Varying Fortunes for Local Business Owners During UN General Assembly

Restrictions in action - Photo Credit:

When workers at Daily Cleaners on 46th street on the East Side of Manhattan say that they dread the last week of September, it isn’t because summer is ending. Their apprehension is due to yet another United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly beginning. During this period, political leaders from the U.N.’s 192 member states arrive with their diplomatic entourage in tow to voice their opinions on the world stage.

As they do so, their security needs demand that the New York Police Department (NYPD) wreak havoc on both pedestrian and vehicular traffic in the area, imposing restrictions that can cause huge headaches for business close to the U.N.

“The General Assembly affects us greatly. Every year, it’s the same thing. When the police shut down 2nd Avenue and 46th Street, it’s very bad for us,” says storeowner Monica Lee, who didn’t hesitate to share her displeasure at declining profits.

“They make people show ID to cross the street and customers can’t park their cars outside like usual. We just wait for this week to go by every year. It hurts our business but there’s no use complaining to the NYPD because even if I complained, it wouldn’t change anything.”

Everyone in the neighborhood doesn’t share Lee’s frustration though. Just one block west, on the other side of 2nd Ave, where the police barricades on roads leading to the U.N. end, Steve Dobos of Artisan Cleaners is sporting a much happier demeanor.

“You know, usually it’s a mess but this year was much better,” he confides. “It used to be a nightmare, but this year I hardly noticed anything. I don’t know what it is. Better organization, I guess.”

“Our pickup and delivery would be disrupted, but this time the police were more lenient. They let the truck double park real quick while we loaded it up and didn’t cause us problems.”

For their part, the NYPD try to be as clear as possible about road closures and inevitable traffic delays. On September 20th of this year, four days prior to the start of the 67th General Assembly, they posted a detailed advisory on their website that featured a day by day breakdown of what streets would be closed and during what hours. Nevertheless, the attempt to preempt confusion hardly diminishes the significant effect that these changes have on local businesses.

Yassin Tahar, a manager at Tudor Gourmet, just a block away from the U.N.’s southern entrance, can attest to the fact that seemingly small modifications to police planning can have a huge impact on customer flow.

“We’re off the main strip here so most of the people that know about us come here like usual, but the police barricades stop people and tourists who might just be wandering around,” he says.

Indeed the General Assembly effect can be hard to predict. Last year, Tudor Gourmet had double the customers based off on one delegation’s hotel choice.

“Last year the Iranian president was staying in hotel nearby and all of his security would come eat here all the time,” remembers Ahmed Al Jahmi, one of Tudor Gourmet’s workers. “We made twice as much as we usually do in that week. It was crazy. I’d never seen it like that,” he says, smiling and shaking his head at the thought of the line stretching out the door.

Then there are some restaurants within the same vicinity of the U.N. frenzy that do not experience a massive change in patronage despite falling within the lockdown zone that begins at 2nd Avenue. King Yu, the owner of Shih Lee, built a steady stream of loyal customers over a 20-year period and says that General Assembly doesn’t make a big difference to him.

“If you come here on the weekend, it’s very quiet. But if you come here at lunchtime on a weekday, 90 percent of the customers are U.N. staff. They know this place, so during the G.A. [General Assembly] they bring their visiting colleagues here. Then when those guys return, they remember us,” he says proudly.

“You could say unfortunately they close off streets, but it’s fortunately too because the people on the U.N. side are stuck and have less choices. They end up going to places nearby. So it works to our advantage.”

At La Trattoria, a pizza place between 44th and 45th Streets on 2nd Avenue, Fadi Tawadrous agrees. He stands behind the counter frantically kneading dough as he recounts how the week has gone and listens to one of his customers, a postal worker, complaining about how traffic is such a pain at this time of year.

“We made more than double the amount of pizzas this week. Pizza is so easy so people just stop to get a slice. Police, delegates, U.N. workers, and Protestors. They have to eat too,” he jokes.

The Egyptian native then goes on to explain how the influx of foreign dignitaries can have other unexpected benefits.

“I have a friend who works for a car company. He drives around diplomats from Arab countries and stuff. He says he made a $6,000 dollar tip on one fare this week,” says Tawadrous. “Six thousand dollars! Maybe I’m in the wrong business?”