miLES (Made in the Lower East Side) has been working for the past year to transform some of the neighborhood’s many vacant storefronts into vibrant community spaces. Now the organization is debuting a “Storefront Transformer” to facilitate the vision – and a Kickstarter campaign to make it a reality.
This past spring, miLES partnered with Fourth Arts Block to pilot the pop-up/community hub concept from a storefront at 75 East 4th St., formerly FAB’s cafe. In the last few months, the group has hosted 14 pop up stores. They’re open to all sorts of possibilities — from art exhibitions to a fashion boutique to a test kitchen. Now founder Eric Ho, an architect, and his partners are looking to take their idea to the next level — by creating a six-foot, shape-shifting cube that can be brought into any storefront, instantly transforming the space for a diverse array of pop-up concepts.
Recently we sat down with Ho to discuss miLES’s evolution in the past year and why he feels the Lower East Side is the ideal location to test the vision. Ho came up with the idea after surveying the community and noticing that there are 200 vacant retail spaces throughout the neighborhood. It dawned on him that there was a unique opportunity to relieve a neighborhood eyesore and at the same time to provide affordable physical spaces for artists and entrepreneurs to test their products and concepts.
The benefits for imaginative people with limited financial resources are obvious; even the smallest spaces on the Lower East Side rent for more than $2000/month. For landlords, “Made on the Lower East Side” offers short-term income in the form of one-month rentals of spaces that sit vacant for long periods. Ho said it’s definitely been a challenge persuading property owners to give the organization a chance, but the success of the East 4th Street space has been a key selling point.
“Landlords are looking for long-term solutions and they’re looking for people they can rely on,” Ho said. “They’re willing to wait for someone who’s a bigger tenant so they will have stable tenants for three to five years or longer.” In general, he explained, smaller landlords have been more receptive. The idea behind the Storefront Transformer is to make it as easy as possible for the landlords, as well as the pop-up participants. The cube is brought right in through the front door and includes “functional elements such as shelving, partitions, tables, seats, stage, as well as infrastructure such as lighting, WIFI, power strips, speakers, projectors, and PA system so you have all the basic ingredients to create your own pop-up!”
miLES is seeking to raise $32,000 to help pay for the fabrication of the cubes as well as rent in at least one neighborhood storefront. The Transformer is set to debut in November and December with seven pop-up ideas. Among the featured projects is a celebration of comic book creator Jack Kirby, a demonstration project by the Space at Tompkins (a non-profit that helps homeless adults and youth) and Feathered Lane (a one-of-a-kind deli experience “taking cues from the South Bronx bodegas and Arthur Ave bakeries” that the creators frequented in the 90’s.)
“Collectively we’re trying to re-imagine retail space,” Ho said, “that is not just a bar or restaurant or gallery. It could be a lot of different things. It could be an ideal testing ground for a lot of different businesses and organizations.” miLES may very well take the concept to other neighborhoods if its works on the Lower East Side. But this community, he argued, is the perfect test market. “The Lower East Side is an ideal starting point because it has a lot of ingredients, creativity, community, entrepreneurial energy. Plus right now there are a lot of changes in the neighborhood. It’s specific to the Lower East Side but it’s also applicable to other neighborhoods that are going through changes, that have a lot of diversity, ethnicity, income disparities. If we scale, we will probably choose neighborhoods that are like the Lower East Side.”
The Kickstarter campaign is live until October 19.