A Journey Through Chinatown

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For City's Repairmen, Shop May Be the Sidewalk

September 10, 2003. New York Times

Among the churning sidewalks of Chinatown, Zhong Wen Jiang has found his niche.

From morning until sundown, he squats on a makeshift stool planted on a sliver of public pavement and mends worn shoes. Crowds of people surge by narrow Bayard Street, but with his sturdy back against the stoop of an old school building and his bony legs straddling a homemade last, he intently slices off a piece of rubber or leather, swabs on a yellowish glue, pounds in a few nails and files the rough edges off a fresh heel or sole so it is ready for walking.

Sometimes he takes a break for a filtered Chinese cigarette or for a rice gruel carried from the home he shares with his wife in Brooklyn. But otherwise, he fixes shoes seven days a week, in the swampy days of summer or the frigid bite of winter, deterred only by a blizzard or a downpour that defeats the scaffolding that on most days blessedly shields him.

"If I don't come here, what's going to happen to all the people who need their shoes fixed?" he asked.

Mr. Zhong would be a curiosity, an intriguing twist on the immigrant peddlers who have long been a fixture of the city's commercial hubs, except that he is not alone. Just around the corner is another shopless cobbler and nearby are two watch repairmen who fix delicate mechanisms out of umbrella-shaded booths on the sidewalk.

Migrants from Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, accustomed to such street workshops in their homelands, have set them up on New York's sidewalks as well, whatever the legalities. And since this has always been a city with a soft spot for an ingenious or enterprising way of scratching out a living, these entrepreneurs more than survive.

There is often a line of people waiting to hand their shoes to the cobbler of Bayard Street, largely because his prices $15 for a leather sole and heel are about half those of the rent-paying shoemaker a few blocks away. And the authorities seem to leave him alone. In fact, he said, the police officers from the local precinct are among his customers.

The continuing spiral in the numbers and variety of immigrants the United States Census Bureau reported last week that 36 percent of New York City residents and 46.6 percent of those living in Queens were born abroad has helped nourish this permutation of peddlers who fix or make things rather than just sell them.

Along Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Carlos Roldan, a 47-year-old immigrant from Colombia with a Hawaiian shirt and Groucho Marx eyebrows, washes windows of shopkeepers and homeowners out of a shopping cart that holds his squeegees, cloths and cleaning agents. Customers reach him by beeper because he not only does not have a shop but also does not have a home, spending nights sleeping on the floor of a taco stand.

Under a viaduct in Coney Island, a group of Gypsies has been seen taking out dents from automobiles and will even do so for pots and pans.

No one knows whether this breed of entrepreneur is growing, but scholars say the phenomenon may reflect the city's rising costs of doing business.

"As rents increased, it became more prohibitive to open up a store, so if you can have a store without paying the rent you do it," said Dr. William B. Helmreich, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York who specializes in urban ethnography.

These sidewalk tradespeople may be a throwback to the European immigrants of a century ago who would stake out a business wherever it was possible.

Still, William Kornblum, chairman of the Center for Urban Research at CUNY's Graduate Center, said that "in our parents' generation and the immigrant generation, it was a lot easier to get a stall somewhere or share a storefront."

Even today, he said, many New Yorkers are familiar with itinerant knife sharpeners who travel a neighborhood route and let residents know of their presence with a loud bell. "But this guy has a truck," he said. "What these guys are about is the next step down."

For a fee of $200 a year, the city's Department of Consumer Affairs provides licenses to a maximum of 853 "general vendors," peddlers who do not sell food and are not military veterans (a separate, no-fee category). But these licensed vendors are a small proportion of people hawking wares across the city. And the department, officials said, does not keep statistics on how many general vendors fix things.

Mr. Zhong is a slender, poised man with fingers blackened by his work. He is not the shiftless kind of worker that the pushcart-era peddlers of the Lower East Side might have called a luftmensch literally a person of air.

He was a farmer in the Taishan area of China near Canton, immigrated here in 1997 and took a job in a sweatshop pressing clothes. Four years ago he noticed a very old man fixing shoes on the sidewalk near the corner of Bayard and Mulberry Streets, just across from the neighborhood's merciful patch of green called Columbus Park. The spot is alongside a former school building that houses cultural and social groups, whose officials do not seem to mind the peddlers on their doorstep.

He asked the old man, Szeto Chou, whether he needed help and after a few such entreaties, Mr. Chou took him on as an apprentice. Three years ago, he turned the business over to Mr. Zhong, though at 86 he still sometimes stops by to give his student some postgraduate pointers or just kibitz.

Mr. Zhong, speaking in Cantonese through Keith Chong, a guide from the Museum of Chinese in the Americas, which is in the old school building, said he patched 40 to 50 pairs of shoes a day and averaged $180 a day in income.

"Basically, there's no cost of doing business," he said.

As he mends shoes, some customers sit on a second makeshift stool and wait while others just drop them off. In addition to local residents, his clients the other day included the chauffeur of a passing limousine and a smartly dressed professional woman. His silver cellphone allows him to stay in touch with his wife.

This Hans Christian Andersen of Chinatown carries his entire business in a two-foot wooden box bound to a portable luggage caddy. The box is decorated with sketches of a panda and a goose that he drew himself.

He drops the box off nightly at a relative's on Elizabeth Street and takes the J train to his two-bedroom flat, for which he pays a rent of $1,000 a month. He said he did not know the name of his neighborhood but got off at a stop he recognized by its first two letters "Cr." (It is probably Crescent Street in Cypress Hills.)

Mr. Zhong said his wife, Zu Zhoa Ho, worked five days a week as a dishwasher in the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut. The couple have two grown sons and a grown daughter in China and one grandson.

He spends the few hours at home reading a Chinese newspaper or watching television, enjoying the filmed clips on news shows even if he does not know English.

But mostly, he said, he gets pleasure just fixing shoes. "I'm old," he said. "I can't do anything else. But I can fix shoes."

Mr. Zhong does not seem to have incurred the wrath of the cobbler at Get Sun Shoes on Elizabeth Street, a legitimate 60-foot-long shop equipped with sewing and polishing machines whose owner pays $2,000 a month in rent as well as various taxes.

"It doesn't affect business," said Ma Wenwei, 50, who immigrated from Canton 15 years ago. "We're using a machine and they're using hands, so it's not as good."

But Mr. Zhong said he thought it was the machines that were not as good as his handiwork. His customers also appreciate the $15 he charges for a leather sole and heel, compared with $28 in the shop.

Of course, the shoes in the Elizabeth Street shop are neatly arrayed in cubbyholes waiting for their owners. But Mr. Zhong, whose customers' shoes are kept in plastic bags or scattered on the sidewalk, does not think he has to be that organized.

"If it's not your own shoes, you won't take it," he said.


Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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