Many Store Owners Hit By Fire Refuse City Help

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The lot where a May 2 fire destroyed 11 businesses on White Plains Road between East 225th and 226th Streets in Wakefield.

Photo by: Adi Talwar

The lot where a May 2 fire destroyed 11 businesses on White Plains Road between East 225th and 226th Streets in Wakefield.

Following the 5-alarm fire in May that demolished an entire block in Wakefield, the Department of Small Business Services spearheaded the recovery process. SBS held a business recovery meeting for the 11 business owners whose stores were destroyed by the fire. They all attended. But following the meeting, only three of them followed up with SBS to receive assistance.

SBS’s main role in the recovery process is helping owners navigate other city agencies. Gregg Bishop, the agency’s deputy commissioner of Business Development, said owners are entitled to pro-bono legal services and help replacing important documentation such as permits and licenses. While SBS can also help owners apply for loans, none of the Wakefield business owners have done so.

For Rose Dixon, the owner of Hair Absolute, SBS’s legal services were useful because she wanted to reopen her store at a new location. The lawyer reviewed her contract for the building she is moving into, which is right around the corner from the old one.

“If I am getting something for free, I am going to use it,” said Dixon on why she used the services.

Darga Hair Braiding, another store burned down by the fire, will also reopen next to Hair Absolute’s new location.

While SBS’s services were useful for Dixon, many of the business owners were not looking to move to new locations and therefore didn’t see how SBS could help them.

Claudia, the daughter of one of the business owners (who didn’t want her last name used), said her father didn’t use the services because they weren’t practical for him.

“People who just lost their livelihoods aren’t in the position to accept loans,” she said. “They need some form of cash assistance to replace the loss of income.”

At the business recovery meeting, Claudia asked if there were any opportunities to receive cash and grants, but she said she was told no.

“It seems like a lot of bureaucratic red tape and no real solutions,” she said.

Council Member Andrew King also inquired about alternatives to loans, and was disappointed that there wasn’t any available cash for the business owners.

King believes the lack of education about SBS’s services and business owners’ unwillingness to get help have resulted in their minimal use.

“They haven’t been educated enough on what the services deliver,” he said. “We are dealing with smaller businesses who are just making it by. They think it might cost them something.”

He also said their unwillingness to accept help relates to the distrust immigrants have of government. The majority of business owners on White Plains Road between 225th and 226th Streets are immigrants.

“The government has been treating [immigrants] unfairly, which we in the City Council are attempting to change.” King said. “But you have to free yourself to trust the system that you’re working in. You cannot open up a business and operate underneath the radar and now that you need help you are afraid to come up from underneath the shadows to get the help you need.”

Fatima Shama, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, added that the challenges between immigrants and the government are “a reality in much of our city.”

“I would say immigrant groups come to the U.S. largely because they’ve come from countries where governments were the reasons they were leaving,” she said.

Shama said her biggest focus in alleviating this problem is developing relationships between the immigrant communities and the government.

“It takes a while,” Shama said. “I will say that we know the small business arena is one that we need to absolutely penetrate in a much more thoughtful way. SBS provides a number of services across the city in any number of ways. But, the fact of the matter is, that in a city like New York where half of our small businesses are owned by immigrants, we need to make sure those relationships are more robust.”

While Zaid Nagi, owner of the Bronx Mini Market and the Bronx Mini Mall, both of which burned down to the ground, understands why others may fear help from the government, he does not.

“In my country, when this stuff happens, usually the government comes to hurt the guy, but here the government came to help,” said Nagi, who emigrated from Yemen in 1994. “To me, they were more than nice.”

Nagi, however, did not use any of SBS’s services because he said the government works too slowly. In addition, his friends and family offered to give loans without any interest. In total, he borrowed $50,000.

“The government continued to contact me and if I would have asked for help, I know they would have given it to me,” he said. “But, I felt that I had better and faster options.”

Nagi has already reopened the Bronx Mini Mall as part of another store across the street.

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