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In an age of shopping malls and big-box stores, the traditional American "Main Street" can seem like a relic of the past. As small business owners lose customers to big chains that can undercut their prices, it's becoming ever more difficult to find a center of commerce focused around small, independent shops in much of the country.
But that's not the case in New York City, thanks in large part to the work of the real estate development firm YOUNGWOO & ASSOCIATES (YWA), led by partners Young Woo, Margarette Lee, and Gregory Carney. For several years, YWA has focused their efforts on turning abandoned spaces around New York into public markets and community gathering places, with assistance from the specialty retail management firm UrbanSpace.
Two years ago, YWA launched Dekalb Market in an empty lot in Brooklyn. The open-air market featured a center-stage area for performances, farming plots for urban gardeners, and vendor booths created from salvaged shipping crates. Before the market was there, "it was a desolate place," says YWA principal Margarette Lee. "People were afraid to walk by it."
But the market's creation soon helped to reinvigorate the community. Lee and her partners worked to find merchants who represented the best that Brooklyn had to offer, sampling crafts and tasting pastries and coffee all over town to find vendors who would best fit the space. They ultimately ended up with 46 permanent vendors, representing a wide mix of products: cupcakes with unique toppings like fried chicken, Aussie-style meat pies, bicycle accessories, and vintage-style swimwear, just to name a few. 
On weekends, would-be entrepreneurs could rent booths for less than $100 a day to see how well their products sold. Many of them became full-time vendors, too.
Markets like Dekalb help to foster entrepreneurship, says Lee. "Traditionally, vendors have to pay high security deposits and commit to long leases," she says. "It takes a lot of effort and financial security to start a business." At these markets, however, merchants can launch their products in an affordable and collaborative environment.
Stacey Ford is a designer who works with artisans in Bali and Thailand to manufacture her beautiful jewelry. She moved her shop, Amaya Designs, into a permanent storefront at Dekalb a year ago. "I love the sense of community," she says. "It feels like a compound where you can merge ideas with different artists."
Nearby is the Nile Valley Eco-Juice and Salad Bar, run by partners Melicia Crichton and Brian David. The couple had never operated a food business together before, but were able to take the risk thanks to the low overhead costs and supportive community. "Every day, people tell us that they're so thankful that we're here," says Crichton.
At the end of September, Youngwoo's short-term lease came to an end, and Dekalb closed for the season. The market will reopen in the spring, although Lee and her partners are still scouting for the right location.
In the meantime, YWA has been developing other innovative projects around New York City. The development firm is in the process of realizing one of its most ambitious visions: a huge cultural hub at historic Pier 57 that features a large open-air market, a rooftop film venue, and a "Contemporary Culture Center" with art exhibitions and entertainment.
The firm is also vying for the chance to bring new life to the Kingsbridge Armory, a beautiful abandoned military armory in the Bronx that covers nearly an entire city block. If the proposal is successful, YWA will be able to bring 1,500 new jobs to the Bronx.
 "When you go into a neighborhood that isn't well-developed, but you know there is big potential, you can build these markets and get the community involved," says Lee. "It quickens the pace of the development of the neighborhood."
"We are trying to turn the neighborhoods into 'destination' locations," she says.