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The Forgotten Faces of Wall Street


At the foot of the highrises lie the real stories of the financial crisis.


In his small shoe-repair store near the end of Wall Street, Minas Polychronakis is something of a neighborhood sage. He and his shop -- the one with the neon shoe in the window -- certainly stand out. People don't come to Minas Shoe Repair, 67 Wall Street, just for Minas's superior craftsmanship; they also come for his wisdom.

Polychronakis, 68, certainly looks like a wise man: He's strong-armed and stocky, with sad dark eyes above his scruffy white beard. He speaks slowly and quietly. From behind his counter, when Polychronakis talks, you listen.

"Wall Street's gone," he said one recent afternoon. He paused for a few seconds, then added, softly, "No more Wall Street."

Still, Polychronakis says business is up at his shop, which is tucked into a 600-square foot storefront at the historic Munson Steamship Building, built in 1921. Given the recession, people are realizing they should make their shoes last. His business, he said, runs counter to the mood on Wall Street: During the boom, he struggled to make the store's $8,000 monthly rent. Now, $3 shoeshines in one of 6 leather seats -- or new rubber soles for $30 -- attract both new and old customers.

Down here, on the side streets and alleyways that branch out from Wall, Minas Shoe Repair is the exception; other independent merchants I spoke to said they've been hit hard by the crisis. But finding them wasn't easy.

In search of how small businesses -- the little guys, the ones who live in the outer boroughs or New Jersey -- were doing on and around Wall Street, I was struck by the very absence of such businesses. It speaks to a process that started years ago, long before the financial crisis hit New York, when the city's landscape first started slowly becoming an exclusive playground for the wealthy.

On Wall Street, for instance, one almost reaches the river before finding Minas Shoe Repair, the first independently owned store - at least on the Street. Instead, upscale shops, chain restaurants and gyms, banks, and luxury condominiums sit one after another; many are new arrivals of the last decade, a legacy of the boom. Broad and other nearby streets are similar.

Wall Street and its surroundings had always catered to the moneyed business class; historically, however, the Financial District's retail sector had thrived on middle-class office workers and large corporate customers. But as former office towers shed workers downtown, luxury condos filled their spots, greased by the city's rezoning measures.

According to the New York City Planning Commission, the city has completed a record 94 re-zonings, reshaping about one-fifth of the total land in the 5 boroughs. This is the new New York - one that shifted from industrial and manufacturing to finance and services. The current financial district, once the home of commerce and industry, is now dominated by banks.

For the small merchants left in the financial district, their clientele had largely narrowed to the occupiers of Wall Street's towers: American International Group (AIG), Deutsche Bank (DB), Goldman Sachs (GS), Citigroup (C), and others.

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