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On a West Bronx Street, Small Businesses Brace for Change


The intersection of Burnside Avenue and Jerome Avenue is the fulcrum of a shopping strip in the throes of development. On one side stands the dog-eared Nams, a dingy odds and ends shop with scratched suitcases chained up on display outside. On an opposite corner is Bred, a self-proclaimed ‘urban style’ store whose brand-marked shoes and clothes stare down on brightly lit, air-conditioned floor space.

“Burnside Avenue isn’t currently a commercial street; at least, not really,” said Khalid Omar, the owner of Burnside Furniture. The West Bronx thoroughfare is a low key but extraordinarily diverse small business hub: home to a variety of modest eateries and home, clothing and convenience stores. Many are run by immigrants from the area’s thriving West African, Arab and Latino communities.

But existing small businesses are soon likely to be joined by a mix of citywide and national competitors under city plans for commercial revitalization, community efforts to create a Business Improvement District, or both.

Plans to rezone Jerome Avenue to create thousands of affordable new homes contain blueprints to spruce up ‘commercial corridors’ on some of the streets that straddle it, including Burnside. The commercial corridor proposals tie into a wider program, currently being finalized by the city’s Department of Small Business Services, which would work with local stores to help them market themselves and to make their environment safer, cleaner and more attractive.

“We’ll be asking for more security, lighting and cleanliness to offer to the community as a whole, making it a place where people enjoy coming to shop,” said Ubaldo Santos, a tax preparer who is president of the Merchants Association on Burnside Avenue. He talks slowly in lilting, accented English, but with a conviction that reflects his desire to improve the neighborhood that has been his home for over 30 years.

Some store owners and managers clearly want to see these improvements too. “Change is good. Beauty is good. It makes you feel proud of where you are,” said Georgina Tackie, the assistant manager of Accra, a Ghanaian restaurant on the corner of Burnside and Davidson Avenues.


Mariama Sillah (left) works in Accra, a Ghanaian restaurant. Here, she poses with a passer-by.

Others, however, are skeptical of city-driven commercial plans. Ayoub Hammouda, a Palestinian immigrant who manages Burnside Linen, said city agencies frustrate his business rather than help it grow.

“The Department of Sanitation bothers us,” said Hammouda, complaining that the agency won’t let him display his merchandise on the street. He stood beside a prominent bright green ‘Going Out of Business’ sign in his shop window. “They just want to give us tickets.”


Ayoub Hammouda, a Palestinian immigrant, is the manager of Burnside Linen.

Plans to revitalize Burnside Avenue are not limited to city authorities. “We’ve been fighting for a number of years to convert Burnside Avenue into a Business Improvement District,” said Santos, who has been working on the plans with the Davidson Community Center and Morris Heights Health Center.

Business Improvement Districts, or BIDs, are public-private partnerships run chiefly by property owners and merchants. Santos is hopeful that BID status for Burnside might be finalized next year. “We’ve been working very actively with the Small Business Service and they’ve been working very diligently with us,” he said.

BIDs, however, are controversial. Critics say they give landlords too much power over small business owners. “Businesses often don’t want their neighborhood to become a BID, but it doesn’t matter what the tenants think,” said Moshe Adler, an adjunct associate professor of urban planning at Columbia University. “You’d be hard-pressed to find one example where businesses consider this to be an improvement. It’s just a misleading name.”

And some businesses on Burnside Avenue are afraid property owners will use aesthetic improvements as an excuse to drive up rent, whether they’re attached to BID status or not.

“The rent is the main issue, not shop fronts or advertising,” said Omar at Burnside Furniture. “Whatever they are trying to do is difficult when the rent is too high. It’s the main issue.”

In the area affected by the Jerome Avenue rezoning, at least 90 percent of businesses rent their store space. Forty two percent of respondents to a recent survey said real estate and lease assistance would be valuable to them.

Merchants’ concerns that development could destabilize small businesses have recent local precedent.

Even though plans to turn Kingsbridge Armory into America’s largest ice rink have stalled due to a funding dispute, some businesses on adjacent Kingsbridge Avenue report that landlords’ behavior has changed dramatically since the project was announced in 2012.

“Rent nearly doubled this year,” said Espi Sanchez, a waitress at New Capital diner on the corner of Kingsbridge and Jerome Avenues. “Many businesses near here have closed.”

