By RAPHAEL LASSAUZE
Mom and pop shops are the lifeblood of tight-knit communities. Riverdale Avenue, Broadway, West 231st Street and Johnson Avenue are among the many centers of social interaction in the area, and a place where one can always find a familiar face.
Seeing old friends at the counter buying a breakfast bagel, or waving at new acquaintances from across the restaurant’s dining room on a Friday evening, all before greeting the owner, who’s stepped out just to say hello to you and your family, and to ask how your neighbors are.
Photographers Hedva and Dan Zeevi didn’t know what to do, nor how to help as they watched the restaurants and diners, cafes and independent music studios and tutors shutter their stores and spaces as the coronavirus pandemic ramped up last March.
“We’re a small business too,” Hedva said. “As photographers, we do a lot of weddings, bar mitzvahs, so on. All of that was canceled or moved. We are so grateful to the people of the community that stuck with us, and we understand losing jobs due to this as well.”
Despite sincerity and mutual suffering, hedvANDan Photography, the couple’s co-owned studio, has struggled financially, according to Hedva. After their marriage, Hedva and Dan moved to North Riverdale. Hedva had been a teacher, then special education specialist at SAR Academy. But by the end of 2017, the couple had opened a business reflecting their passions: photography and community.
“It’s very much a small town in a big town,” Hedva said of North Riverdale. “There’s a strong, close-knit community. So when this began — the virus, the lockdown — we knew we wanted to help. Yes, we could bring food to nurses — and we have — but how could we help as photographers? That’s what we were looking for from the onset.”
So began the Bring Back, Give Back Project, a series of photos, quotes and descriptions of local businesses and individuals, shining a spotlight on how restaurants, shops and other businesses are continuing to work and provide for the community.
“First and foremost, we want them to be comfortable,” Hedva said. “We go by their schedule. If they ask us to be there on Tuesday at 8:30 a.m., we’re there at that time. We want to do all we can to get eyes on these businesses, these people, and we hope our photography really bring everyone together, to help each other out.”
The project is housed on Facebook, beginning with a profile of Cafeccino Bakery on West 231st Street. Their photos depict owner Lukasz Babiuch and fellow cooks standing on the empty street wearing masks and gloves, shaking flour off of their hands, letting it float in the air and shimmer in the sunlight.
Larry the Locksmith and Hardware, a family business owned by Sara and Jaime Rodriguez and brother Joe Weiss at 3703 Riverdale Ave., let Hedva and Dan photograph their reopening, and were glad to detail their ambitions to continue social distancing, to source masks and gloves, and make deliveries.
One of the best received posts on the page is that of a family legacy reflected through Bobby Liu’s Kai Fan Asian Cuisine on Riverdale Avenue, which was opened in 1979 by Liu’s grandfather, and is now kept alive by a loving community.
Each have transformed in order to accommodate the needs of social distancing and masks in and out of their businesses. That way they can continue providing goods and services to their neighbors. But they’re not the only kind of workers Hedva and Dan have endeavored to feature.
Near the end of May, Hedva and Dan presented the story of Rachel Lunzor and Mordy Weinstein.
“We were going to photograph their wedding,” Hedva said. “But Rachel’s a nurse at Lenox Hill. Her unit was converted to a COVID unit back in March, and she left. Her husband couldn’t see her, and she couldn’t come home. She and so many health care workers are the heroes right now. We focus on our community and the area, but we’ll go anywhere for heroes.”
The separation and fear experienced by Lunzor and Weinstein continued for two months, according to Hedva. Their greatest wish was to be reunited, and they wanted the photographers to be there as well.
Then, their wish came true.
“We got in contact with Mordy, who’s a musician and small business owner himself, and asked if we could feature her in the project,” Hedva said.
“Rachel’s unit was no longer a COVID unit, and she could now really see her husband. Mordy was so excited. We featured Rachel and her coworkers, and then Mordy too. It was a little lighthearted, there was a sense of relief.”
The businesses and heroes showcased by Hedva and Dan are truly meant to direct attention to those who need it, and they have no intention of stopping anytime soon, pandemic or not.
“We want to contact firefighters, police, other businesses,” Dan said. “We want to really think about where we are now. We use photography to connect with people.
“We don’t want to leave anyone in this community out, and we don’t want to stop whenever the pandemic ends. There’s so much more we can do.”