East Harlem Quality-of-Life Problems Cripple Businesses


By Melanie Grace West

The change in season isn’t just bringing warmer weather to East Harlem it is exacerbating persistent quality-of-life problems that alarm residents and decimate businesses.

Just ask Folasade Sade Tyler, who has run a small business for about a year selling skin-care products and cosmetics at the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street, a block from the Harlem Metro North station and steps from upscale new and planned commercial and residential developments.

Men, she said, who live in a shelter on nearby Randall’s Island regularly ride the M35 bus and congregate outside her glass storefront, smoking, fighting and sometimes exposing themselves to passersby.

“It’s the most dangerous block I’ve ever been on, especially for a business,” said Ms. Tyler, who has operated stores in different parts of Harlem, where she has lived for nearly 25 years. “There’s no one that seems to care what’s going on.”

Barbara Askins, president and CEO of the 125th Street Business Improvement District, said no business owners have expressed interest in expanding the district east of Fifth Avenue. Manhattan Community Board 11, which includes the area around the Metro North station at 125th Street and Park Avenue, says it doesn’t have data on the status of area commerce.

Diane Collier, who chairs the board, said it is difficult to attract businesses to the corridor as evidenced by the number of vacant storefronts.

Decades ago when she was growing up, Ms. Collier said, there were a variety of thriving small businesses in the area. “It can be a deterrent, the situation that we have around Metro North,” she noted.

Ran-De Rogers, is a co-owner of Sisters Caribbean Cuisine, a 23-year-old restaurant at 124th Street and Park Ave. The 27 year old said that a recent study by a local small-business association, New Harlem East Merchants Association, showed that retail vacancies in the immediate area hovered around 50%. He attributed that to a combination of high rents and the negative quality-of-life issues around the 125th Street-Lexington Avenue subway station.

At his restaurant, he said, people walk in off the street to panhandle and recently a rock was thrown through the window. Mr. Rogers said he is sympathetic to the people in the neighborhood who need help, particularly those at nearby drug-treatment facilities, but he added: “There’s an appearance of an unsafe community with a lot of drug addicts on the street.”

Less than two years ago, and in response to a surge in synthetic marijuana use, the city cracked down on the blocks around the Metro North station by expanding police presence with a dedicated task force and a push to provide services to the street homeless.

With the warmer weather coming, many say, persistent problems multiply: Drug use and dealing, public intoxication, loitering, a constant homeless population, public sex and prostitution. Those activities, occurring regularly and in plain sight, hurt retail businesses and detract from new developments.

Adam Heller, president and chief executive of the Heller Organization, handles the leasing and marketing for the retail space at the Corn Exchange Building, which sits to the West of the Metro North station. Loitering outside the train station spills over to the sidewalk outside his property, he said.

“The private sector and businesses are doing all they can to create commerce and vibrancy on 125th Street,” Mr. Heller said, “but the city could certainly be doing more.”

Officials for the New York Police Department, the city’s Department of Homeless Services and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority say progress has been made in improving quality-of-life issues in the East Harlem neighborhood. Since October 2015, the NYPD has stationed a mobile unit in the area and assigned a task force to patrol the streets outside the station, particularly during commuting hours.

Captain Kathleen Walsh, commanding officer of the 25th precinct, said that drug use and dealing in the area is down. Yet, there are a number of services in the neighborhood that cater to the homeless population “and that tends to keep them in the area,” she said.

“Homelessness itself is not a crime. If they’re not committing any crime or violation, we really don’t have the right to go and say, ‘Hey, move along, you can’t stand here.’ They have rights,” Capt. Walsh said.

There are 10 homeless shelters in the immediate area and two cluster sites, apartments rented by the city for the homeless, according to Isaac McGinn, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Homeless Services. City outreach teams canvass the area daily to help bring homeless people indoors, he said.

Of the known homeless in the area, 94 people have moved into transitional or permanent housing and another 71 are continually engaged and offered services, he said. It can sometimes take a dozen to 200 contacts with a person to get them to accept shelter, Mr. McGinn added.

The Metro North station, which sits across the street from a methadone clinic, has a sheltered waiting room and a public restroom, which attracts loitering, officials said. The MTA Police Department patrols the train station, platforms, tracks and trains, but not the area.

“We always look for ways to partner with the NYPD, local elected officials and social service organizations to keep the surrounding neighborhood safe,” said Beth DeFalco, an MTA spokeswoman.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents the area, in a written statement issued through a spokeswoman, said progress has been made in addressing quality-of-life concerns. In 2013, Ms. Mark-Viverito convened a task force to improve conditions, launching a public-awareness campaign to combat drug use, increasing efforts to expand services for unsheltered populations and revitalizing public spaces, the statement said.

“This task force continues to take steps to promote safety, fairness and innovation in the area,” Ms. Mark-Viverito said in the statement.