“The owner is nervous. We are nervous,” said Jose Nunez as he buzzed a trimmer close to a customer’s scalp in Kingsbridge Barber Shop. “You don’t know if you’re working here one day and gone the next.”

Many owners have a bigger problem with property owners refusing to commit to long-team leases. “Landlords are being pre-emptive in not renewing leases. I can feel it,” said Patrick Lim, who owns two grocery stores opposite the Armory.

The Department of Small Business Services said it is offering leasing workshops and pro bono legal advice to affected businesses. It has not, however, stipulated what support will be on offer should rents become so eye-watering that businesses can no longer afford to stay open. Many fear that their store space will go to big chain companies if they are forced to move away.

“Big corporations kill small commercials,” said Miguel Angel, a merchant who sells clothing to shops like Rudy Fashion on Burnside Avenue. “Ten years ago this neighborhood was all small commercials. Now there are lots of big commercials.”


Rudy Gomez is the owner of Rudy Fashion. He recently moved to Burnside Avenue from Fordham Road.

Newer chain stores appear to be thriving on Burnside. Jimmy Jazz, an apparel store with outlets across the country, is currently planning to move into a bigger unit across the road from its current location.

“We’re making too much money to stay here,” said Dylan Chevalier, its branch assistant manager.

Santos at the Merchants Association, however, is hopeful that small businesses won’t be forced to leave by higher rents. “It doesn’t pay for the landlord to raise the rent to the roof so that no one can afford it,” he said. “That way everybody loses. Property owners need to understand that and work with us.”

He insisted, however, that local business owners need to come together too to shape the plans. “I’m willing to do it and I think others are too,” said Santos of neighboring businesses. “I have lived in this community for many years. I raised my children here. But we have to give back to our community as well. You have to take part.”

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Jerome Rezoning Plans Slammed at a Spirited Public Hearing


Concerns over housing affordability and tenant displacement dominated Thursday night’s public hearing in the West Bronx, as local tenants, workers and activists grilled city officials on the proposed rezoning of Jerome Avenue.

About halfway through the evening at Bronx Community College, advocates piled into the hall toting signs, sporting bright orange and yellow t-shirts, and injecting an impassioned and, at times, angry energy into proceedings.

“This plan is nothing less than a snatch and grab,” said Karen Smith, a Bronx resident.

The city was holding a hearing to gauge public reaction to draft plans to rezone 73 blocks of Jerome Avenue, published in August. It says that the controversial plans will create thousands of new homes.

Audience members, however, repeatedly argued that the rezoning plans would not, as they stand, help existing local residents, but instead hike already high rents and empower abusive landlords.

“No one asked the city to come into my neighborhood. That’s like forcing your way into my apartment and making changes so that other people can come in,” said Carmen Vega-Rivera, a leader of the tenant advocacy group Community Action for Safe Apartments, known as CASA.

“Mi casa no es su casa,” she rallied to sustained applause, meaning “My home is not your home” in Spanish.

Pedro Estevez, President of the United Auto Merchants Association, also raised the likely displacement of Jerome Avenue’s car repair shop industry.

As speakers lined up at the microphone, sporadic chants of “Whose Bronx? Our Bronx,” and “Si se puede,” or “Yes we can” in Spanish, echoed under the hearing room’s vaulted dome roof.

One speaker, meanwhile was harangued after standing up in support of the rezoning.

Residents were organized by member groups of the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision, including CASA and the North-West Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. Unions including Laborers Local 78, which represents hazardous waste handlers, and 32BJ, which represents property services workers, were also out in force.

“The draft seems too dogmatic to me. Everything seems like it’s written in stone,” said Reverend Dr Raymond Rivera, President of the Latino Pastoral Action Center, another member of the Coalition.

Earlier in the evening elected officials and community board representatives had addressed a largely empty auditorium. All expressed support for the rezoning, with some reservations.

“Saying no isn’t going to build any more affordable homes,” said City Councilmember Vanessa Gibson, whose district covers the Southern part of the rezoning area. “The rate at which affordable housing eligibility is calculated, however, will need to go much further, with significant subsidies being made available.”

Concerns over public health, education, and disruption to public transit were also repeatedly raised.

Members of the public can submit written testimony to the Department of City Planning until 5pm October 10th. 

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Ambitious Plan is Hatched to Save Jerome Avenue’s Auto Industry


An auto repair shop in Hunts Point that may soon be joined by a new auto mall rehousing competitors from Jerome Avenue.

