Is Diversity to Blame for Sheepshead Bay Slow Recovery?

Streets in Sheepshead Bay, once active with pedestrians, instead stand out for the barricaded storefronts. (Photo by Ross Barkan/City Limits)

For one neighborhood in Brooklyn, the remnants of Hurricane Sandy remain visible in the many “For Rent” signs, the desolate sidewalks, the large x’s still on the windows and the boarded-up storefronts.

According to some immigrant small business owners, Sheepshead Bay has been “left out of the disaster narrative,” as reporter Ross Barkan puts it in an article for The Brooklyn Bureau. Small shops here and there have reopened but even after the water has receded, the loss of income and damaged property has kept many others shut. Barkan found that some attribute the post-Sandy situation to the neighborhood’s many immigrant communities and businesses.

Just knowing the sheer percentage of closed businesses can be a blow to the stamina of the community.

By one estimate, a whopping 40 percent of the almost 100 businesses in the areas of Sheepshead Bay impacted by Sandy may not be able to reopen. On Emmons Avenue, roughly 85 percent of businesses suffered some form of damage.

Immigrant business owners like Alex Tsirulnikov, the president of Infinite Auto Leasing, feel “abandoned.”

A recent meeting organized by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce for struggling businesses at the nearby El Greco Diner, an ornate neighborhood institution that managed to reopen, didn’t offer business owners, in his view, any solutions.

“I don’t know with Sheepshead Bay, I don’t see anyone helping businesses, I don’t see it,” Tsirulnikov says. “What is it, the chambers that they have here—they’re not really helping anybody, they didn’t do nothing. There was garbage out on the streets here for months.”

The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce says it has been working to encourage more people to come shop in Sandy-stricken communities. They are optimistic that in the spring and summer month business will pick up in Sheepshead Bay.

Then there are the loans from the Small Business Administration (SBA), which did not reach many of the neighborhood’s immigrant-run small businesses.

The loan process, described by some as too arduous, hinges on showing a certain amount of savings that can demonstrate to SBA that the business is capable of repaying the loan. For start-ups, family-owned and immigrant businesses, savings are usually in short supply. In immigrant-rich Sheepshead Bay, where many first-generation businesses do not have significant cash reserves, loans were hard to come by. For businesses already operating on a tight budget, the idea of taking on more debt, even if interest rates are held to as little as 4 percent, is an upsetting proposition.

Non-profits have found, according to Barkan, “that Sheepshead Bay lacks the civic infrastructure of nearby neighborhoods like Gerritsen Beach or Coney Island, making the neighborhood’s recovery all the more daunting.” Some ascribe this to the area’s “diverse” populations.

Sheepshead Bay doesn’t have an organization on the scale of the Alliance for Coney Island, a partnership between the city and Coney Island’s business community, or Gerritsen Beach Cares, a large yet tightly-bound civic group. Theresa Scavo, the chair of Community Board 15 which includes Sheepshead Bay, said business owners in recent years rejected the idea of forming a Business Improvement District (BID), a place where business owners pay an additional tax to fund improvements within the district boundaries. While BIDs have been criticized for pricing out small businesses unable to pay the tax, they are often the hallmark of a cohesive business community. Bay Ridge, less than 10 miles down the Belt Parkway from Sheepshead Bay, has two BIDs.

“You have to remember this is a very diverse community,” Scavo says. “It’s extremely diverse. You have business owners who are Russian and Turkish and Chinese. It’s very difficult to get a group together that all want to share the goal of getting more business to Sheepshead Bay.”

That recent meeting at the El Greco Diner, Scavo says, drew few business owners. Without connections forged through many decades of working together, immigrant business owners in the area, recovery organizers suggest, are more likely to work alone.

“You have really diverse cultures, we live side by side, but it’s very hard to be organized and stay on the same page even when there’s no disaster,” says Ken Soloway, the associate executive director of the Kingsbay Y. “None of them talk to each other, they don’t know each other, they don’t work together.”

Ned Berke, the founder and editor of Sheepshead Bites, a local news blog, brushes off the claim that a dragged-out recovery results from divergent immigrant groups. Plumb Beach, for example, populated not with immigrants but with what he calls “Sheeshead Bay stalwarts” continues to also struggle after Sandy. On the other hand, there’s nearby Brighton Beach, which, with its many immigrants, managed to get back on its feet.

“Brighton Beach is a much more diverse community in terms of the immigrant groups and how packed together they are,” Berke says, ticking off Eastern Europeans, Arabs and South Asians as examples of immigrant groups that live side by side. “The diversity did not cause a problem for their ability to respond to the storm. In fact, (Brighton Beach) might’ve actually done better because they already had these institutions that are serving them, such as the Shorefront Y, and along Brighton Beach Avenue they had a much faster recovery in their business sector because of a Business Improvement District.”

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