Tag Archive | "economy"

A Pelham Parkway Diner Defies the Odds in a Harsh Economy

Many Bronx restaurants face hard times or have closed in the tough economy, but the management of a family-owned diner in the Pelham Parkway area  has defied the odds with an expansion that opened on Sept. 6.

Christos Konidaris, 61, the owner of the Liberty Diner, said that customers had asked for a larger restaurant. Potential diners were leaving during weekends when the diner was too crowded for them to sit and eat. The expansion will allow him to serve 75 customers instead of his previous capacity of 30.

His daughter, Kathy Argyros, 37, a manager at the diner, said that taking over the space – formerly a dollar store that went out of business – was a significant expense. Konidaris and Argyros declined to say how much the expansion cost or discuss specifics regarding financials, but they said they are able to afford some of the costs of the expansion by selling a larger diner they owned in Co-op City.

“The expansion was a big decision,” Argyros said. “I think we were going back and forth for about a year, year and a half. When the spot opened up, we weren’t sure if we wanted to do it. It was a big investment.”

Argyros added that they were able to boost business by offering more specials, accepting credit cards and buying the best meat and coffee they could afford. He also thinks the family’s reputation helps; they’ve owned two other diners in the Bronx.

Other businesses in Pelham Parkway are having a more difficult time because of the state of the economy. Pablo Torres, 39, the owner of D&G Deli & Rotisserie, Inc., which is half a block away from the Liberty Diner, said running his business has been challenging.

“A lot of people don’t want to spend money like before,” he said. Torres works another job part-time and sometimes uses his paychecks to cover his restaurant’s bills.

Torres said that when he opened D&G in 2009, he was able to get a loan easily because he had a good credit history. Since then, business has been tough. He admitted that he has considered closing or selling the café, but that he feels that his employees depend on him to keep it open. An expansion like Liberty Diner’s is out of the question.

“I would love to,” he said. “But I have no money.”

D&G isn’t the only small business facing hard times. Bobby Ruggiero, 60, the chairman of the Morris Park Alliance, said that most small businesses in the area are struggling. The Alliance represents 360 small businesses in Morris Park – just blocks south of Pelham Parkway. According to Ruggiero, many business owners are living week-to-week, having invested their savings into their businesses.

“Three I know are doing well,” he said. “The others are grinding along, waiting.”

Ruggiero was happy to hear that the nearby Liberty Diner was expanding and praised its staff’s work ethic.

“[Liberty Diner] is in a unique location, good service, good product,” he said. “They put the hours in. They work hard.”

Liberty’s expansion included difficulties beyond money. Manager Spiro Argyros, 43, (Kathy Argyros’ husband) said that keeping the restaurant open during the construction was tough but necessary to keep customers coming in during the expansion. This meant that a lot of the construction work, which started in June, was done overnight.

The extra space will provide more room for customers as well as more space for supplies and appliances. Spiro Argyros said that the new space has a big storage area with a walk-in refrigerator, a luxury the diner didn’t have before.

Spiro Argyros said he hopes to hire more people in the future to work as dishwashers, waitresses and at the grill.

Arvin Molinas, 59, who works in bookbinding and copying at Penguin Group USA, is a regular customer who thinks that the expansion is “remarkable” and will bring the Liberty Diner more business.

“The only question I have is if they’ll be able to fill all of the seats in the space next door,” he said.

Now that the family has opened the expansion, they are looking to the future with a mix of confidence and nerves.

“We’re hoping it works out,” Kathy Argyros said. “We’re hoping it really works out. We’re thinking positive.”


Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, East Bronx, Multimedia, SlideshowsComments (0)

After midnight with the fishmongers

A Trip to the New Fulton Fish Market in New York by Ted Regencia

It’s been almost six years since the New Fulton Fish Market moved to The Bronx on Nov. 14, 2005 after 180 years of smelling up lower Manhattan. The $86-million, half-mile long facility houses more than 30 wholesale distributors, bringing over a billion dollars in annual revenue. Critics contend it lacks the character of the old market by the Brooklyn Bridge, and its remote location contributes to a recent slump in sales. Others say the city-owned Hunts Point warehouse has modern amenities that keep the produce fresh and in high demand. Most recently, one operator declared bankruptcy leaving the warehouse 15 percent empty. But on a midnight visit not too long ago, the market still pulsates with energy. And with the thick smell of the sea wafting over the vending spots, there’s no mistaking this is the world’s second largest fish market.

