Thursday, November 05, 2009

Not Good Enouugh To Open

The fact that the West Suide restaurant, Good Enough to Eat, remains closed one week after a gas leak shut the place, is symbolic of the struggles of all small businesses in NY. As Julia Vitullo-Martin explains in this morning's NY Post: "How hostile is the city to its businesses? Consider the plight of Good Enough to Eat -- a renowned restaurant on Manhattan's West Side, that can't seem to reopen in the wake of a gas leak one week ago. A Con Edison meter reader smelled gas in the small, 18-unit apartment building that also houses Good Enough at 2:45 p.m. last Thursday. An inspector quickly arrived, found several leaks and turned off the gas. The repairs needed to get gas back on couldn't start without a permit from the city -- and it was too late in the day to get one. Carrie Levin, Good Enough's owner, says: "I'm a cook. I was preparing for our biggest weekend of the year -- Halloween, the Marathon, plus great weather. I faced a financial calamity and had no idea what to do."

For the past eight years, small businesses have been abandoned by the city-left to their own devices to struggle to succeed against man-made barriers that could easily be eliminated if the will existed. Owner Levin exemplifies the struggle against a regulatory system that's a maze-and we haven't even begun to touch the confiscatory taxes that saddle all small retailers in this town. The record levels of store foreclosures underscore just how bad things are-a fact that wasn't visible during the relentless Bloomberg advertising blitz about ersatz economic plans.

But in the case of small business, Good Enough to Eat's plight demonstrates that in his last term, the mayor needs to send small business head Rob Walsh packing, and revamp the agency to actually be in a position to speed help to businesses-especially those in an emergency situation.
The difficulties Levin faces should be the wake-up call the mayor responds to: "Of course, gas leaks aren't to be trifled with. But Levin's dilemma shows how badly the city's bureaucratic maze frustrates its businesses, especially smaller ones. There's no clear (let alone efficient) system for small businesses facing catastrophic closure. Instead, each owner has to figure out a path on his or her own. Levin sat down with a list of government numbers and started calling. Turns out that 311 only helps private citizens, not businesses. The office of Small Business Services promised to look into the problem and call back. It never did."

The mayor's resume is padded with the title of management guru-and he spent the last days of his campaign acting as the best friend of the little retailers. But the fact that Good Enough is still closed and Walsh is still employed exposes the padding and the campaign posing as well. The only real help that arrived for Levin was when Council member Gale Brewer got involved: "Says Levin: "Each time I think I'm done, they come up with something else. Once your business is shut down, all these rules and regulations keep you from opening again." The building's leaks are finally getting fixed, with another inspection to go when work's done. Maybe the restaurant will survive, thanks to the councilwoman's help with the bureaucracy. But no one should need a politician's pull in such situations -- the vast city workforce ought to be helping its citizens, especially a jobs-generating businesswoman."

Small businesses like Levin's are vital to the city's neighborhoods-and are the real engine for economic and community stability. Good Enough's success story-at least before the current snafu-is replicated thousands of times over all around this town: "When Levin opened for business in 1981, Amsterdam Avenue at 81st Street was forlorn and dangerous. Her tiny restaurant, serving old-fashioned American food stylishly prepared (she's French-trained), became an immediate success and ushered in the rebirth of the neighborhood. In 1989, she moved across the street and two blocks north to her current, larger space. She replaced bullet-pocked windows, installed a pretty awning and enclosed her sidewalk café with a white picket fence. Lines of customers snaking down the block became a regular West Side sight."

In the mayor's final term, the centrality of the small business engine needs to be acknowledged in a tangible way. Unlike the past eight years, with one large real estate initiative after initiative being constantly unveiled, the next four should be a focus on how we help the tens of thousands of small neighborhood firms not only recover or thrive. And if this task is beneath Mike Bloomberg, that others need to step up and re-focus the city's political energies where they can do the most good.

Carrie Levin's fate is a cautionary tale for the future: "Now her future looks grim -- the delays in reopening could kill the business...Fans have set up a Facebook page to monitor the situation -- and to call 311 as private citizens. Maybe e-democracy will help. But surely the Bloomberg administration could establish an advocate's office to ensure that no business in New York closes needlessly." It should-and that's an ingredient for a five borough economic plan that should be Good Enough to Eat.