By Penny Mintz
We locals feel at home in our neighborhoods when we sit on a stoop and see a familiar face; when we connect through our children’s school; when we take the sun in a local park. The most significant contributor to our sense of community, though, is probably our connection to, and reliance on, the local restaurants and mom-and-pop businesses. These businesses have always been the heartbeat of our city. They made up 99% of all businesses and 50% of all jobs. They provided opportunities for hard-working people to enter the middle class and beyond.
It is no secret that mom-and-pop businesses are in trouble. We all see the empty storefronts, held off the market by landlords waiting for the highest possible price. In the summer of 2019, I counted nine empty shops on Bleecker Street between Perry and Charles and eight more between Charles and West Tenth. Tiny shops were renting for thirty, forty, and fifty thousand a month. Gone were bicycle shops, produce vendors, bakeries, hardware stores, and old-fashioned variety stores.
Times grew ever harder for small businesses once COVID hit. Under the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, one would think that the City government would make a concerted effort to smooth the way for independent entrepreneurs. The City has, indeed, helped restaurants with the open-streets policy, which allows restaurants to expand rent-free onto sidewalks and streets. But other businesses have not seen such help.
I spoke with the owners of three struggling independent businesses: a fruit vendor, a discount store owner, and the landlord of a single commercial space.
Harry Alentar, the fruit vendor on Seventh Avenue between Eleventh and Twelfth streets, has been selling fruit on that spot since 2007, but even before COVID it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. In 2018, despite being properly licensed, he got $2,000 in tickets and had his cart and merchandise seized. Arthur Schwartz came to Harry’s aid and got those tickets dismissed. In 2019, the police again towed his cart due to a bureaucratic mixup over which department was authorized to issue his permit. Once again, Schwartz resolved the issue.
Now, after completely shutting down for several months during the pandemic, he’s back in business. But “times are tough,” Harry says. During the hour that I sat with him, one customer purchased fruit, and Harry gave a banana and a mango to a homeless man. In addition, his truck continues to be ticketed and he is harassed by ever-changing rules about the placement of his cart. Harry drives a car part-time to make ends meet because his profit goes to pay his assistant. He’s hanging in, he says, while he waits for better times.
No Help Accessing Capital
Mamadou Diaman is the owner of Diaman Discounts U.S.A (also known as 99 Cents Creations), a discount variety store located at 149 West 24th Street between Seventh and Sixth avenues. He got into the business by managing a similar store on West 23rd Street and then on West 24th Street for 20 years. During those years he became part of the community, going to Community Board meetings to find out what was going on, and talking to people to find out what they wanted him to carry.
“I know everybody,” says Mamadou. “I want to light up this neighborhood,”
On January 31, 2021, the owner of the discount store picked up and left Mamadou with an empty shop. Arthur Schwartz became his “angel,” negotiating his lease and helping him set up the new business, which opened in March. Mamadou’s only regret about Arthur is that Arthur did not mention that he was running for city council, because Mamadou, who loves to talk to people, would have enthusiastically talked up the Schwartz candidacy with his many customers. He is now doing his best to make up for lost time.
Mamadou’s biggest problem is a lack of access to capital, and the City “does nothing to help,” he says. Since he is a new business and lacks a relationship with any bank, he cannot apply for PPP funds. Those loans are processed through banks, and banks only provide that service for established customers. But despite his cash flow problems, Mamadou believes that he can hang in.
Real Estate Taxes Are Too Damn High
Finally, there is Chuck Chu, who is being crushed by real estate taxes. Chuck used to own Mama Buddha, a popular restaurant on the corner of Eleventh and Hudson. When he retired twelve years ago, the taxes were high but manageable. For ten years, he rented the space to HSPC, which paid rent plus the real-estate tax. Over that time, the taxes rose 600%.
For the last two years, Chuck has been unable to rent and unable to sell. “With those taxes, nobody wants the space,” Chuck says. He got a 25% tax rollback using an attorney who specializes in real-estate tax challenges, but the taxes are still too damn high. Unlike the big landlords, Chuck cannot write the taxes off as a loss against other rents because he has no other rent.
Like Harry and Mamadou, Chuck, too, is hanging in, waiting for better times. He thinks that things will improve over the next few months. If it takes much longer than that, he will be wiped out.
These three small-business owners are New York heroes. They are all hanging by a thread while they watch their neighboring businesses topple like dominos. Rather than helping them survive, the City continues to set roadblocks in their way.