considering the needs of both new and existing residents — while at the same time operating a viable, self-sustaining business. His concept interprets the pop-up phenomenon that has become popular around the world for the Lower East Side by offering temporary space for different activities and organization in some of the neighborhood’s many empty storefronts.

We met up with Eric in an Orchard Street coffee shop to discuss miLES and its ongoing Kickstarter campaign.

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Can you tell me a bit about your Kickstarter campaign?

It’s called miLES Storefront Transformer. We’re trying to activate a vacant storefront in the winter for two months on the Lower East Side with seven different pop-up themes. It’s seven curators doing a variety of things: from Jack Kirby Museum, which is this comic book pop-up, to artists doing a live magazine for a week to a nonprofit that helps homeless people. We have a maker, we have a shop, we have a pop-up chef and a class.

Tell me about the organization and how it started.

miLES opens storefronts to possibilities by creating short-term multiuse spaces as community hubs. We’re kind of like Airbnb for storefronts, but also an incubator for small businesses and community initiatives. We started the idea in February last year, and we started to operate this year in April in a storefront on Fourth Street, doing different kinds of pop-ups.

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miLES’ Fourth Street space

Are you from this neighborhood?

I’m from out of the country. I started living in New York about seven years ago. I live near this neighborhood.

How did you get interested in this neighborhood?

The interest started from walking down the street and seeing an obscene amount of vacant storefronts in just this neighborhood alone. It all started from curiosity, like, “Why are there so many vacant storefronts?” So I was digging around some more, and there are actually over 200 in the Lower East Side alone.

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Empty LES storefronts

And at the same time, I’m a registered architect, and I’m trying to figure out how the architecture profession can be a little more proactive and entrepreneurial in looking at the value we can create — talking to the public, talking to the community, instead of just waiting for a client to come in or waiting to work with a developer.

This presents itself as an opportunity, because there are available resources that no one’s using, and we as architects and designers could bring value to this issue really right on. We can initialize things, we can talk to people about programming — there’s a lot of value that we can bring with our skill set. I think this is a test to see how those things can intersect.

For people not familiar with the Lower East Side, can you describe the neighborhood’s history and where it is now?

The Lower East Side historically has been the first place where a lot of immigrants settled, particularly back in the early 1900s. A lot of the tenement buildings are still intact in terms of the architecture and the urban fabric. The Tenement Museum is right down the road. So there’s a lot of different culture and different ethnicities, very diverse groups of people, from Jews to Chinese to Hispanics. A lot of New Yorkers can probably trace their grandparents back to the Lower East Side. It was very much a working-class community — there are iconic historic photos of people doing businesses on pushcarts. It was very entrepreneurial as well.

Obviously, Greenwich Village and Astor Place were the first places where gentrification started to happen; you know, high-income people started to move in. I think we’re starting to witness a little bit more of that coming to the Lower East Side. But there are still a lot of projects on the fringe of the city, so there’s a lot of this tension between people that… well, people that have been living here a long time, people in the projects, and this new gentrified crowd. I hate to use that term.

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Orchard Street is sort of emblematic of that. Not to say that this is good or bad. We’re witnessing a lot of that tension in that neighborhood. That’s why it’s interesting, I think.

The relationship to New York is a little bit harder to talk about, but I think there’s a lot of parallel with other neighborhoods. We’ve been saying the Lower East Side has some affinity with Williamsburg, but at the same time with Harlem in terms of the character of this change: a lot of local ethnic people living in the same place, with new people moving in. Williamsburg might be at a certain point in that process, Harlem and the Lower East Side might be different points. But basically we’ve been talking about these neighborhoods on the fringe of the city that are becoming the next thing. I think it’s a fascinating process.

How did you go about researching this issue of empty storefronts, figuring out what was going on there and what might be done about it?

The research process was very analog [laughs]. We just ended up walking the neighborhood noticing stretches of places where it’s always empty. Like Orchard Street: it’s empty at points, but the changeover is much faster than other places, so it’s kind of a normal kind of vacancy.

There’s not hard data on vacancy, just because you usually have to be on the broker side. There are services that we can buy these data but they are also not always comprehensive, and obviously we don’t have that data. So a lot of it is just really us documenting it analog-ly.

Then it was like, ok, we know that there are 200 of them. We started to identify which might be more likely to get activated so that we can also potentially sell those vacant spaces to people that can use it. There are some boundaries on which storefronts are more valuable and which are less. Of course, with those sorts of parameters added, and who the landlord is and is it available, the list becomes exponentially smaller.

