By INGRID CURTIS
Clara Robles is glad that in the new Long Island City, customers still come to the old drugstore where she works.
Vernon Boulevard Pharmacy opened 27 years ago, when the waterfront two blocks away was just empty space. Now there is a competing Duane Reade pharmacy, along with skyline condos, doggie daycare centers, espresso bars, a doggie spa.
Some of the older small businesses manage to thrive, as has the drugstore at 48-15 Vernon Boulevard. “People still come to our pharmacy!” Robles said. “It doesn’t matter to them. We get old customers and new. Everyone’s different, but we get even more business now.”
But the rapidly rising commercial rents in Long Island City and other gentrifying neighborhoods force out many of the older businesses. This commercial gentrification has taken a toll on small businesses as their owners struggle to compete and transition to stay relevant to the community. In Long Island City, chain stores like Duane Reade and Dunkin’ Donuts have changed the setting.
Experts say that gentrification displaces businesses just as it drives out residents who can’t afford rising rents. Sharon Zukin, a sociologist at Brooklyn College and author of “Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places,” said that gentrification creates its own virtual reality, a trendy, changing environment built on high-priced brands and products. “Small individual stores can’t compete on brand,” she said. “They can change their business or their products but sometimes they can’t.”
To Robles, who has lived in the neighborhood since she was 14, it hardly seems like Long Island City anymore. Just a few blocks from the pharmacy there is a comedy club that reminds Robles of Manhattan. “It’s more like SoHo now, everything’s changing, it brings new people but now there are comedy clubs like in the Village.”
She said she felt unsure whether the neighborhood’s popularity was a good thing. “I have mixed feelings because it brings in people for small businesses but the rent goes up,” she said. “It’s hard to even find an apartment nowadays.”
On the corner of the same block as the pharmacy was Cranky’s Cafe, a well-known coffee shop. But it is Cranky’s no more. The owners have remodeled their café and offered French Creole cuisine, renaming it 1682, French Louisiana. Inspired by jazz and New Orleans cuisine, they reopened on Jan. 1. One benefit of the new, more upscale approach was that they were not threatened by competition from the new Dunkin’ Donuts that opened diagonally across the street, which cut into the old coffee shop’s revenue.
Mina Jones and her husband opened Cranky’s five years ago. One plus for Jones is the lease.“We have a 3 percent increase on our rent every year, but we are lucky because we can renew our lease but the older businesses cannot,” she said.
The rent for San Remo Pizza, across the street from 1682, has tripled, said its owner, who has been in business in the area for 22 years,
San Remo’s is a time warp from the 1980s, the New York pizzeria with dimmed lights and old wooden chairs. It does not have a lot of customers.
“Do you see people? We used to see regular customers, it was industrial and we saw more people but now it’s dead,” said the owner, who asked not to be identified. “There are six pizza places in the area. It used to be busy but now everyone’s sleeping
One of the many dilemmas that older owners have to deal with is renovating their business for it to continue with its success.
Herve Queneau, professor of business economics at Brooklyn College, said the business owners’ challenge comes down to supply and demand. “If the demand is not met, competition will happen and that will impact diversity,” he said.
Queneau said New York’s diversity, with many immigrants opening small businesses, sets it apart from other places. “The social fabric of New York is that we are urban, what is unique about New York is the immigrants that want to have their own businesses. It is what makes New York different,” he said, adding that if small business owners get pushed out, it will hurt communities because less variety will be offered.
To meet the competition, business owners have to make changes. “They need to upgrade their stores and infrastructure and adjust to the demand,” Queneau said.
Other businesses like Laundry City have not suffered from rent increases. Manager Xavier Jacome, who is from Ecuador, has been there since 2007.
“Business is doing well. We have a lease so we aren’t charged much,” he said. “Our customers are mostly new; they are not from the neighborhood. People moved, used to be Spanish but the rents raised. But we are doing good.”
As Jacome spoke, a customer with a southern accent interjected how much he loved the place as he grabbed his bag of clothes and shook Jacome’s hand.
Apart from small businesses, factories have also been hurting in this gentrified neighborhood where a new pre-k school is opening up by the condos. One business in particular is a plastics manufacturer, Plaxall. This company has been in the area since 1950 and owns more than two dozen properties in Long Island City. Vice President, Matt Quigley says, “It’s hurting our factory because not a lot of trucks want to come by because there’s a school opening up.” The property encompasses more than 1 million square feet of space.
The passage from industrial area to trendy residential community is part of a global trend. According to Zukin, the past is recalled through signs and images that attract people, such as the 78-year-old Pepsi-Cola sign that once stood over a bottling plant and now is surrounded by condos. “The sign becomes a moral anchor of the past, and people aren’t willing to let that go,” said Zukin.
Zukin said people move to a waterfront location because it gives a sense of leisure to look at it. Economically developed countries no longer use the waterfront for industry.
Gentrification started in Long Island City as early as 1982. A Manhattan developer, Lazard Realty Inc., started work on renovating two old industrial buildings into a million square feet of office spaces, according to The New York Times. The Long Island City Partnership lists a total of 32 planned or completed hotels, 86 planned or completed residential buildings, and nine planned or completed office buildings. In addition, the Bloomberg administration completed an extensive $80 million greening project in Queensboro Plaza.
As the neighborhood keeps changing, it has developed an art scene and cultural attractions that draw tourists. Zukin explains that people are fascinated with the past and want to be involved with the change. With Long Island City being a hotspot for tourism, hotels fill up quickly, averaging occupancy rates of more than 80 percent, according to DNAInfo.com.
As Zukin describes it, “in order to redevelop, you really have to have people reimagine the area.”
It is possible for a business to survive, but not easy.
“We had a lot of people come in during brunch but then the new Dunkin’ Donuts opened up and we had to make a choice to renovate because we were not getting as many people,” Jones said. “But now we are getting a lot of people at night.”
Photo: Cranky’s Cafe, a coffee shop, became the upscale 1682 restaurant in response to gentrification in Long Island City.