Dominic and Chris Leong

co-founders - Leong Leong

Dominic and Chris Leong

What are 3 of your favorite small businesses in New York?

Storefront for Art and Architecture

Storefront for Art and Architecture

D: Storefront has been on this corner in Nolita for over thirty years. In that time, they’ve built up a legacy by providing a gathering place for New York’s architects, designers, artists, and just creatives in general. Its an epicenter for creative conversations and production in the city - a lot of projects that otherwise wouldn’t have happened got off the ground at Storefront.

C: For me, Storefront is one of those unique spaces in the city that is so unassuming - it’s one of those hiding-in-plain-sight spots that everyone peers into when they walk by - but so much of what gets discussed inside ends up bleeding out onto the street. You’d be surprised by how many architectural projects in the city literally happen because of conversations facilitated by Storefront.

We’d always held the organization in high regard - even before we were participants. If you’re in our industry you’re probably familiar with Vito Acconci and Steven Holl’s iconic design for Storefront even if you’ve never been before.

D: Our studio is pretty close by, so we really gravitated towards Storefront and everything they stand for. A lot of architectural institutions and forums in America kind of come with this ivory tower mentality attached to them. Storefront is really antithetical to that - their walls literally open out onto the sidewalk. Openness and dialogue is fundamentally built into their model.

C: Lastly, because of their reputation, Storefront is able to help a lot of independent (and often smaller) practices jump into larger scale conversations that they wouldn’t be able to easily participate in otherwise.

Elizabeth Street Garden

Elizabeth Street Garden

D: Elizabeth Street Garden - run by the group Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden - is one of the last green spaces of its kind in lower Manhattan. It’s contributed so much to the atmosphere of the neighborhood; businesses like Lovely Day and Gimme! Coffee have obviously benefited from it being there. It creates this moment of repose and sanctuary amidst the constant movement you experience in Soho.

C: Right - the garden is a really timeless space in a city that’s constantly shifting. Part of New York’s beauty is that relentless growth; you have to embrace it if you live here...but it’s also nice to be able to offset or juxtapose that with something like Elizabeth Street Garden. The whole space is steeped with the history and ambiance of the neighborhood. I think it’s really essential that we maintain places like this for the health of the communities that surround them.

Asian Americans for Equality

Asian Americans for Equality

C: Asian Americans for Equality is an organization that we’ve been working with for the past year and a half on a project out in Flushing. They’re interesting because they started out as an advocacy group in 1974 supporting Asian Americans in Chinatown. When the Confucius Plaza tower was being built, they got Asian American workers involved in that project when there initially were none.

Since then, they’ve grown to become this platform that provides financial and legal services, affordable housing, and so on in lower Manhattan. What’s really interesting about their mission is that it centers so heavily around supporting small and emerging businesses. The project that we’re doing in Flushing with them is both an incubator for supporting entrepreneurs and giving them a venue to interact with the public and community in a more meaningful way. So it’s kind of a physical articulation of their directive all in one place.

Why is it important to support independent businesses?

D: In a city that’s as dense as New York is, everything and everyone are connected to one another, whether you like it or not. Independent businesses have traditionally always been hubs for communities - spaces where people gather even if they’re not actively interacting with one another. So we wanted to choose spots in our feature that we think act as positive, constructive vectors for the neighborhoods, cultures, and industries they affect.

Independent businesses are uniquely positioned to help cultivate the ecosystems they’re part of - unlike many large scale, corporate businesses, these places tend to be closer to the ground. The owners often have very personal, individual interactions with their customers. So you’re then able to build this support system for people, especially minority groups and immigrant populations, who might not be able to reliably access that elsewhere. Long story short, they’re really important for diversity in a city.

C: In terms of development, there’s a formula that works as basically liability management. Developers will always try to place a bank or chain pharmacy on a block that’s about to be gentrified. This is something we see all the time - it yields a very homogenous kind of urbanism that doesn’t necessarily speak to the needs of people who live in these neighborhoods.

As such, the importance of small businesses is that, like Dominic said, they’re extremely keyed into the particular needs and priorities of the community around them. Even more noteworthy is that they are then able to adapt to how these communities evolve, as well. So you get this dynamic, growing relationship as opposed to one that’s very monolithic and static. I think it’s important to highlight that.

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