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So the issue is maybe both ends: from your personal relationship with these owners and landlords, and then at the same time the quality of the space. And we’re finding that, okay, there are a few that fit both criteria — those would be viable spaces that we can start to engage and see where we might create something.

And from what I understand, one of the major reasons that these storefronts might be empty is the changing demographics of the neighborhood: landlords letting current tenants’ leases expire so that they can get a higher-paying tenant down the road. Is that true?

Well, we’ve never had hard data, generalizing data, saying hey, this is the pattern of what people are doing. We haven’t been here long enough to witness, like, there was a deli and they left because they raised their rent.

But through just talking to people in general, it’s often the desire of the owners basically saying yeah, we want someone to be stable and to occupy the space for a long time, and we’re waiting for the right tenant. It’s a more qualitative than quantitative knowledge that we’ve got.

And it’s also specific; each landlord might have a different take. But in general that’s the impression that we got from talking to a few landlords.

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Gentrification is a very tricky issue. A lot of people don’t see any problem with saying, “Yeah, this neighborhood is changing, and there’s going to be a lot of nice bars and restaurants,” but others do see the process as extremely problematic. What does miLES think about the issue?

I think we’re not really trying to solve a problem. We’re posing an alternative. We’re fine with restaurants moving here, to be honest, if they can make a business. It’s a free world — if you can pay the rent, good for you.

What we’re proposing is that there a lot of underutilized resources that could be something interesting, not necessarily just bars and restaurants, while they’re not occupied. We have no problems with bars and restaurants, we just want to diversify a bit, give opportunities to emerging entrepreneurs, designers, and artists that may not them if we don’t provide them.

So we’re sort of stepping in and saying, “Hey, great, gentrify crowd or whatever, do your thing. We respect what you’re doing,” just like we respect what some of the residents have their view on — “You want a fishmonger, great, fine, I respect that.” We’re trying to play middle ground for everyone but become this platform for people to talk about what their issues are and find something that can work in a realistic way.

And how do you go about finding people to work with in a pop-up capacity?

A lot of it right now is word of mouth. We’re still very small; we didn’t do a lot of active marketing. So Kickstarter is a marketing campaign to get our story and word out. But a lot of it has been people referring people to us and saying, “Hey, we know about these guys that find storefronts.”

How do you see the existing community interfacing with the storefronts?

I think they are inspired and interested, but at the end they also are curious to see how this will go, because it’s a new idea. A lot of them don’t know what we’re trying to do, because we’re also trying to test a lot of different projects. A lot of the community on Fourth Street, they’re also longtime residents from an older generation, so it’s tough to even understand what we’re trying to do — the whole Airbnb concept is not too easy to convey.

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Left: Pop-up store Right: Meeting Space

But in the first pass, the response has been that everyone’s excited because it’s an opportunity that they’ve never thought of. “Use a storefront for a day? I’ve never heard of that.”

Neighborhoods tend not to have many vacant storefronts after they reach a certain point in the gentrification process — take SoHo, for example. Given this dynamic, how do you see miLES’ future in the Lower East Side and other New York neighborhoods?

The pop-up is an intermediary stage for a lot of people. We lower the entry barrier for businesses and small entrepreneurs to do their own thing. We’re trying to come up with creative and innovative ways to use space for emerging designers, entrepreneurs — we really want to create an incubator for these creative people. And we think the synergy between these people will be humongous.

Just talking about the Kickstarter project — not only are we getting these seven curators in, but we’re hoping to start a list of organizations that benefit from these kinds of pop-ups. One is actually a journalism company that is starting up, and they focus on reporting and writing about pop-ups. So that’s a great synergy. And then there’s another startup that does live funding. It’s an app; when you attend an event you can also pledge a dollar to the artist or whatever. So we’re also creating an innovative niche market for businesses and creatives to benefit from everyone coming together in the same place.

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Just like Hester Street Fair, I guess — it’s an interesting parallel. They’re creating an energy around these new, exciting purveyors and vendors. The collective power is what we’re harnessing.

And yeah, that, to your question: if the Lower East Side becomes SoHo, great, maybe we’ll focus our energy on more fringe parts of the city. We’d basically pick a neighborhood that we think our energy and our personality fits with in terms of it being a creative community of people and entrepreneurs and try to leverage some of the creative power between them.

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