On a Mission to Save Latino Businesses in Upper Manhattan

Cesár González was forced to set up his bookstore on the street (Photo by Gerardo Romo for El Diario)

Cesár González was forced to set up his bookstore on the street (Photo by Gerardo Romo for El Diario)

In Upper Manhattan, small businesses and those with a mostly-Latino clientele are slowly disappearing, due to the increasingly high rents and the lack of opportunities to negotiate contracts that offer medium- and long-term solutions to stay open.

The situation is so tense that on Feb. 2, two events were scheduled to be held to denounce these conditions and ‒ even though efforts are still not unified ‒ to come up with strategies to protect the businesses.

Council member Ydanis Rodríguez, representing Washington Heights, Inwood and Marble Hill, has scheduled a community meeting for tonight to save the Associated Supermarket located on Fort Washington and 187th Street.

Although the grocery store has served the area for 30 years, the building’s landlord has taken the business owners to court to evict them and rent the space to Walgreens. The local pharmacy next door has been in the neighborhood for years.

Public Advocate Letitia James, Comptroller Scott Stringer, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, Assembly member Denny Farrell, Council member Mark Levine and the Hudson Heights Owners Coalition are scheduled to attend the meeting.

Some proposals to prevent the effects of rapid gentrification and displacement of Latino businesses will be heard in the morning, as a group of Washington Heights vendors demand the approval of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA). The legislation would require equal negotiation terms between landlords and merchants and arbitration by an impartial 3rd party when required, as well as a minimum 10-year lease with the right to renewal, an imposition some politicians and law experts say would amount to illegal commercial rent control.

Last week, City Hall told El Diario that the administration is against rent control. Brewer ‒ who is currently proposing rezoning to prevent the disappearance of small businesses and a bill that also recommends mandatory mediation (which doesn’t exist now) ‒ does not believe that the SBJSA is the solution either. However, she said that their solution and others must be discussed.

With the support of the Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center, the merchants claim that the exorbitant rent increases imposed on them when their leases expire are forcing their businesses to close, only to be replaced by banks and franchise stores. Many of them say that they have month-to-month contracts, preventing them from making improvements to their stores.

“Uncontrolled speculation has expanded across every borough like a cancer and, now, every small business in Upper Manhattan is at risk of closing when their contracts expire,” reads the organization’s statement. The same merchants also denounced “so-called progressive legislators who look the other way and allow landlords to steal a community’s lifetime savings.”

The truth is that the Upper Manhattan landscape is changing every day at the expense of many Latino businesses. Some, like César González, resist in their own way.

González, a 67-year-old Dominican, is the owner of Librería Calíope, a bookstore which used to be located on 170 Dyckman St. The shop sold books in Spanish and some in English, and hosted literary events and book readings by the authors.

Calíope suffered the same fate as other specialty Spanish bookstores in the city like Macondo and Lectorum. Calíope closed its doors in June 2009, after the owner got behind in the rental payments he owed his landlord.

“I used to pay $3,900 for a 1,000-square-foot space,” remembers González. However, he lagged behind because of the added expense of a payment plan he arranged with the landlord for a previous debt, which brought his monthly rental obligations to $5,000.

It was an especially high rent for a business that had only one employee aside from González, who worked more than 65 hours per week attending to customers and providers. In an exceptionally good month, the bookstore’s net earnings were around $8,500, said the owner.

For years, González has continued to sell books in front of 170 Dyckman St., right on the sidewalk of the space he used to rent. He has a folding table, a chair and plastic sheets to cover the books if it rains, as it did yesterday.

Although González is on the street, his bookstore continues to function in front of the place where his business stood for years, only now he is near a Planet Fitness, Payless, Starbucks, GNC and Walgreens, all chain stores or franchises.

His customers also continue to gather in the area and requesting books from him. One of them, Daniel Tavares, said that he is one of the González’s best clients because he pays in advance. The merchant said that some titles ‒ such as Tavares’ latest request, Loretta Napoleoni’s “Rogue Economics” in Spanish ‒ “take me between two and three weeks to find. I can have regular books in two days.”

On his folding table, aside from Spanish versions of classics such as Homer’s “Odyssey” and “Iliad,” are books by Paulo Coelho and self-help issues like “El lado positivo del fracaso” (“Failing Forward”) by John Maxwell.

The bookstore owner admits that he owed five months of rent and that, although he had already made arrangements to pay it, the pastor who was the landlord ‒ who does not work for the church operating on the second floor of the building ‒ arrived late to court for the hearing. By the time González noticed, the authorities were already shutting down the space.

“I wanted to negotiate with him to pay the late rent but he told me that, in exchange for the money, he would only give me my books back,” said González. He tried to find help to get out of the situation but, because he was a for-profit business, he was unable to receive it.

Today, on the street, some weeks are better than others. “This month I haven’t made more than $300 per week. This has been the worst January in seven years.” As he waves at the neighbors passing by or stopping for a quick coffee, González recognizes that, over time, he is becoming less willing to brave the weather. “If it’s bad, I don’t come out.” Otherwise, he is there every day, seven days a week.

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