The social significance of neighborhood businesses and the preservation of independent business districts were the topics on the table at the second installment of the Arborway Committee’s Rethinking Centre St. film and discussion series on Dec 3.
The event, attended by about 40 people, featured a new film, “Twilight Becomes Night,” about the challenges facing independent businesses in New York City. Following the film, Newbury Street business owner John Lewis, Boston Main Streets Business Manager Brian Goodman and Angel Coleman, a community and economic development specialist from Philadelphia, participated in a panel discussion, fielding questions from the audience.
The film featured both academics and community members describing independent neighborhood businesses in high-minded terms.
One scene featured Peter Whybrow, director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, saying, “In many ways you can think of the society in which we live, the small communities that are ideal for human behavior to flourish, where happiness is found most obviously—these societies serve an immune function in the stresses and strains of everyday life. Individuals know each other and they know each other in a way that supports intimacy and empathy. And that enables the individual to feel safe and secure.”
Starting the panel discussion, Lewis, who owns John Lewis Inc. jewelers, abruptly changed the tone of the conversation.
“If you don’t own your own building, you’re screwed,” Lewis said.
John Lewis Inc. is among the last independent businesses on Newbury Street, one of Boston’s premiere shopping districts. He purchased his 97 Newbury St. space a few years after he opened in 1958, he said.
The two other panelists presented a somewhat more optimistic picture.
“I really want to make the point that community coming together is the most important thing,” in creating a viable independent business district, said Coleman, who works with Philadelphia’s Girard Street Coalition.
That group, like Boston Main Streets’ various local affiliates, advocates for and works to promote independent neighborhood business districts. JP boasts three Main Streets programs, in the Centre/South Street, Hyde/Jackson Square and Egleston Square areas. But Michael Reiskind, who sits on the Centre/South Main Streets board, was the only event attendee to identify himself as affiliated with a local Main Streets group.
Goodman reinforced the point that community engagement is key. “One of the things we have learned,” he said, “is it is really important to start linking communities together.” Schools, merchants and non-profits can all provide interdependent support, he said.
He offered Boston Main Street’s Community Change program as an example of such support. According to the program web site Bostoncommunitychange.org, the program “facilitates a new alternative economic infrastructure that gives us tools to align our daily economic activities with our deepest human values.”
The program distributes Community Change cards that shoppers can use at participating locally owned businesses to receive a rebate. According to the web site, customers receive a discount. Portions of the discount come back to the customer and are donated to a local school or non-profit of his or her choice and are donated to the local Main Streets organization. There is also an option to have 100 percent of the rebate donated to a local non-profit.
Thirty-seven businesses in Mission Hill and Jamaica Plain are in the program. Ula Café, in the brewery complex on Amory Street, is offering a 5 percent discount on purchases over $8. Prudential Unlimited Realty on Centre Street, offers a $250 rebate on home purchases. A full list of participating businesses is available on the Community Change web site.
Karen Kirchoff, who runs Jamaica Plain Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine at 2 Harris Avenue, just off the Centre Street shopping district, complained about business rents on Centre Street.
“Here in JP we haven’t even gotten to the point where we have the best mix of businesses we would like to have, and we have a handful of landlords jacking up the rents.”
While she said she understands that property ownership is the most desirable situation for a business owner, “For the stars to line up for small business people is really pretty bleak,” she said.
Goodman admitted that the city has limited leverage in dealing with landlords. “We can’t strong- arm landlords into position,” he said. While there are examples of landlords working with Main Streets organizations to insure a healthy mix of businesses, small business owners with high rents would do well to “think creatively about building a customer base,” he said.
While some of Goodman’s suggestions centered around creating local business districts as destinations for shoppers from other parts of the city, he also focused on local shopping as a social responsibility.
“It’s like the idea of natural capital. When I was growing up the idea that the Earth as a resource needed to be protected was not an issue. Our role is raising awareness about what’s the value of keeping my dollars local,” he said.
Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) staffer Andy Waxman said his organization owns the Brewery Complex in JP, and rents to Ula Café and other businesses. JPNDC’s board is made up of JP residents including business owners. It provides direct financial support, referrals to lending institutions and support in developing business plans, he said.
City Feed and Supply, working with the JPNDC, recently got a loan from Wainwright Bank to help finance the renovation of a news store at 672 Centre St., where the Videosmith used to be.
Reiskind offered the story of that commercial space as a positive example of community support for independent businesses in Jamaica Plain.
When the national sandwich chain D’Angelo was considering moving into the same space last year, Reiskind said, “The community came out and got D’Angelo to change their mind. We changed the landlord’s mind about who to rent to and changed the businesses mind.”
Many in the community said they would not approve the restaurant’s bid for a zoning variance the sandwich shop would have needed for take-out food service, Reiskind said,
“There were a series of steps they would have had to go through, and we made it very clear they would not succeed,” Reiskind said.
Reiskind sits on the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council, a popularly elected organization that regularly gives community recommendations for zoning variances.
“Twilight Becomes Night,” director Virginie-Alvine Perrette, said she chronicled the disappearance of a number of locally owned businesses, including a barbershop, hardware store and confectioner, in New York City just by keeping her camera trained on them for long enough.
She grew up in New York she said, and after returning there from Boston in 1999, she noticed a number of independent businesses she remembered from her youth had disappeared. “I started filming, and over five or six years it turned into the story I was trying to tell,” she said.
The film was scored by JP resident Jason Hatfield. More information is available at Twilightbecomesnight.com.
In an interview after the event, Coleman, who traveled from Philadelphia to participate, said she appreciates the opportunity to compare notes with other communities. She is going to look into setting up something similar to the Community Change program in the Philadelphia neighborhood where she works, she said, and will likely set up a screening of Perrette’s movie.
Franklyn Salimbene of the Arborway Committee, which in the past has advocated for the restoration of E-Line trolley service along S. Huntington Avenue, Centre Street and South Street, will hold another Rethinking Centre Street Forum in the spring.
The first Rethinking Centre Streets forum, in October, focused mostly on street planning for pedestrians and bicyclists. Salimbene said he did not know what the next forum will be about.
“My hope is that from these meetings some sort of an action plan grows out of the conversation,” he said.