News | West Harlem

As another Harlem building redevelops, locals worry culture is lost

  • Millie Christie-Dervaux for Spectator
    FRUIT CULTURE | Locals say that as new developments and expensive stores take over 125th Street, culture in the form of street vendors is lost.

Martial Gnago, owner of the Harlem NYC clothing store on 125th Street, has watched the neighborhood outside his store’s automatic doors change dramatically over the past decade.

A Whole Foods is under construction two blocks away on Lenox Avenue. Earlier this year, a Joe’s Crab Shack and DSW opened in a sleek glass building across Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Tourists on bus and bicycle tours of the area have become ubiquitous.

And the next transformation on the rapidly changing street may be in Gnago’s own building.

Earlier this week, the owners of the building Harlem NYC is located in tapped real estate broker Ariel Property Advisors to find developers to build an up-to-108,000-square-foot mixed-use facility on the site.

“Clearly, there are developers that are interested in 125th Street,” Shimon Shkury, founder and president of Ariel Property Advisors, said. “What they realized over the last few months is that they have a lot of underused space that someone could develop.”

He said that the building’s current owners have decided to “monetize the assets”—which, according to Ariel’s website, are worth $1.75 million per year for the 99-year lease. Currently, the two tenants of the building generate $800,000 a year in rent, the listing says.

Shkury said the current tenants would “possibly” have to move out. But for Gnago, that possibility means another step for Harlem down the road of gentrification.

“You can’t take soul to another place,” Gnago said regarding the possibility of having to move. “That’s just a copy of our soul. It’s not Harlem.”

According to the listing, developers could build up to 108,944 square feet if they include affordable housing units. Shkury said that they have “pretty much talked to every type of developer,” including some who want to build hotel and residential units.

“Essentially, money is chasing opportunities. Real estate is one of the few opportunities where you can get an adequate return on your investment,” veteran broker Stanley Lindenfeld, executive managing director of Lee & Associates, said.

The losers, however, are older, smaller businesses like Gnago.

“These small retailers can't afford these kinds of rents,” Lindenfeld said.

The potential redevelopment of Gnago’s storefront is also worrying to another group of salespeople on 125th Street—street vendors.

Vandra Jamison, who sells Harlem T-shirts, said that she and her neighbors have increasingly been ticketed for breaking city restrictions. While she said that she usually challenges tickets, many of her neighbors don’t know how. And a $300 ticket, Jamison said, can be the difference between making rent and being forced to leave.

“Some of these people don’t have visas,” she said. “They can’t go to court, but I knew I could fight the tickets.”

Matt Shapiro, staff attorney for the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project, said the arrival of new, upscale storefronts often creates a hostile environment for street vendors.

“It comes from more powerful, wealthier interests,” he said. “Some people don't like the way street vendors look on the street.”

Vendor Alfred Weeks, who sells small wire figures of men singing, dancing, and playing sports, said that the street vendors lining 125th Street are also adapting to the changing neighborhood and are as likely to sell Harlem-themed T-shirts and memorabilia as they are to carry the consumer goods that were once more common.

“All of this should be artwork,” he said, pointing to the stands around him.

“If we remove all the vendors and we're left with just large stores, what differentiates New York City from any other place?” Shapiro said.

But one street vendor, hat saleswoman Caran Menardy, isn’t worried about bigger stores taking over Harlem just yet.

“They aren’t competition,” she said. “People come here, and they want to bring back a piece of Harlem. They want something alive.”

For Gnago, however, the authentic Harlem has long been gone.

“Forget about 125th Street,” he said. “It’s changed already.”

news@columbiaspectator.com  |  @KallyPatz

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Marco posted on

The other side of the coin, Wikipedia: Statistics from 1940 show about 100 murders per year in Harlem, "but rape is very rare." By 1950, essentially all of the whites had left Harlem and by 1960, much of the black middle class had departed. At the same time, control of organized crime shifted from Jewish and Italian syndicates to local black, Puerto Rican, and Cuban groups that were somewhat less formally organized. At the time of the 1964 riots, the drug addiction rate in Harlem was ten times higher than the New York City average, and twelve times higher than the United States as a whole. Of the 30,000 drug addicts then estimated to live in New York City, 15,000 to 20,000 lived in Harlem. Property crime was pervasive, and the murder rate was six times higher than New York's average. Half of the children in Harlem grew up with one parent, or none, and lack of supervision contributed to juvenile delinquency; between 1953 and 1962, the crime rate among young people increased throughout New York City, but was consistently 50% higher in Harlem than in New York City as a whole.
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Injecting heroin grew in popularity in Harlem through the 1950s and 1960s, though the use of this drug then leveled off. In the 1980s, use of crack cocaine became widespread, which produced collateral crime as addicts stole to finance their purchasing of additional drugs, and as dealers fought for the right to sell in particular regions, or over deals gone bad.[58]
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With the end of the "crack wars" in the mid-1990s and with the initiation of aggressive policing under mayor Rudolph Giuliani, crime in Harlem plummeted. In 1981, 6,500 robberies were reported in Harlem. The number dropped to 4,800 in 1990, perhaps due to an increase in the number of police assigned to the neighborhood. By 2000, only 1,700 robberies were reported, and by 2010, only 1,100 were reported. There have been similar changes in all categories of crimes tracked by the New York City Police Department.[59] In the 32nd Precinct, which services Central Harlem above 127th Street, for example, between 1990 and 2008, the murder rate dropped 80%, the rape rate dropped 58%, the robbery rate dropped 73%, burglary dropped 86%, and the total number of crime complaints dropped 73%.

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Anonymous posted on

The issue here is that Council Member Inez Dickens is on the small business committee and she does NOTHING!!!! What has Congressmember Charlie Rangel done for the small business community? What has AM Denny Farrell done for the small business community? Where is Senator Perkins? Harlem has the worst elected officials and staff who do nothing to advocate for small business or manufacturing. Then you got the useless Harlem Chamber of Commerce and what do they do? nothing!!! Then you got the Harlem Community Development Corporation and what do they do to market or advocate for small businesses - nothing. And, Curtis Archer really needs to be fired since our tax dollars are being used to employee someone who does nothing. Then you have the Empowerment Zone and what do they empower when it comes to small business growth...NOTHING. Ken Knuckles is an overpaid staff member and the his salary could be used elsewhere. So, we have duplicate organizations with the same mission statement, staffed by useless employees and our tax dollars are used to employee these people. hmmmm.....can we say corruption!!!! Pathetic!!! Let's not forget about the 125th Street Bid where there exec director is out of touch and could care less about small business development. When was the last time you saw her advocating for small business?

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Anonymous posted on

I wish I was a street vendor so that I too could have a "soul". Apparently, the rest of us are lesser beings that don't add character to a neighborhood.

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