Over the last couple of years, mega-stores and movie theaters have transformed 125th Street: While it bustles with shoppers, in some cases longtime local merchants have been pushed out. Now, the city is moving to give a decades-old failed experiment in small business promotion in Harlem a second chance–and some local residents are pushing to hold the Bloomberg administration to it.
The city’s Economic Development Corporation recently released a request for proposals to redevelop Mart 125, a one-story building opened in 1986 as a home for small, minority-owned business. Meant to serve as an incubator for street vendors aspiring to run their own shops along Harlem’s commercial strip, the market instead suffered a slow death.
Nine years after its grand opening, the Mart was plagued with leaky pipes and a poor security system, and the vendors weren’t doing much better. The state-run Harlem Urban Development Agency, responsible for overseeing the indoor market, had offered them little guidance or support, the merchants said.
In 1995, they got some hope: Albany officials abolished the agency and transferred the market to the city. But three years later, the Giuliani administration began evicting the merchants. Attempts in court to keep their stalls failed, and the final business owners moved out in 2001. While a record store owner and a furrier relocated nearby and are doing well, the rest either closed up shop or left town.
Leaving was “like extracting a tooth, like losing an aunt,” said Carlos Ortiz, who sold leather apparel until his eviction, when he moved to Los Angeles to study film. Previously, “The place became a social place to be.”
Now, the Bloomberg administration is looking to revive the space directly opposite the Apollo Theater by leasing it to a developer or anchor tenant. Because the property is part of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, the developer would also qualify for tax breaks. Proposals that provide opportunities for local entrepreneurs are preferred, says the request for proposals, but not required.
Local Community Board 10 certainly plans to put on the pressure. Last week, the board unanimously passed a resolution calling on the city to guarantee space in the market for displaced Mart 125 merchants as well as for licensed street vendors affected by the city’s restrictive street vending policies.
Not all local business people believe this is the best thing for the neighborhood, however. While Melinda Chirinos has fond memories of shopping for cassette tapes and getting her hair cut at Mart 125, the assistant to the owner of Amy Ruth’s Home-Style Southern Cuisine, a large local restaurant, says more name-brand stores are needed in the area to “take [Harlem] to its highest level.”
Whether big-name businesses will be drawn to the project remains to be seen. Amy Ruth’s, for one, turned down a request to be a part of it because, said Chirinos, they are looking into “bigger and better” things.
David Wetstone, however, hopes he has the chance to return to Mart 125. While he has successfully run his music and video shop on West 133rd Street for two years, he’d love to be back on the main drag. “I’ll just wait to get that call to ask me if I’m interested in moving in.”