Our journey began while photographing the city’s streets and walls for an altogether different project. During the late 1990’s, we combed the streets of New York City searching out and documenting its graffiti art scene for a book we were making that also involved large-scale photography. In the process of publishing two books and several articles documenting graffiti art, we got to travel and discover many distant neighborhoods of the city. The nature of graffiti art is such that it constantly changes as new art covers what had been there before. We would often return to the very same locations and see new artwork there, necessitating many trips to a particular block. Despite the short time frame between visits however, we noticed that some blocks looked drastically different. Many neighborhood stores had closed, or we would come across “old” stores, still in business, but somehow different. They were either refaced, remodeled, or original signage had been substituted with new, bright and shiny plastic awnings. The whole look and feel of the neighborhood had changed and much of its individuality and charm had gone. The result was unsettling.
The traditional storefront that has prevailed in some cases for nearly a century is facing several new setbacks. These family-run businesses started out as traditional ‘mom and pop’ stores, and there was a time when they defined our neighborhoods. Many were humble stores tucked away on narrow side streets, while others had become well-known institutions on historic avenues. Each store turned out to be as unique as their customers, run by owners with a commitment to tradition and special service. The neighborhood store has always been a foothold for new immigrants and a comfortable place where familiar languages are spoken, where ethnic foods and culture are present. These shops are lifelines for their communities, vital to the residents who depend on them for a multitude of needs. When these shops fail, the neighborhood itself is affected. Not only are these modest institutions falling away in the face of modernization and conformity, the once unique appearance and character of our colorful streets suffer in the process.
We made it our mission to thoroughly document these stores, setting out with our 35 mm camera and micro-cassette recorder. After taking only a few pictures and speaking with only a handful of storeowners, we knew we had a compelling story. Many storeowners felt honored that we would take the time to photograph their business and ask about their store’s history. We often sat down with them for hours, talking and reminiscing. We felt welcomed into their ‘homes’ and many wouldn’t let us leave without taking ‘tokens’ of their appreciation such as loaves of bread, pastries, sausages, or pizza. We taped the interviews with a recorder, it being less obtrusive than a video camera.
Our choice to use a 35 mm film camera, rather than a digital camera was obvious; we wanted to remain “old-school” like the stores we were documenting. We also produced panoramic composite photographs depicting the feel of entire blocks. This was our only concession to modern technology: to combine successive single 35 mm film images of rows of storefronts, which comprise an entire city block, into a seamless linear presentation using a computer. With these panoramas, the viewer gains a bold, new perspective. Splendid details such as signage, architectural adornment, and hand-made window displays are presented in context, as they exist on the street. This allows a truly stunning and comprehensive view otherwise impossible to experience. These panoramic photographs are the only way to view these entire blocks of storefronts at once, with no obstruction from parking meters, street signs, parked automobiles and trucks, or any other element of New York’s crowded sidewalks.
In our interviews, we learned many fascinating details from the owners about the struggles of surviving as a business in New York City. One of the most common things we heard was how their neighborhoods have changed over the years and how this has affected their business. Gentrification and skyrocketing rents were huge concerns. Owners who were fortunate enough to own the entire building where the business was located still worried about the future. In some cases they had no one in their family who wanted to take over the business when they retire, bringing to an end a long line of family tradition. Many owners told us about New York City’s rules and regulations concerning store signage and awnings, and the aggravation and huge expenses these cause. We had no idea permits and fees were required for neon signs or large overhanging signs, and that the city is no longer issuing new permits. In fact in many areas of the city, strict zoning ensures that storefront signage and awnings remain discreet and not hang over 18 inches from the sidewalk. Older stores are often forced to comply with these newer regulations and must modernize despite the owners’ wishes.
Some of the highlights of our interviews included finding out that true delicatessens like Katz’s Delicatessen in the Lower East Side are rare because they continue a tradition of meat preparation and preservation that pre-dates refrigeration. We discovered that McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village was the last bar in New York City to admit only men. We were dismayed to learn that the closure of E. Kurowycky and Sons Meat Market in our own neighborhood of the East Village occurred because the owner was suddenly forced to remove the smoked ham, bacon, salami, and pork kielbasa hanging from hooks in his store window. A fate shared by many. We heard that the water in New York City is crucial to the resultant taste and texture of homemade mozzarella. Many cheese-producing shops that relocated out-of-state must now arrange to have New York’s water tanked in to their shops, sometimes as far as to California! We discovered the oldest teahouse in Chinatown, learned that Caffe Reggio in Greenwich Village was the first to introduce cappuccino into the United States, and could confirm first-hand that the C & N Everything Store in The Bronx literally does sell everything! The Wonder Wheel in Coney Island was bought as a wedding present for the wife of its owner. The owner’s son told us the gift was akin to “a ring so big that everyone in the world would see how much he loved her.” The birthplace of the teddy bear, next door to Jimmy’s Stationery & Toys in Bedford-Stuyvesant, had President Teddy Roosevelt’s personal blessing.
There is no typical New Yorker but there are quite distinct neighborhoods in New York City, often defined, in part, by their storefronts.
To view more of our Storefront photos, please go to: www.jamesandkarlamurray.com
Gotham is a blog for independent and professional scholars of
New York City history
We invite submissions
Click below to follow us on social media
using any feed reader
View the material as a broadsheet
See our list of
Visitors looking for
"The Gotham Blotter"
will find it here,
revised as blog posts