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When times are tough, it’s goodbye to gold

Attracting gold sellers in the Bronx

Attracting gold sellers in the Bronx Photo: David P. Alexander

Stores usually sell goods, not buy them. But on Southern Boulevard in Hunts Point, commerce is a two-way street. Almost every other storefront window bears a sign declaring, “We Buy Gold.”

As the effects of the recession continue, more and more residents of the South Bronx are looking to part with gold jewelry – often precious keepsakes that they’ve treasured for years. With the price of gold rising to $1,395 an ounce, the temptation to sell is strong and local business owners see a new opportunity.

“Yes it hurts, it’s hard to get rid of something you really love,” said Longwood resident Evelyn Sanchez , as she shopped on Westchester Avenue. In 2008, Sanchez lost her job of 20 years as a teacher in a special education school. With no health insurance and no work, Sanchez, who suffers from scoliosis, did not have enough money to pay for her treatment. In need of quick cash, she decided to sell a pair of 10-karat gold earrings that were a birthday present from her sister. “I don’t like to give things away, especially if it is a gift from a loved one,” said Sanchez. But she knows she is not the only one looking for sources of extra money. “I see a lot of people selling these days,” she said.

With an unemployment rate of 12.5 percent, one of the highest in the nation, Bronx residents like Sanchez are doing whatever they can to get by. In an uncertain economy, gold jewelry is increasingly viewed as an unnecessary commodity in lower income neighborhoods such as Hunts Point and Longwood. In the past, residents might have been buyers – looking for Christmas presents for loved ones. Now, they have become sellers, seduced by the appeal of quick cash.

“We usually buy more than $500 of gold a day,” said Lisa Alvarez, 21, a Longwood resident originally from the Dominican Republic. Alvarez rents space in a cell phone store. Her “office” consists of a podium with a scale for weighing gold, a file, and small plastic bottles of solution, which she uses to determine the the amount of karats of the gold she is buying.

Recently purchased jewelry

Recently purchased jewelry Photo: David P. Alexander

Alvarez and her partner Angel, who prefers to go by his first name, stand outside of the store handing out cards, and hoping to attract potential sellers. “It’s because of the neighborhood, people need money right now,” said Alvarez.

Also a native of the Dominican Republic, Angel wears a sign on his chest stating, “We buy gold.” He switches back and forth between Spanish and English as people walk past him on the street. A Puerto Rican women walks by, and Angel says to her, “Compramos oro.” A black man walks by and he switches to English, “Ay, we buy gold we buy gold.”

Angel lives in a one-bedroom apartment with his girlfriend and her family. He makes $50 a day, under the table. Because Alvarez is in charge of determining the value of the gold they buy, she earns more: around $70 to 100 a day, all cash.

Inside the store, Alvarez scrapes a recently purchased gold ring with her file. She then places a few drops of a clear liquid solution on a small flat stone where she has rubbed the ring. The gold’s reaction confirms its value.

“A lot of the time you will scrape it with the file and underneath it’s like silver or something else,” said Alvarez. “Most of the Africans and Indians come in with 22- and 24- karat pieces.” “But most people in the neighborhood, like the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans come in with 14- and 18-karat pieces.” If the gold passes Alvarez’s test, she buys it on the spot, handing over cash.

Her boss John, who would not give his full name, is a Palestinian businessman. He says he has identical operations spread throughout the Bronx, with the head office based out of his clothing store “Underground” on Southern Boulevard. John employs 40 people in teams of two, at 20 different locations in the Bronx. The teams work six days a week, from 11 in the morning until 7 at night, pulling gold out of the Bronx as cheaply as possible.

Imal, John’s cousin who also preferred not to use his full name, says that as sales at the clothing store went down, his family started exploring other options. “We started selling shoes, hookahs, anything.” Imal is new to buying gold, but says that businesses like his are being forced to think creatively in order to stay afloat. As for the gold itself, “If it works, it works,” said Imal as he smoked a cigarette in front of the clothing store. “ If not, then I will leave it alone.”

Before the recession, jewelry stores were the primary buyers of gold in the area. Now, independent gold buyers are moving in and capitalizing on the public’s willingness to trade their gold for cash. Gary Pinero, the manager of Golden Dreams Jewelry, a jewelry store on Southern Boulevard, and feels that independent buyers like John and Imal mislead people on the street.

“A lot of people don’t know the value of the gold,” Pinero said through the thick plastic window separating him from his customers. “The only reason they sell is because they hear now is the best time to sell, or because finances are tough.” But he thinks the sellers should be wary of buyers. “They take advantage of those people.”

When Pinero started buying and selling gold 15 years ago, it went for $275 an ounce. It’s now $1,396.

