Over the last couple of years, megastores and movie theaters have transformed 125th Street: While it bustles with shoppers, some longtime local merchants have been pushed out. Now, the Bloomberg administration is opening up a big development site on the drag, and some of the displaced merchants are determined to reclaim it to revive a decades-old experiment in promoting small Harlem businesses.
The city's Economic Development Corporation, along with Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, recently released a request for proposals to redevelop Mart 125, a one-story building opened in 1986 as a home for small, minority-owned businesses. 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 under the neglectful management of the Harlem Urban Development Corporation.
In 1995, merchants saw some hope when Albany officials dissolved HUDC and transferred the indoor market to the city. But three years later, the Giuliani administration began evicting the merchants. Attempts in court to keep their stalls failed, and by 2001, all the business owners had moved out. While a record store owner and a furrier relocated nearby, the rest either closed up shop or left town.
Leaving was “like extracting a tooth, like losing an aunt,” says Carlos Ortiz, who sold leather apparel until his eviction. He then moved to Los Angeles to study film.
Now, the Bloomberg administration is looking to revive the space, directly opposite the Apollo Theater, by leasing it to a developer or anchor tenant. It could prove an attractive investment: Because the property is part of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, the developer would qualify for tax breaks. Proposals that include local entrepreneurs are preferred, says the city, but not required.
Local Community Board 10 hopes to make that last criterion a mandate. In mid-January, the board unanimously passed a resolution calling on the city to guarantee space in the new development 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, though. Melinda Chirinos, assistant to the owner of Amy Ruth's Home-Style Southern Cuisine, a large local restaurant, says more brand-name stores are needed in the area to “take [Harlem] to its highest level.”
Whether big-name businesses will bite remains to be seen. Amy Ruth's, for one, turned down a request to be a part of it because, says Chirinos, they are looking into “bigger and better” things.
David Wetstone 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.”