Jerome Avenue in the West Bronx is lined by over 100 busy car repair shops. Metallic noise bounces off the cluttered walls as workers fix engines, touch up paint, or sell spare parts.

It is clear that most of these shops may have to shut if the city goes ahead with a proposed rezoning of Jerome Avenue, a 73-block plan to build thousands of new affordable rental units. What is much less clear is whether some might be able to relocate, and if so where this new home could be.

Pedro Estevez is the President of the United Auto Merchants Association (UAMA), an industry group representing auto shop owners and workers. He wants to relocate the Jerome Avenue car repair shops to a state of the art “auto mall.” His favored destination for this facility would be Hunts Point, an existing car industry hub in the Southeast Bronx.

Although the Department for City Planning points to other rezoned areas of New York where auto businesses have been able to stay put, Estevez increasingly sees relocation as their only viable option.

“The automotive industry has zero opportunity to survive on Jerome,” he said. “The city is trying to put an elephant through the eye of a needle if it thinks some shops can stay.”

The Hunts Point auto mall would be built up, rather than across. “You have two and a half miles inhabited by these businesses on Jerome. With this type of building you could put them all in four blocks,” said Estevez.

He describes a five-story leviathan, replete with car elevators and an efficient circulation flow between floors grouping businesses by the services they offer. The transition would be facilitated by ownership rights for businesses that currently rent their shop space, and up-to-the-minute technical training for employees.

The auto mall project is, however, just a vision for the time being. Estevez says he has talked to the offices of Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., and said that the latter seemed receptive to his idea. The city, however, says that discussions remain at a very early stage.

“Every single business owner has agreed with the plan that we have. They would love the opportunity to have their own space,” said Estevez of the auto mall proposal. A recent survey conducted by UAMA found that 86 percent of owners would move, as long as they had no alternative and the city agreed to help them with the transition.

“I think our clients would move with us, because if they can’t get their cars repaired here they’ll have to look for another place to go,” said Naftali Fuerte, who runs C3R Mega Auto Diagnostic, Inc on West 169th Street just off Jerome Avenue. “If this mall project happens it’ll come with a big publicity campaign so that people will know where we’re going to be located.”

Some bosses, however, do not agree that relocating to Hunts Point is a feasible suggestion. “There’s a lot of competition here as it is, and Hunts Point will be competitive too. How are we going to survive?” asked Roberto Vazquez, owner of Vazquez Muffler on Jerome and West 169th Street.

Many auto employees do not seem prepared to leave the area either. “People don’t want to move, they live here,” said Wascar Gonzalez. He is worried that the rezoning will put car shop workers in a double bind: unemployed and stuck in buildings where rents are being jacked up by speculation around the adjacent redevelopment.

If opinion about a possible move is divided along Jerome Avenue, those who already have established auto repair businesses in Hunts Point also have conflicting views on whether they could manage an influx of suddenly displaced competitors.

“Imagine there are four or five pizza restaurants next door to each other. You choose the cheapest at first but you can easily try them all,” said Eddie Runo, who has been in Hunts Point for more than 30 years. “How often do you need your car fixed? Once a year? You’ll just go back to the cheapest guy.”

If Runo thinks that greater competition will drive down prices, however, Fred Donnelly counters that it could be a boon for his Hunts Point Auto business.

“I can’t fix every car in New York,” he said. “If I do my job right, I don’t have to worry about competition.” Donnelly claimed that when a new car shop moved in across the road a few years ago he actually got busier, mopping up some of his new competitor’s customer base.


Fred Donnelly, President of Hunts Point Auto

The Jerome car shops are not the only ones to have eyed an escape to Hunts Point. Sunrise Co-op, a collective of 45 auto repair businesses kicked out of Willets Point, Queens by plans to build a mall next to the New York Mets’ Citi Field, is currently in the process of relocating to a huge warehouse at 1080 Leggett Avenue in the Bronx.

The new facility is a hulking hangar. Even if it doesn’t seem quite as space age as Estevez’s skyscraper car mall idea, it is retrofitted with booths framed by gleaming frames and dropdown grates. At present, however, it stands eerily empty.  A handful of workers putter around with various auto parts. Mainly, however, they sit, drink coffee, and wait.

