Have We Lost Harlem?

didn’t have adequate choices or an ample supply of quality goods and services,” he continues. “In an undercapitalized environment, both the business people and the consumer suffered. So having greater choices is a good thing. It creates competition. Sma
ller businesses are put under some strain, but at the end of the day, choice is the better alternative.” UMEZ has also extended low-interest loans to African American and Latino businesses, including Hue-Man Bookstore (the country’s third largest black bookstore), Mobile Woods, and several black-owned restaurants, including Well’s, which is now closed.

Gregory Bartlett is the proprietor of On the Park Café, famous for having Harlem’s largest selection of burgers (30 varieties). When the lease at the café’s former location expired in 2001, he decided to expand the eatery and moved to their current location on 110th Street. Bartlett had financed $50,000 to open the café at its original location and was making about $200,000 a year. He explains that when it came time to move, “I went to Banco Popular and Chase on 125th Street. They told me things like, ‘You don’t make enough money’, ‘Your paperwork [isn’t complete]’, and ‘We don’t think your business is worth investing in.'” Bartlett was initially discouraged, but he knew that, “Financially, it would not have paid to stay [at the old location].” Having successfully relocated a little over a year ago now, the café’s new location is much bigger and gets much more traffic than the old one. Bartlett says he expects to do some $400,000 in business this year.

Thirty-three-year-old Harlem native Vernon Scott has opened three businesses in the last three years: two mobile phone stores and a fast food restaurant called Café 22, which opened in January. He believes that blacks in the community can’t rely on UMEZ or banks to realize their business dreams. “It’s a lot of politics and I’m not that patient a person. A lot of people do tell me I should get a grant or a loan, but I just believe in sacrificing and saving my money, and things have worked out for me,” he says.

For all three spots, Scott pays approximately $6,000 in rent. Escalating rents concern Scott, but he doesn’t see them as an obstacle to growing his businesses, even without supplemental financing. “I’ve seen too many people get their hearts broken trying to get [grants and loans]. And the locations won’t wait for you to get your money together. Either you’re ready to roll or you’re not.”

A stroll through Harlem with Russell Shuler is like a walk down memory lane as he points to abandoned and renovated sites that are historically dear to old-time residents of Harlem. Sites like Mr. B’s, a once hot nightclub where scenes from Shaft and Superfly were filmed, and Small’s Paradise, the nightclub that used to be owned by basketball great Wilt Chamberlin. “You know Harlem plays the best ball in the country,” insists the executive director of Youth Education through Sports (YES), a New York City