Not near their children: Why Harlem parents and pols want smoke shop shut down before it even opens

parents and pols want smoke shop shut in Harlem
On Friday, April 5, Silent Voices United — a Harlem-based activist group — enlisted the help of City Council member, Yusef Salaam as well as other community groups and elected officials as they gathered in front of Heaven’s Tiny Tots Daycare and Learning Center in Central Harlem to ban illegal smoke shops from opening near schools and daycares in NYC.
Photo ET Rodriguez

Harlem parents and elected officials demanded on Friday that the city snuff out plans for a smoke shop near a popular daycare center.

After the first legal marijuana dispensary opened in the East Village in December 2022, unlicensed smoke shops began to rapidly pop up across the city. As several illicit vendors fall victim to armed robberies, parents and community members are becoming increasingly alarmed for the safety of their children, specifically, those rallying around Heaven’s Tiny Tots Daycare and Learning Center in Harlem.

parents and pols want smoke shop shut in Harlem
A sign sits inside Heaven’s Tiny Tots Daycare in Harlem discourages the illegal weed shop opening next door to their facility.Photo ET Rodriguez

A protest to ban unlicensed smoke shops in NYC began with a walkthrough of the daycare on Friday, April 5. Inside the multi-room facility at 2185 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd., smiling toddlers were learning how to identify complex shapes, the value of money and how to count to 10 in Spanish. In another classroom, a teacher played familiar songs on a keyboard and in another, children were stretching and breathing while practicing mindfulness.

All this to illustrate that communities and elected officials need to work together to protect the environments in which their children are growing.

“I can’t do my job as an educator if I have to worry about the safety of the students outside of school,” said Tameka Silva, founder of Heaven’s Tiny Tots serving the Central Harlem neighborhood since 2018.

The tour then poured outside where cold weather met with boiling temperatures as dozens of protesters chanted, “Shut it down,” referencing the alleged smoke shop set to open next door to the daycare at 2195 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd.

parents and pols want smoke shop shut in Harlem
Several elected officials, including city council member Yusef Salaam and assemblymember, Jenifer Rajkumar, take a tour of the Heaven’s Tiny Tots Daycare in Harlem ahead of the protest banning illegal smoke shops on Friday, April 5.Photo ET Rodriguez

Community members and groups, such as Silent Voices United, were joined by elected officials at Friday’s protest, including City Council Members Yusef Salaam and Gale Brewer; state Senator Cordell Cleare; Public Advocate Jumaane Williams; and Queens Assembly Member Jenifer Rajkumar, who proposed the SMOKEOUT Act in December 2023. If passed, the bill will allow “municipalities to enforce licensure requirements of retail dispensaries by closing retail locations which sell cannabis without a license.”

“Our children can’t learn to be the caretakers of tomorrow when all they see is blight around the community,” said City Council Member Salaam, representative of the Harlem area. “We need to make sure not only that we close the illegal shops that are popping up — we need to make sure that our governor is on board with us asking for her assistance to making sure that we have the power to do what’s necessary as elected officials in our community to shut these down.” 

Last November, the Mayor Adams administration vowed to take action and announced its crackdown on illegal smoke shops.

“Today, we are putting landlords on notice of their responsibility to ensure their property is not being used to sell illegal cannabis or tobacco,” said Deputy Mayor Sheena White in a press release.

If caught, landlords of the establishments illegally selling marijuana and/or tobacco products can face a fine of $1,000 per day up to $10,000, and could be forced to evict their tenants.

In February, Governor Hochul announced her executive budget which includes “broadening the authority of the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) and local government agencies to padlock stores selling cannabis without a license.”

‘No confusion about what’s happening here’

A phone call to the landlords of the alleged smoke shop in Harlem, Striver’s Management Group, provided a different story.

“I spoke to the operator, the lease says it’s a convenience store — he promised up and down that it’s not a smoke shop,” said the person who answered the phone at the landlord’s office, but declined to give their name.

“I have to say one thing, it’s unfortunate people are persecuting them before they even did a crime,” the unidentified person added.  

parents and pols want smoke shop shut in Harlem
While the landlord of 2195 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd claims there will be no smoke shop opening on the premises, photos of bongs and weed-smoking skulls distributed at Friday’s protest tell a different story.Photo ET Rodriguez

And while the windows at 2195 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. were blocked with brown masking paper on Friday, photocopies of the shops interior circulated the protest. The photo showed a tiled ceiling advertising the words “high vibes” along with the imagery of a bong and green skulls spewing smoke out of their mouths with a cannabis leaf emblazoned on their foreheads.  

“There’s no confusion about what’s happening there,” said Tiffany Fulton, founder of Silent Voices United and point person for the protest.

During the press conference, Brewer called for municipalities to adopt laws pertaining specifically to cannabis stores and to create a civil enforcement structure “so we can stop these damn stores from opening,” she added.

“We closed down Zaza Waza because of the tobacco,” Brewer said at the protest. “Guess what? The first day, they broke the freaking padlock.”

The protesters also wanted to be clear that their gripe is not with marijuana, but with the unregulated sale of it.

“Unregulated cannabis is laced with E. Coli, with salmonella, with lead,” said Rajkumar. “These shops have also been carrying loose cash, which has attracted criminal activity.”

Protesters recognized that the advent of legalizing marijuana and providing cannabis dispensary licenses was intended to mitigate unfair incarceration of people most affected by marijuana arrests, i.e. black and brown people.

“We are sending a message to the people who do things legally, ‘We don’t care about you,’” said Brian Benjamin, former Lieutenant Governor.  

parents and pols want smoke shop shut in Harlem
A side view shows the proximity of the proposed smoke shop to the Heaven’s Tiny Tots Daycare.Photo ET Rodriguez

At the tail-end of the protest, a man poked his head out from the alleged smoke shop, but quickly retreated as protesters closed in on him and again began chanting, “Shut it down!”

On Tuesday, April 9, Fulton plans to take three busloads of protesters to Albany to persuade state lawmakers to pass the SMOKEOUT Act.  

“We’re taking this to a whole ‘nother level,” Fulton told amNewYork Metro.

This article was updated on Sunday, April 7 at 8:56 a.m.

Read more: Times Square Shooter Caught: 15-Year-Old Arrested