It is not hard to see what Victor Pichardo, a state assembly member for a district on Jerome Avenue, means when he says that the Jerome workers’ story cannot be “a second Willets Point.” To begin with, hundreds of Queens workers have not been able to relocate, with many going out of business altogether.

Those who did get to make the move have seen their transition beset by problems. Having originally identified the facility in 2013, Sunrise says that it still hasn’t received a certificate of occupancy from the City’s Economic Development Corporation, which in 2015 was mandated to pay out nearly $5 million to help with relocation costs.

“We are ready to move in immediately,” said Sergio Aguirre, organizer of Sunrise co-op. “We could have moved in four months ago.”




Sergio Aguirre (top) and colleagues Oscar Aravena (middle) and Juan Chavistad (bottom) of Sunrise Co-op at 1080 Leggett Avenue.

Aguirre remains hopeful that the move-in date will come sooner rather than later. Although not yet a formal part of the Hunts Point automotive scene, he said that he would also be more than happy to welcome any businesses who did come to the area from Jerome Avenue.

“We are in total favor of the Jerome businesses being relocated anywhere they need to go,” he said. “I pray to God that they will not live through the same bitter time that we went through. We’ll be brothers and sisters working hand in hand together.”

A spokesperson for the Department of City Planning said that he expects any effect of the rezoning on Jerome Avenue’s car shops to be natural and gradual. He pointed out that, unlike in Willets Point, the city has not threatened these businesses with eminent domain, the state’s right to seize property from private owners.

In the event of an uprooting conversations with businessmen like Aguirre and Donnelly paint Hunts Point as a potentially thriving home-from-home for New York’s vagrant car repair industry: a crossroads between Queens and the West Bronx that sings with a spirit of solidarity and imaginatively high-tech potential. The reality, however, seems likely to be beset by bureaucratic delays and a lack of enthusiastic will.

For the time being, Jerome Avenue’s car shops just want an end to the uncertainty. With the redevelopment of the area still in its early stages the city does not yet have a concrete plan to offer worried owners, who know only that they are unlikely to be able to stay.

“They are already distributing the spaces where the automotive industry is right now, before the rezoning even takes place,” said Estevez, waving the city’s recent Jerome Avenue environmental impact report in his hand. He pointed out a row of zeroes signifying the projected square footage the auto industry would occupy on a rezoned Jerome.

Right now, these zeroes are all the Jerome Avenue auto industry has. They do not have guarantees about their future, and they certainly do not have an auto mall in Hunts Point ready and waiting for them to move in.

“We are not against any development for affordable housing,” said Estevez. “But we have to have a plan so that all the auto businesses that are on Jerome can carry on being effective.”

And Estevez has stern words of warning should the city drag its feet.

“I don’t think the city will be prepared to confront the reaction of the automotive community. It could be very nasty,” said Estevez. “The South Bronx has a very noticeable reputation. You don’t mess with the people of the South Bronx”.

Additional reporting and translation by Sarah Blaskey.

Read more about the Jerome Avenue rezoning here:
Jerome Draft Publication Brings Affordable Housing Battle to Bronx
Jerome Avenue Auto Workers Featured in Photoville Exhibition
Jerome Rezoning Plans Slammed at a Spirited Public Hearing

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Jerome Avenue Autoworkers Featured in Photoville Exhibit

Jose, a mechanic, stands diminutive in the shadow of a wall of stacked car tires. Mwanz, a street vendor who sells incense, poses by a flaking wall on Burnside Avenue. Julian of Prestige Mufflers sits outside, his face freckled by the pocks of sunlight piercing the brim of his straw hat.

These are some of the faces of a working class West Bronx community on display under the Brooklyn Bridge this week as part of Photoville, a major annual photography festival that turns old shipping containers into specialized galleries.

Children, hairdressers and religious leaders are also among the subjects of the Jerome Avenue Workers Project, an exhibition that opened in one of the street’s auto shops in October 2015.

“Photoville approached us about the project,” said Michael Kamber, the exhibition’s curator and a contributing photographer. “Brooklyn was an obvious place to bring it. This is an exhibition about gentrification and this neighborhood knows all about that.”


The project’s third showing comes weeks after the City published draft plans to rezone 73 blocks of Jerome Avenue, a move that would add affordable housing units to the area but would displace traditional auto businesses.

“The exhibition is meant to bring the community together, to understand what it takes to prevent a massive disruption,” added Osaretin Ugiagbe of the Bronx Photo League, the collective that created the project.

