By James Maher
Name: Elissa Jiji
Occupation: Writing Tutor, Member of 4th Street Food Co-op
Location: 4th Street between 2nd and Bowery
Time: Noon on Saturday, July 27
I’ve lived in the neighborhood for around 20 years. I grew up on the Upper East Side. I work at John Jay College as a writing tutor; I’ve always been a fan of words.
I’ve been coming downtown since I was a teenager — we’d go out dancing here all the time. I remember the elevator at Danceteria — that teeny, tiny elevator. I remember when Keith Haring was drawing his drawings in the subway. I miss those places. A couple weeks ago, I was out for a bike ride by the river. We were pulling this sound bike behind us, and stumbled on somebody’s nighttime birthday picnic on the pier. We had a spontaneous dance party with a bunch of people we'd never met — including a three-generation family, all dancing together with their abuela and all of us. This community can surprise you in that way.
I only learned how to ride a bike 10 years ago, in Tompkins Square Park, on the basketball courts. Eventually I branched out from going around in a circle in the basketball court to going around in the Park, and all the older Chinese ladies were going past me and people on the benches were giving me the thumbs up. It was one of the best things I ever did, and now I ride my bike everywhere. I commute to work at Columbus Circle.
This neighborhood feels very much like a neighborhood, and even still, with all the chains and banks and with things disappearing, it still retains its neighborhood aura. This block has a lot of small businesses on it, and a lot of that is the tenant-owned Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association, which is our landlord. Several buildings on the block are part of the Cooper Square MHA. They support small, independent businesses. They're very supportive of us, and they like having us on the block.
I’ve been working at the co-op for maybe 15 years. My sister, who lives next door, said, “You should join that food co-op on 4th Street.” It took me awhile to listen to her, but she was right. Once I did, I really liked it. I like being part of something where we make decisions together.
I’ve done a bunch of different jobs at the co-op, from reconciling the till, to training new members to running the meetings. It’s nice not to be bound by having to make a profit; we really try to make stuff affordable. We’ve had a couple of major renovations and projects where we’ve questioned, are we actually going to be able to pull this off, or are we gonna kill each other in the process? It will be two years this fall since we completely ripped out the floor to put in a concrete one, and put in the motors for the refrigeration down in the basement. It was a huge project. Did the stuff fit through the door during that renovation? Apparently not — we had to cut away the lintel and replace it.
The co-op is open to the public and entirely member run, which is not the case with every or even most co-ops. We don’t have a paid staff, and it’s important to us that everybody from the neighborhood can shop. We also give discounts to a bunch of different categories of people — seniors and students, people shopping with EBT cards, and then our members. I think we have between 75 and 90 working members at any given time. There are a fair amount of students and people who were recently students. There are teachers, artists, musicians, at least one nurse, web developers and a cabinet maker. We probably have the highest workload of any co-ops with working members: we’re there two hours a week.
It's also is the kind of place where you see your neighbors all the time, and their kids, and their dogs. Our neighbors, some of them are so sweet. This one lady comes in every time there is a Yankees game — she’s got her lucky chocolate bar that she has to get. You know when there’s a game on because she comes in for it.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.