Queens, New York: Mr Bornstein's Neighborhood

Zoj Granola Founders.jpg

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And most people who drive through blocks of industrial urban neighborhoods in Queens County, New York find them ugly, depressing, and sometimes dangerous. I spend a great deal of time in these kinds of neighborhoods, and to the shock and surprise of many - especially my close friends and family - I find them just as interesting and usually more exotic than the overly-planned communities touting the new urbanism popping up all over the country.

Queens is the second largest borough of New York City. With a population that is arguably the most diverse in the world - 165 languages and counting - it is more than a melting pot. It is what’s in store for counties the world over. Before the word “globalization” hit the Economics 101 textbooks, trading and sharing by people from all over the world was already underway in the 50+ neighborhoods of Queens.

While I always knew this on an instinctive level, it was brought home to me over the past year. In January 2011, the Queens Economic Development Corporation took over a former union-operated job training facility/commercial kitchen and transformed it into an incubator for start up food and other small businesses. Located on 37th Street in Long Island City, just over the Queensborough Bridge from midtown Manhattan, it is literally ten minutes away from the glamor of midtown sophistication.

But that ten minute drive demonstrates how fast urban landscapes can change.

At one time, Long Island City was one of the great manufacturing hubs of the metropolitan region. Any late 1800’s through the mid 20th century photo of the east side of New York City showed belching smokestacks in the background, across the East River. Driving from Manhattan into Queens over the Queensborough Bridge, one would see a giant neon stapler jumping up and down atop the Swingline factory. Above the Eagle Electric plant another neon sign would remind us that ‘Perfection Is Not An Accident.” A few blocks away, Chiclets, Sunshine Biscuits and Silvercup Bakery employed thousands. Those large manufacturers are now history. Long Island City has been transformed; sleek residential and office towers are the new landmarks.

The streets are now largely populated by office workers and residents who no doubt shop in the posh Manhattan emporiums, though there are more than just a few traces of the area’s industrial past. While large swaths of the community have been rezoned to allow new uses, there are still manufacturing and service areas protected by the zoning codes.

These blocks are not on the New York City tourist trail. But they are the heart and guts of the city. Just like those internal organs, they are not pretty to look at, but are essential to the life of our city. Though the great manufacturing operations are gone, there are still thousands of small workshops and factories that, when aggregated, are viable economic engines.

On these streets, the Queens Economic Development Corporation has opened a new center to accelerate small business development. The Entrepreneur’s Space: An Incubator for Food & Business is home to 5,000 square feet of kitchens and 2,000 square feet of small office space and classrooms. Over 100 clients represent the diverse population of New York City. They turn out French pastries, Finnish breads, Indian candies, Mexican salsas, and Caribbean specialties, in addition to vegan cupcakes, granola bars, and exotic artisan chocolates. All clients are provided with business consultations. Our goal is to nurture growing businesses, and, when they are ready, send them out into the world.

The press has taken notice: a front page story in the New York Times>, plus Fox Business Channel, BBC, and others. In a period when most small business news is negative, stories about The Entrepreneur’s Space have been positive, with one exception: Inevitably, our location on this block of 37th Street is referred to as “a gritty industrial zone,” “a street with repair shops,” and, most hurtful to me, “unattractive.”

This one square block is home to over 40 businesses, an eclectic mix that includes a family-owned plumbing company that has been around for 50 years, an immigrant-owned commercial laundry, a repair shop for food vending carts, a lighting-equipment business for the film industry, a day treatment program for the disabled, and a coffee shop, among many others.

This block is a village.

While it is not considered pretty (not many Bloomingdale's-clad folks strolling the streets), it is certainly neighborly. Just as in small town America, residents help each other out. Last winter we split the cost of a snow blower with the electric company next door, least we both end up with violations for not clearing our sidewalks during the snowiest winter in memory. The disabled folks in the day treatment program down the block are probably more welcome here than they would be in many residential areas. And, at the coffee shop on the corner — 90 cents a cup and served in nanoseconds — the counterman knows how every one likes their coffee.

Our block employs about 400 people ranging from the highly skilled and highly paid to those recently released from incarceration and rehab programs and earning the minimum wage. Combined, it probably has a payroll of a few million dollars, and generates enough in property and sales taxes to pave a lot of streets and pay the salaries of all the teachers in the nearby public school. Many of the 100 clients in the Entrepreneur’s Space were cooking and baking in home kitchens prior to signing up with us. Aside from the fact that it is illegal to cook at home and sell commercially, these clients understood that if they wanted their businesses to grow they had to find suitable accommodations. I think of the Entrepreneur’s Space as a “halfway house” between life in a tiny New York residential kitchen and a slick commercial kitchen with gleaming industrial equipment.

But until then, the Entrepreneur's Space clients are just like the rest of the occupants of the neighborhood, working hard to develop their businesses. They've created new occupations for themselves, and many have even begun to hire part time assistants.

No business on 37th Street is a Fortune 500 company or listed on a stock exchange. The block is like so many in the industrial neighborhoods of New York's boroughs: not very pretty to look at, but a solid community, diverse in every sense of the word. These neighborhoods are home to thousands of jobs throughout our city… and the jobs they create are truly beautiful.

Seth Bornstein is the Executive Director of the Queens Economic Development Corporation, a non-profit organization that helps to create and retain jobs through neighborhood development, entrepreneurial assistance and business and tourism attraction programs. The Entrepreneur’s Space: An Incubator for Food & Business is their newest program. A native New Yorker, he lives in Forest Hills, Queens.

Photo: Fanny Reboul and Victoria Khaydakova of Entrepreneur's Space Zoj Granola.