101-Year Old Yonah Schimmel Endangered by East Houston Reconstruction
Yonah Schimmel, the legendary knish shop, has survived the Great Depression, years of gentrification and many other difficulties in its 101 year history. It remains to be seen whether the historic business, one of the last remaining Jewish retail establishments on the Lower East Side, will also survive the reconstruction of East Houston Street.
The huge project, which is scheduled to be finished in the summer of 2013, has been tough on a lot of businesses, stretching from the Bowery to FDR Drive. Last week Ellen Anistratov, who owns the knish shop with her father, told us why the torn up street is not just an inconvenience for Yonah Schimmel, but possibly a permanent business killer.
The store, where the knish was possibly invented, is heavily reliant on longtime customers who travel by car from Brooklyn, the Bronx, New Jersey and other places to pick up large orders placed in advance. Anistratov estimated this loyal group supplies the store with at least 50% of its total business. But for many weeks now, only two eastbound lanes have been open on Houston Street. This had made it impossible for drivers to pull up to the storefront, located at 137 East Houston, where in the past they have parked for a few moments to pick up and pay for their orders.
“The city has cut off our oxygen… I have no money to pay my workers. it’s really bad,” Anistratov said. While she knows it has always been illegal to park in front of the store, her customers have relied on the practice for decades. Just the other day, Anistratov recounted, a man was trying to pick up six-dozen knishes, but a police officer came up behind his car, scaring him off. She was stuck with the knishes and didn’t get paid.
Recently, Yonah Schimmel has been receiving some outside help to deal with the situation. Paul Kidder, a community liaison for Haks Engineering, a city contractor, explained that the work being done on the north side of Houston is mostly finished, but they have been waiting for a missing part necessary to complete the job. Representatives from City Councilmember Margaret Chin’s office have been trying to come up with a solution. And Tim Laughlin from the LES Business Improvement District stopped by the other day to see if he could be of assistance.
In a statement, the Councilmember told us:
It is imperative to protect mom and pop stores… In this case, Yonah Schimmel is not just a small business, but a pioneer on the Lower East Side. All across our city, small businesses bear the brunt of construction impacts. The City needs to do more to mitigate the effect of construction on business in our community.
On Friday afternoon, Craig Chin, a spokesman with the NYC Department of Design and Construction, said his agency is well aware of the store’s dilemma. He indicated DOT is trying to arrange for a short-term metered parking space around the corner on Forsyth Street, as a convenience to customers visiting Yonah Schimmel and other local businesses during the construction.
He noted that there is no parking on this section of East Houston from 8 a.m.-6 p.m., and that this was true long before the reconstruction project began. “It’s not legal in the first place,” he said. Chin indicated the part they were waiting for has now arrived. He estimated there’s 4-6 weeks of additional work to be done before the street is back to normal. But at that point, Chin added, the work crews shift to the south side of the street, possibly making access to Yonah Schimmel and many other businesses even more difficult. That phase of the job, however, will start on the East end of Houston and gradually move westward.
Yonnah Schimmel describes itself as the oldest knishery in America. The walls are lined with photos of celebrities and politicians who have frequented the historic business over the years. There was a fresh round of publicity in 2010 when the shop celebrated its 100th birthday. “This place represents the history of New York,” Anistratov said. “It’s a very sentimental part of people’s lives. They come with the family.”
Anistratov told the New York Times she hoped her children would become the sixth generation of the same family to run Yonah Schimmel on the Lower East Side. Given recent developments, however, she wonders whether they’ll have that opportunity.
UPDATE 2/21 Click here.