For many Bronx residents, the decision to sell gold is an easy one. This was the case for Libby Perez, a middle-aged Bronx resident who has sold many pieces of gold jewelry in the past. “I sell gold that I am not going to use,” said Perez nonchalantly. “I prefer the money especially because I am not doing anything with the gold.”

The decision to part with his gold assets was more difficult for Terry Kaine, a 23-year-old father, originally from Virginia. “Regret would be the proper word to use,” said Kaine as he sold cologne out of a briefcase on Southern Boulevard. Kaine spoke somberly about a gold necklace that he sold in Virginia when he was only 15. “I wish I hadn’t sold it, so I could pass it on to the next generation. I have a two year-old daughter, and I would have liked to give it to her.”

Karina Minaya, a 19-year-old store clerk was attracted to the idea of quick cash for her gold jewelry. “I wasn’t doing nothing with it,” Minaya said about a ring given to her by her grandmother. Minaya said the ring didn’t even fit. “It’s always a good time to sell gold if you are not using it.”

But is it really a good time to sell? Donald Davis, a Columbia University economics professor, says the gold market is tricky. “Anyone who tells you they know where the price of gold is going is a fool or a shill,” said Davis. Davis cites the 12.5 unemployment rate in the Bronx as another strong reason people opt to sell their gold. “Gold sales may also be driven by desperation. If we had a crystal ball that told us where the economy will go, then we would have a much better guess about where the price of gold will go. But we don’t.”

But on the street, all that really matters is getting cash when you need it. For gold buyers such as Imal, a high price per ounce on gold means more business. For gold sellers like Sanchez, it ultimately means getting out of a tight situation. Fortunately, she is now getting disability payments from Social Security, which means she has enough money to pay for her scoliosis medicine without having to sell any more jewelry. At least for now.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Money, Southern BronxComments (0)

Skulls and Rosaries

Audio slideshow by Elettra Fiumi and David Patrick Alexander.

A local Soundview botanica owner counts on days like Saint Michael’s Day on September 29th to boost his flagging business.

“People aren’t going to the saints as much as before,” said John Santiago, owner of the Botanica store, which manages to maintain a steady revenue of approximately $53,000 per year. His is one of the last standing local botanicas. Three others closed down in the last year.

In a city still trying to recover from high jobless rates and a global economic collapse, this Botanica maintains a faithful clientele by offering religious tidbits of advice and a little generosity alongside wooden crucifixes, or bath soap that wards off evil. When someone in need can’t afford to buy something, he might give them a candle for free.

Santiago said sales of merchandise that includes skulls, rosaries and candles have gone down since the 1980s except for a brief surge around 9/11.

“People were getting scared and thinking they were going to die so they should clean their souls,” he said. “People only believe when something tragic happens.”

Sales increase drastically mostly around religious days like the day after Halloween, Christmas day and New Year’s Eve. Most clients don’t remember other saint days throughout the year, but when Santiago reminds them, he recalls them thanking him by giving him “muchos blessings.”

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Gains in National Job Figures Don’t Mean Bronx Resurgence

Gains in National Job Figures Don’t Mean Bronx Resurgence

Bronx residents line up outside a Workforce 1 job center in February. (Zabaneh/Bronx Ink)
Bronx residents lined up outside a Workforce 1 job center in February. (Zabaneh/Bronx Ink)

Story by Shreeya Sinha, Lynsey Chutel and Sunil Joshi

While the national jobs figure for March indicated that the country is on the path to economic recovery, the employment picture in the Bronx was not so sanguine. Unemployment in the borough remains several points above the national average, and thousands of residents are still unable to find work.

For more coverage of Bronx job hunters, click here.

Above the bustling business hub of 149th Street and Third Avenue, rows of almost 50 people sat on Thursday in a cordoned-off waiting room in the Workforce 1 office, looking for help from the Bronx branch of the citywide employment agency.

This was Veronica Eaddy’s second time at the “one-stop employment center.” With a soft round face under thick waves, in a casual jeans and T-shirt, Eaddy, who asked that her full name not be used, doesn’t look her age at 42. But the string of jobs she has tried her hand at reveal a long struggle with unemployment. “I’ve been through many systems where a job has been promised and nothing happened,” Eaddy said.

Nationwide, there may be reason for optimism after the jobs report revealed that the depressed economy may be turning around. The U.S. Department of Labor announced on Friday that 162,000 jobs were added to the national economy, though the nationwide unemployment rate remained steady at 9.7 percent. But an increase in the national jobs number does not necessarily correlate to an increase in the number of jobs in the Bronx, said James Brown, an analyst with the New York Department of Labor. “There’s not a one-for-one increase,” he said. For Bronx job-seekers like Eaddy, economic struggles are still festering.

