Finding community in “The Big Apple”

28 May

Here’s my big adventure of the day. (For a journalism nerd, this will be so exciting. For the rest of the world- mildly intriguing, but here we go.)

I have to do a story for Sunday on a street vendor, so today I set out in search of that one spectacular food cart that would catch my eye.

Yeah, didn’t happen.

All of the vendors were either too busy, in a tough location or didn’t even kind of speak English. Just as I was getting frustrated and wondering what my odds were of finding an American food vendor, I stumbled (yes, literally stumbled. I tripped. Story of my life) in front of this little plant shop called The Flower Stall.

143 E. 13th Street- The Flower Stall

Let me describe this place to you: it was small, over crowded, cluttered and messy- but so perfect. I could tell right when I walked in the door that this place had some history to it. I approached an elderly man sitting on a stool who I assumed was the owner. I asked if I could cover his shop for a story I was writing, and without skipping a beat, this man (named Bill) wove me the story of the birth of The Flower Stall.

Owned by his life partner, Cornell, The Flower Stall has been a staple in East Village (particularly, 13th Street) for nearly 45 years. Cornell had purchased the shop on a whim in 1967 and proceeded to learn all he could about plants in order to be a good shop owner. He became one of the best.

Unfortunately, Cornell had passed away almost 2 months ago, so Bill is manning the store until the final plants are taken.

What’s unique about this, however, is that the plants are not simply being sold. Instead, Bill is accepting donations (in check or money order only. He was very adamant about that.) for the reconstruction of Seneca Village. This is a village created by African American property owners in the 1820’s, and was soon taken over by the creation of Central Park. Cornell was very passionate about this project, so all donations are being made in his honor.

As if this story wasn’t already interesting enough, I noticed the neighborly camaraderie between Bill and every single customer that walked in. Everyone knew one another by name and it wasn’t uncommon for people to stop by to simply catch up with Bill. In the 2 hours I spent there, there had to have been at least 30 people in and out of the store.

I talked to numerous customers and they all said the same thing: the Flower Stall is a neighborhood staple and they wouldn’t trade it for the world. Everyone was devastated by Cornell’s death, and he was referred to as the “watchdog of the neighborhood.”

You can find Bill in this chair every Saturday from noon til 6. He mans the store with help from Tonya, the shop cat.

There were pictures, letters, notes and cards all in remembrance of Cornell, and Bill along with some locals told me story after story of Cornell’s selflessness and dedication to the neighborhood.

I left The Flower Stall with a new outlook on life in the city. I had begun to think it was impossible to be part of a community that close with a “New York mentality,” but the people in and out of that shop proved me wrong.

As one customer, Claire, said, “We’re all neighbors. I don’t think people understand that word today. I mean neighbors- like- who know your kids and care about your family and have your extra set of keys. That’s what we are.”

It was truly amazing to see the difference one man had on his community, and through stories and photographs, I feel as if I truly knew Cornell.

Today was a huge step for me in bridging the gap between being a summer tourist and student to a true East Villager.

As I left the shop, Claire said “Thanks, Catey! I’ll see you around! Oh..and welcome home.” She then caught herself and said “I don’t know where that came from! I mean welcome to the city!”

No Claire, you were right the first time. East Village is beginning to feel more and more like home each day.

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2 Responses to “Finding community in “The Big Apple””

  1. Tyler June 5, 2011 at 8:44 pm #

    Steal Tonya and bring her back to the dirty. Best souvenir ever.

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