As Harlem prepares to reopen for business, 125th Street Business Improvement District President Barbara Askins is optimistic in spite of the hardships that local stores have suffered at the hands of the economic shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Harlem endured some of the highest rates of infection and deaths in the city, with some businesses operating at the margins. While the BID area was thriving, the shut-down was especially difficult for both retailers and property owners with no income for nearly 100 days.
Askins, with 27 years at the BID, says many of the problems of the community are more about “perceptions” than reality. She looks forward to businesses opening their doors under Phase 1 of the Governor’s reopening plan — but she says it is premature for people to say how many businesses actually are able to reopen. She is especially keen on those businesses located in 219 properties in her district from Fifth Avenue to Morningside Drive to the west.
“I’m eager to see and I myself will be out there on opening day to see who comes back,” Askins said as she understands the challenges businesses have had to stay afloat with no income. “There are many new build-outs, Starbucks is in a new location on Lenox, there is a build-out of Krispy Krème. From St. Nicholas [Avenue] to Frederick Douglass [Boulevard], at the old subway location, that long time vacant long time-space is now being gutted and preparing for it to come in.”
She said some landlords are facing hardship because of COVID and she hoped they would be patient enough to find the right tenant for their space: “They haven’t been able to generate revenue for so long, they will fill those stores up with whatever tenants they can.”
There have been other setbacks and challenges to the community. The eastern end of 125th Street is plagued by a cluster of drug treatment facilities installed by Mt. Sinai. She said the city has failed to account for fair share and in many cases, just dump people in drug addiction programs on 125th Street.
Askins said however her district does not include anywhere east of Fifth Avenue, and but she understands the impact that the more rundown sections have on her area that she has worked hard to bolster.
She is concerned as the community is fighting against Mt. Sinai citing yet another facility on 124th Street, further clustering drug-addicted people in one area and overtaxing the community’s ability to handle those people with social services. She said there are already three facilities on one block of the eastern portion 125th Street alone – outside of her district, but having a profound perceptional impact.
“We are starting to push fair share — we feel the city needs to spread out those facilities,” she said. “The people are dropped here and they don’t have a place to go — they are being sent to us — treatment centers from all over the city. This destroys a community and we are just trying to keep our business district together. There is a perception that is not true because we are doing great work, but we can’t control the result of government policy. Why does Harlem have to be the place to handle all of this?”
Her people her on the street, cleaning the sidewalks, providing business assistance to retailers to get loans and paperwork to get their Payroll Protection program funds to keep people employed. The business district has strong support from the banks including Chase and Carver, retailers such as H&M, TJ Maxx, and Children’s Place. But she fears for the smaller businesses that were not ready for this calamity.
However, she said most landlords have been cooperating with retailers to cut them slack, using rent deposits toward rent and some landlords reduced rent to keep commercial tenants in place.
“I haven’t heard any landlords kicking anyone out but of course it doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened,” Askins said. “Some landlords are working with tenants, and some are not even collecting rent. Yes, we’ve had a couple that closed before COVID-19 like Olive Garden, but then there were already some that closed before that like Modell’s.”
Adding insult to injury was the fire that destroyed Lazarus Clothing store and damaged several others. But here Askins is optimistic as the landlord and owner of the store of 45 years intends to rebuild and the other stores suffered relatively minor damage.
During the George Floyd protests, Askins and other leaders got together to stop looters and vandals from destroying the stores that have been closed. She said many of the protestors, 85% white, were kept from causing serious damage to the strip by groups like 100 Black Men, the Black Fraternity – ‘we were calling people and we said we would be out there.”
“The community was mobilized — everyone was our eyes and ears, we were not going to let you burn us down,” said Askins adding, “we are not going to allow someone from outside loot and tear up our stuff.”
Getting past COVID-19, a fire, and the protests, Askins is now optimistic that Harlem will emerge okay.
“On Monday, we will be in a better position to see how this will work,” Askins said. “The essential businesses did very well during this – the local hardware store did very well during the crisis and couldn’t keep enough supplies on hand. The banks did ok with social distancing, and the telecom people had business. The pawnshop remained active and all of them had lines. About 140 businesses already had an online business, though there were about 50 businesses to Morningside that didn’t have the required set upfront online business. Some didn’t have a website. Nobody is coming back to work without technology.”
In the meantime, the BID has been working to improve the city-scape through art, create a street expo, and to make the street attractive to shoppers.
“I’m not worried yet, we’ve come through worse,” Askins says referring to the Great Recession and further back to the 70s when poverty reigned in the neighborhood. “We worked through times when we had nothing. But we need to do this and figure out how to do this.”