The elephant in the room

Harlem is known all over the world as the historic capital of African-American culture. Part of that culture is small businesses and cultural entrepreneurs, and they are in trouble. The process of so-called progress has led to the disenfranchisement, disappearance and erosion of this part of the rich historic character of Harlem.

Between rising rents, gentrification, up zoning and lack of commercial ownership, those businesses that have not disappeared are on life support.

Private owners will often raise the rent 100 percent or more at a lease expiration and leave stores vacant for long periods of time, hoping to attract a high-paying corporate tenant instead of renting to another independent business. For example, Sephora, in 2017, is replacing Lenox Lounge, a tenant since 1939.

So what do we do about it?

We talk. Recently I attended an event at City College called “Harlem and the Future: Preserving Culture & Sustaining Historic Character in a Changing Environment.” The keynote speaker, Chris Fair, spoke about the “Power of Place.” The talk centered on value-building visions, strategies and brands that build community and generate economic benefits for everyone involved. Fair defined “place making” as the creation of large-scale physical and cultural improvements across entire neighborhoods and communities. He even had examples of commercial locations that could be brought to a higher and better use and utilized in the interests of residential and small businesses. Excellent idea.

We teach. The NYC Business Solutions Centers give a number of workshops and classes on how to successfully run a small business. The New York Public Library has a startup business plan competition that is fantastic, as are the small business development centers throughout New York.

We research. The Hon. Gale A. Brewer, one of our most community-connected and most responsive public officials, published a comprehensive report to help small businesses thrive and grow. Good job.

All these approaches, however helpful, do not address the elephant in the room: city government. City government has the resources to preserve culture and sustain the historic character in a changing environment. The current position of the city, as evidenced by their practice, is to allow city buildings, such as the former 125th Street Mart, to stand vacant. It has been vacant since 2001. In addition, a large number of vacant commercial spaces, some in occupied buildings, and some in vacant buildings, have been vacant or underutilized for as long as 20 years. There are also an impressive number of underutilized lots around town.

The best way to predict the future is to create it. Wealth is not created by the minimum-wage jobs being promised by the developers who obtain land and buildings from the city. Wealth is not created by a nonprofit having to fit into a donor’s criteria to obtain a grant. A mission to empower entrepreneurs and independent business owners must include providing the scale, resources and innovation that create sustainability, growth and effective competition in today’s evolving marketplace.

There are holistic forms of financing and ownership models that are far superior to the current practice of neglecting to recognize the intelligence and capabilities of the entrepreneurial sector in Harlem that has been here all along. This practice must be disrupted. The disruption must begin and end with ownership. The ownership model that I have researched is sustainable, easy to understand and implement. Comments, questions and inquiries invited.

Yvonne Stafford is an entrepreneur, commercial real estate professional and author. She can be reached at