The Bronx Photo League is a group of Bronx-based photographers and photojournalists founded by Kamber in 2015. It is run out of the Bronx Documentary Center, an independent photography and film space in Mott Haven that Kamber also founded.

The Jerome Avenue Workers Project is a series of black and white portraits depicting people at work and leisure on Jerome Avenue. They are immediate and yet textured, infused with an almost halcyon timelessness.

“I love how the photographs accentuate the inequalities of the Bronx,” said Kwabena Charles on his way out of the exhibit. “It really shows that there are wonderful, beautiful people in the borough.”

Charles, who works in real estate in Brooklyn, feels that neighborhoods like Jerome Avenue will continue to be ripe for development in the years to come. “Right now the Bronx is the target. Brooklyn is dead,” he said.

Kamber promised that the project would continue to track the workers’ plight as the rezoning moves forward.

“We’re going to follow the workers to see whether they’ll be able to stay in New York or whether they’ll have to move away,” said Kamber. “The City has claimed that around one hundred workers will be displaced. That’s ridiculous. We think it’ll be closer to a thousand.”

Photoville claims to be one of the best-attended photographic events in America. Other exhibitions this year include studies of the Ebola epidemic in Africa and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. An interactive exhibit on texting in Syria sends real messages to visitors’ phones.

Photoville is open until 10pm in Brooklyn Bridge Plaza. It closes Sunday September 25.

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Jerome Draft Publication Brings Affordable Housing Battle to Bronx

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s battle to build affordable housing in New York will echo under the girders of the Jerome Avenue railroad in the Bronx in the months to come, as residents raise concerns about rent rates and tenant displacement.

City Hall published plans in late August for a massive rezoning of the strip, which it claims will add 3000 affordable housing units spanning 73 blocks from 165th Street to 184th Street.

But the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision, an alliance of local organizations, says that 78 percent of residents will not be eligible to apply for affordable housing under existing income thresholds.

The tenant advocates are campaigning for housing allocations to be calculated according to local, rather than citywide, wage averages.

The de Blasio administration made affordable housing provision and maintenance a top priority when it took office in 2014, promising hundreds of thousands of additional units over ten years.

The City says that the Jerome rezoning was one of the first to be planned under this touchstone initiative, prompted by repeated requests from local community board members and politicians. These local officials, however, stress that any new housing must be genuinely low cost.

“This side of the Bronx has an opportunity,” said Angel Caballero, vice-chair of Community Board 5 and Executive Director of the Davidson Community Center. “We need affordable housing for everyone, but the City has to spell out what it means by ‘affordable housing.’”

Source: New York Department of City Planning, 2016

Source: New York Department of City Planning, 2016

Another key point of contention as the plans go out for public consultation is whether existing tenants will be displaced

The City says the rezoning is expected to displace fewer than 500 residents, so it will not conduct a detailed analysis of changes to the area’s socioeconomic make-up.

“How can they say that? The City doesn’t live here. They don’t know what they’re talking about,” said Caballero.

“500 residents isn’t just a number, those are real people getting pushed out,” said Clara Cruz, an activist with the People Power Movement, a community organizing group.

A spokesperson for the New York Department of City Planning said it anticipates that significantly fewer than 500 people will be displaced, but that it remains committed to working with all those in the community likely to be affected by the rezoning.


The draft plans for Jerome Avenue were released just two weeks after the City Council rejected a much smaller rezoning project in Inwood, Manhattan.

This ‘no’ vote was seen as a major defeat for a signature de Blasio policy, which would allow developers to skirt regulations if they commit to keeping a percentage of new homes affordable for lower income tenants.

In a context of rapidly rising rents, few locally dispute the idea that the West Bronx urgently requires more housing stock for low earners.

“We need it. Affordable housing, that is, not just housing,” said Wayne Logan, an entertainment manager. “I’m looking for a place.”

Many residents, however, didn’t seem to know that the rezoning was happening.

“99 percent of people don’t know about Jerome,” said Abdul Ali, whose family owns businesses on Burnside Avenue, which is slated to become a commercial corridor under the plans. “The City can do whatever it wants because people don’t know what’s going on.”

A public hearing with City officials is scheduled for September 29th at Bronx Community College. Local residents can submit written comments on the plans until 5pm on October 10th.


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