“You pretty much need a master’s degree to pick up the garbage,” said Eaddy, who feels that living in the Bronx has been a disadvantage for her. She’s spent the last seven years looking for a full-time job. Unemployment in the borough soared to 14 percent in January, well above the national average. Hunger and poverty are stark realities in the borough that is already struggling to compete with a higher-skilled workforce.

“That doesn’t bode well for the Bronx, which has a pretty high percentage of the local workforce that doesn’t have high levels of educational attainment,” said Jonathan Bowles, director of the Center for an Urban Future, a research firm.

About half of Bronxites work outside the borough, Brown said. Many of these jobs in the hospitality and retail sectors are not only low-paying but largely dependent on consumer spending, which has sunk deeply in the recession. Analysts are hopeful that consumers will grudgingly start spending. Consumer spending picked up for the sixth month running in March.

“A lot of establishments are closing,’’ Eaddy said. “There aren’t many jobs that you could get if you come straight off school, like low-skilled jobs. And most of them can be pretty crap.”

Arthur Merlino, manager of Workforce 1, has worked in the labor market for 48 years, crisscrossing labor offices across the city’s five boroughs. After two years managing the Bronx branch, he admits that the borough poses a specific challenge. “This is a real serious time,” said Merlino, his eyes closing as he spoke. “I’d say, experientially it’s been a very difficult couple of years.”

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. has made economic development and job creation a priority but critics have accused him of costing the Bronx thousands of jobs at a mall he opposed at the Kingsbridge Armory. Diaz opposed the project on the grounds that it would not provide Bronxites living wages. The City Council voted against the mall.

Franck Strongbow, associate director of the James Monroe Senior Center agreed with Diaz. After he spent eight months living “between a rock and a hard place,” Strongbow lived paycheck to paycheck when he was 25 years old trying to make ends meet. For him, a job is all about dignity. “What the borough president was saying was, “Let’s start with affordable living range because people should be paying an honest day’s labor.” According to the Center for Urban Future, 42 percent of the Bronx workforce is making less than $10 an hour.

The payroll company Automatic Data Processing said this week that U.S. employers cut 23,000 jobs in March, dampening expected forecasts ahead of Friday’s job report. Much of the nationwide growth in March was in temporary government jobs, particularly by the Census Bureau, which hired 48,000 temporary employees, according to the Department of Labor, including enough staff for four Census offices in the Bronx.

Elsewhere, there are signs of life in the borough’s jobs market. A coalition of construction workers in the Bronx said it has seen employment opportunities tick upward in March, with more activity on job sites. While the overall number of new building permits issued in the Bronx during the first three months of the year is down from 2009 — 44 to 18 — there were eight new building permits issued in the Bronx in March (up from four last year), according to the Department of Buildings. Richard Rodriguez, an administrator for United Hispanic Construction, said that his labor coalition was able to connect more workers with jobs in March, particularly with a new development on 163rd Street in Morrisania.

Despite the real-estate market’s more than two-year struggle, prices in Manhattan remain high, fueling new development in the outer boroughs, said Ken Margolies, director of organizing programs at the Cornell School of Industrial Labor Relations. But while Margolies noted the signs of improvement, he cautioned against unbridled optimism. “The key thing about the news,” he said, “is that, by and large, the new jobs that are being created pay less than the ones that are being lost.”

The manufacturing sector is another industry that saw accelerated growth in March, according to the Institute for Supply Management, a private trade group. In February about 11,000 jobs were created, the largest increase in almost four years. Other sectors like health care have also done well, especially after President Obama’s health care plan passed. In March, 27,000 new health care jobs were added to the national economy, according to the Department of Labor.

That’s where Eaddy hopes to try her luck. She’s optimistic that the health care reform will revitalize jobs in this sector. “Since there was such a push going on in public health, I think that a lot of jobs are going to start that I want to get into while the getting in is good,” she said. Eaddy is trying to secure a voucher from the New York State Department of Labor that will cover a six-month-long Medical Billing and Coding course at Hostos Community College. Waving a manila folder on Thursday, with the college brochure inside, she checked that she had all her documentation. She had been waiting for move than an hour for her 4 p.m. appointment.

While she waits for a steady job, Eaddy decided to start her own business. “Splendidly Me,” a cosmetic business that she runs out of her East 180th Street apartment, supplements her income. When she is not teaching customers how to make coconut oil or twist their hair, Eaddy is pinning her long-term hopes on the health care industry.

“Now I have to come back,” she said, “but this time I’m doing something smart with a marketable skill so that I can have some leverage.”

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