The plight of beloved vegetarian cheap eats staple Punjabi Deli has been well-documented, from the construction that started the problems to the shop's desperate efforts to stay afloat. As the East Houston Reconstruction Project continues its relentless assault on the area, construction barriers and traffic redesign have now cut off vehicular access to East 1st Street from Avenue A, further isolating the tiny shop. As a resting stop for cabbies and other livery drivers, it's a serious blow to the parking situation that made Punjabi an easy stop between fares.
To bring further attention to the cause, a new short film has been released by the Tribeca Film Festival. In it, we look at an average day inside the shop, where cabbies and locals stop by for a cheap eat or cup of chai. We also hear from the eatery's owner about the struggle to maintain his business, as well as from the yellow cab drivers who have essentially lost an important space that makes their jobs easier.
We spoke with filmmaker Adeel Ahmed by email to ask about his inspiration to make the film and how the fight to Save Punjabi Deli means more than just one tiny mom-and-pop shop.
What was your first experience with Punjabi Deli and why did you want to make this film? My first experience was in 2009 when I moved to the East Village and was doing a play off-broadway. I was a broke actor and a bunch of us would end up at Punjabi Deli late at night for food and chai. I spent a lot of time with our playwright discussing arts, politics, NYC, etc., over many many cups of chai. This place became a go to for me ever since. It's a gem that I took many friends to. In addition to all of this, I have a habit of chatting with cabbies—as a son of two immigrants who were able to live the American dream, I like hearing stories of their motherland and their perspective on America. So, when I heard about the issues the deli was facing, it was heartbreaking to hear and I wanted to help spread the word as much as possible. What better way than to highlight the neighborhood staple through film?
What was the most important takeaway you discovered while making the film? I think what's most important to understand is the need for the cabbies. They're already unappreciated—it's amazing how easily you hear folks treat their cabbies like shit. They have so much interaction with individuals yet they still feel like outsiders. I feel like that's why they're constantly on their Bluetooths talking to their families back home. Punjabi Deli is a spot where they can unload a bit, so to get a good cup of chai and a meal that reminds them of home is, in my opinion, very important.
Kulwinder-ji (the owner) also spoke about how these guys aren't given the respect to use a bathroom anywhere and PD is that pit stop for them. When talking to a few drivers, they told me that they keep empty Gatorade or Snapple bottles and such in order to relieve themselves in case they don't make it in time during their long shifts. It was also fascinating to see how these drivers interacted with the PD folks, it was almost like a therapy session for them. They would come in and just talk about their issues, what's going on back home, politics, etc. I loved seeing that. It was almost like they entered a friend's home to hang.
Do you think the city is doing enough to help small businesses like Punjabi Deli and, if not, what could they be doing better? Honestly speaking, I don't know enough about what the city is doing and not doing to help small businesses—at least not on a level that I could speak expertly. Punjabi Deli is just one example of the incompetence the city has shown. Why has it taken five years to build a park? Why weren't the actual businesses and neighbors in the area asked if a park here would serve them well?
In general, there is so much red tape and when things go wrong, I feel like these mom and pop shops fall victim to that and are the first to go. Interestingly, the small-business, "old New York"-feel is what everyone seems to be searching for or trying to recreate. We've got them! Let's preserve them and give them the respect they deserve.
If the city does acquiesce and build a taxi relief stand, do you think it will be enough to save Punjabi Deli? I think it'll definitely help in a significant way. They've lost 50% of revenue so it can only help! But when talking to Kulwinder-ji during filming, he mentioned how rent has sky-rocketed over the years. He's essentially paying 10 times more than he initially did. That's an ongoing problem in this city and I don't know if that will ever change.
The LES is gentrifying at such a high pace and I do wonder if places like PD will continue to have neighborhood support in the long run as locals are being run out by high prices and new construction. That's why having a taxi stand is so important in my opinion, that will ultimately keep the doors open here: a loyal clientele.
There's a community board meeting tonight, Tuesday, May 12, at 6:30 p.m. (at
University Settlement at Houston Street Center, 273 Bowery) to discuss Punjabi Deli and the East Houston Reconstruction Project. If you can't make it to the meeting, voice your support online by signing up for a timed social media blast through Thunderclap.