It's pouring on a recent Tuesday afternoon in Park Slope, and the staff of Aunt Suzie's sloshes into workanother day of cooking up the homey Italian food that's made the restaurant a neighborhood destination for the last quarter century.
At one of the center tables, the restaurant's proprietor, Irene LoRe, holds court. LoRe's been running Aunt Suzie's since it opened, keeping the restaurant's menu and decor relatively unchanged as Brooklyn's 5th Avenue has changed from a lower middle class neighborhood replete with drugs and crime into a baby-filled yuppie paradise. LoRe doesn't exactly cater her menu to her new clientele, but she's welcomed the newcomers since they started migrating over from 7th Avenue about five years ago. "They used to not come down here. It was just too dangerous," she says. "Now, you can't survive without them."
"We're financially committed here. Trucks can come and go. But we're here."
With gentrification has come an onslaught of new restaurants and other small businesses to the neighborhood, but LoRe doesn’t think of her fellow businessmen as competitors. Perhaps that's because, as the executive director of the 5th Avenue Business Improvement District, she sees herself as a mother (aunt?) goose tending to her flock of 500 small businesses located between Dean Street on the north side to 18th Street on the south side.
As far as LoRe is concerned, her goslingsand in particular her fellow restauranteursare under attack. While she grumbles about a few of the difficulties most small businesses deal with, like paying ridiculous rents and managing reputation–making online review sites, her ire is reserved for two not-altogether-unrelated entities. Bring up either of the two following subjects, and LoRe changes from a warm and generous community organizer into a curt, cursing union leader.
Her first target is the city government itself, whose various agencies, according to LoRe, have set up ever-evolving layers of complex regulations to bleed local owners dry. "New York is one of the worst cities for small businesses," she says. "There are all sorts of regulations, taxes, fees, and inspections. They're banging at the door to give you a fine."
LoRe tells of local stores that are forced to close before they ever open their doors, the victims of year-long permitting delays that drain their small reserves of cash dry before they ever serve a customer. And after a small rant about the arbitrary and power-hungry nature of the Health Department, LoRe considers her outburst. "Who reads this magazine? I'm sure I'm going to get fucking inspected now."
Her second target is slightly less nebulous and nefarious than the supposed corruption and incompetence of an entire bureaucracy. In fact, it's more of a BoBo phenomenon, hyped by the Food Network and virally promoted by location-aware Twitter feeds. What I'm talking about, of course, is the food truck.LoRe points out the window to Trois Pommes Patisserie, a bakery and ice cream shop. "It's ridiculous. The lady is paying thousands of dollars a month. And then the damn Van Leeuwen ice cream truck parks across the street."
As LoRe sees it, this is not a fair fight. Because they don't pay rent and are subject to fewer regulations, food trucks can undercut the market, selling similar products for far less money. "It infuriates me," LoRe says. "The city turns a deaf ear. There are no standards for food trucks, and they come and go as they please."
Her organization is filing paperwork with the city council in an attempt to make their district a no-vendor zone, but as of now, the food truck presence in Park Slope is growing; the Prospect Park Alliance announced sanctioned monthly food truck rallies in Grand Army plaza.
LoRe motions outside to the downpour, where the soaked streets are empty of potential customersand food trucks. "We're financially committed here. Our futures are here," she says. "They can come and go. But we're here."