After scraping by during the Covid-19 shutdown, East Village businesses were looking forward to New York’s reopening when police-brutality protests broke out around the neighborhood. The looting that followed quickly became a talking point for conservative commentators looking to discredit protestors, but many local shopkeepers who experienced break-ins continue to support the ongoing protests even as they pick up the pieces.
“We support the Black Lives Matter movement, and it being a movement and not a moment,” said Laura Sewell.
Sewell is the Executive Director of the East Village Community Coalition (EVCC). In 2015 she helped to form the East Village Independent Merchants Association (EVIMA), and the two had been helping small business owners navigate the Covid-19 crisis when the protests forced them to change course.
Two weeks ago, Sewell began to balance her time between protesting and creating long-term programs within the East Village. One of those programs is the What’s Open East Village Map, which was initially created at the start of lockdown to help locals navigate the changing area. Soon, it will also function as a directory for businesses that are black-, LGBTQ-, women- and minority-owned businesses. .
One of those businesses is Villainess, a designer second-hand clothing store and event space owned by Ash Gray. Gray opened her shop just a month before the lockdown and was using the down time to assess her personal and professional goals.
“I know some business owners on my side of the block who did have issues with, quote-unquote, looting. As a small business owner, I absolutely empathize with them. I absolutely would not want anyone to destroy my property or my store or break glass, but at the end of the day this is way bigger than buildings, this is way bigger than business. And for me personally, me being a business owner is changeable but I will be a black woman forever,” she said.
Many small business owners whose properties were damaged agreed. “It will never change my opinion on these protests. I still firmly believe that what’s happening is a vital conversation and a vital movement,” said Zach Mack, whose bar and beer shop, ABC Beer, was broken into on the night of May 31. “I can replace my windows, I can get my iPads back, I can work through this. There’s a bit of financial hardship, but the bigger picture is much more important.”
Sruthi Chowdary opened an Indian restaurant, Khiladi, just six months before Covid-19 hit and was already facing an uncertain future before it was broken into.
“I wasn’t angry but I did cry, because even before this, Covid was hurting us,” she said. “I didn’t know how to go about it. I didn’t know what to expect. But I posted this video on Instagram and it said, ‘I still fight for justice, I still fight in solidarity with the movement. These are people who are just trying to take advantage. I am scared, I am uncertain but I am not losing hope.’ That’s what I posted on Instagram that same morning, and the support and love we got from the neighborhood and from the community and from all over was unreal.”
Mack and Chowdary’s stories were similar to those of other small business owners in the area, whose security footage revealed a group of people arriving after the main protests had finished, breaking in, and primarily stealing cash.
For the past few months both EVIMA and the EVCC have been approached by local volunteers looking to help small businesses. The days after the protests were no different.
“We have a list of 200 volunteers at this point who want to help the small businesses in our neighborhood and I’m hoping that will be a movement and not a moment too, because we’re going to need help going forward to support them,” Sewell said.
EVIMA worked with the organization Random Acts of Kindness to create a volunteer form online where people can list their areas of expertise and availability and connect with the relevant businesses.
Kadidja Kabore Lamport, who owns Kadidja Handmade Collection, said that in the past few months the East Village has reminded her of the village where she grew up in Togo, West Africa. “People come together and support each other. [There are] a lot of discussions about what needs to be done and who needs help,” she said.
Priavanda Chouhan, whose restaurant Desi Gali was broken into, echoed this sentiment. “I’m on a strip where four out of five of the owners are female so it’s really like a family community environment in the East Village compared to our midtown location. In Midtown nobody wants to help you. It’s like, ‘You got broken into? Good for you.’ But the East Village [lends] a helping hand.”
Locals proved to be effective emergency workers. “We were able to get a lot of things done in a short amount of time because people showed up to help out,” Mack said. After Hurricane Sandy, people just showed up out of the blue to help out and it feels like the same thing now.”
Alongside clean-up efforts, EVIMA and the EVCC are continuing to work on re-opening the East Village. “We realized that the biggest thing would be building trust because suddenly every public place became suspect,” said Charles Branstool, the owner of Exit9 Gift Emporium and co-chair of EVIMA.
They developed the East Village Pledge, which members are encouraged to display in their windows. It includes the promise that participating businesses are going “over and above what local regulations and rules demand of them,” both in terms of cleanliness and patience and kindness.
In the early days of Covid-19, both EVIMA and the EVCC acted as interpreters for business as government loans and city regulations constantly changed. This role is continuing as the city re-opens.
Mack said these collective efforts have been critical, but acknowledged that the future is uncertain. “No one’s happy right now and no one’s comfortable financially right now. That’s just the reality. Most of the small business owners I talk to around here are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best,” he said.
Eric Wong, a veteran who opened his restaurant and catering company Tac N Roll after completing a tour in Iraq, agreed. “It doesn’t seem very positive in terms of surviving this,” he said. “But then, it’s about being persistent and being passionate about your craft and what you love to do..”
Gray, too, is finding ways to be hopeful. “It hurts right now and it sucks but sometimes it has to suck in order for things to get better,” she said. “I feel like I have skin in the game of history. I’m a black woman during all of this. I’m a small business owner in New York City, so if I can remain hopeful anyone can remain hopeful.”
Correction, June 15: The original version of this post was revised because it misstated Laura Sewell’s history with the EVCC and the non-profit status of Random Acts of Kindness,.