By Michael Haberman
“The chief business of the American people is business. “
Calvin Coolidge, speech in Washington, Jan. 17, 1925
We often think of our community as a residential neighborhood, which is certainly a reasonable description. But we often forget that intertwined with the houses and apartment buildings is a vibrant business community that is an equally integral part of our community. As Calvin Coolidge was trying to say 80 years ago, business is a central and crucial part of American life.
For more than 50 years (starting back when Harry S. Truman was filling Coolidge’s shoes), the Greenwich Village-Chelsea Chamber of Commerce has been representing the businesses in our neighborhood. Like any other organization, our history has been cyclical. At times we’ve thrived, and at other times we’ve faced challenges. As with other chambers of commerce, the advent of business improvement districts had a significant impact on our membership. But it’s symbolic of this neighborhood that despite the difficult times we’ve faced in recent years, we are going through one of our strongest periods ever.
In the past 15 months, the Chamber’s membership has increased by about 40 percent. Our 2004 operating budget was expected to be double the 2003 budget. But it looks like that won’t happen — which is a good thing. Next week, we will hold our Eighth Annual Gala Dinner Dance, and we will present our Member of the Year Award to Norman Buchbinder and our Humanitarian of the Year Award to the Greenwich Village Youth Council. This Dinner Dance will be the largest and most successful ever — and will contribute to an operating budget that is nearly 150 percent larger than last year’s.
Why does the Chamber continue to succeed during a time when, believe it or not, merchants are still feeling the financial impact of the tragic events of 9/11? At a time when rents are skyrocketing and overhead grows at a steady rate? When business owners are so busy running their business that it’s not easy to find the time to come to a lunch meeting? Several reasons:
First, we are a consistent advocate for our members, doing all we can to promote a strong business environment. We provide forums with important civic leaders, we advocate for sound, business-friendly public policy and we provide networking opportunities that help all of our members grow their businesses.
Second, we are continuing a century-long tradition of making our neighborhood one of the city’s premier tourist destinations. Our new and improved Membership Directory, which will be widely distributed, includes self-guided walking tours of the neighborhood with color maps. We will also be working closely with New York Is Book Country, the city’s leading literary festival, which for the first time ever will be located in Washington Sq. Park this fall. And our newly designed Web site will provide tourists with all the information they need to enjoy our neighborhood to the fullest.
But there’s another important reason that the Chamber is thriving, which goes to the heart of what our community is all about. In a time when, in general, people are detached from their community, our residents are as engaged as ever. A few examples: it was a grassroots community effort that secured the funding needed to renovate the Washington Sq. Arch; a resident-led effort resulted in the landmarking of the area known at the Meat Market; and we have more active block and civic associations than any other neighborhood. These are just a few examples of why Jane Jacobs and Ruth Wittenberg would be proud of us.
Our Chamber members also want to be involved in community efforts, and their actions demonstrate it. This year, for the first time, the Chamber will be a major sponsor of the Washington Square Music Festival. The Festival lost some crucial government funding last year, and the Chamber is stepping in to fill the gap. This is the beginning of an ongoing partnership that will not only help the festival financially, but also increase its exposure and spread the word about the fabulous free concerts they provide every summer.
At the Chamber Dinner Dance on April 29, we will do more than just present an award to the Greenwich Village Youth Council. The award includes a $3,000 monetary gift. Not enough to fund all of the Youth Council’s operations, but enough to fund at least one of its important programs for one year.
And our members will play a role in the effort now underway to raise $10 million for the renovation of Washington Sq. Park. Hosting fundraisers, donating prizes and making our own monetary contributions, we will join the rest of the community in this important effort.
The businesses in our community have gone through some tough times over the past few years. Although the recession is technically over, it doesn’t appear that way to many of our local retailers. But, the Chamber is moving forward, stronger than ever. We will continue to represent our members, advocating for a business-friendly environment. And we will continue to play an important role in our community, bringing the residents and businesses together to ensure that our neighborhood remains as strong and vibrant as ever.
Haberman is chairperson of the board of directors, Greenwich Village-Chelsea Chamber of Commerce.