By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — The merchant association that is using homeless people to help clean the streets of El Barrio won a $100,000 grant from the city Department of Small Business Services Wednesday to help turn the area near the Metro-North station into an "Uptown Grand Central."
Kwanza Smith, executive director of the New Harlem East Merchants Association, said the money will be used to fund the group's collaboration with the Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless. A group of 6 to 8 men will clean between Fifth and Second avenues, between 124th and 126th streets Monday through Friday.
The money will also be used to finance an already-launched effort to revive an old comfort station that dates back to 1897 at the 125th Street Metro-North stop on Park Avenue. The area was shuttered for good in the 1970s because of crime in the area.
"This area is a gateway. You have 6,500 commuters daily on the Metro-North plus people from the 4, 5, and 6 train and we are the first stop in Manhattan when coming on the airport bus," said Smith. "We want to better represent the people of East Harlem."
The group was one of six winners of the Neighborhood Challenge Grant designed to spur business improvement districts and local development corporations to create innovative ways to increase economic activity and attract more jobs and investment to their areas.
"NHEMA’s plan will not only help place New Yorkers in jobs, but will also clean up the streets, brighten up the neighborhood, and encourage commuters coming through the train station to visit the neighborhood and support the local businesses,” said Rob Walsh, Commissioner of the NYC Department of Small Business Services
Smith said the money will make a huge difference in East Harlem. Longtime residents welcomed the cleanup of the comfort station.
"That place has been dark, gloomy and inactive for so long community members were crying because they had lost all faith about the potential of this area because of the way it looks," said Smith.
The cleanup included a power washing that removed 40 years worth of grime and graffiti and provided a fresh coat of paint. An open-air Christmas concert attracted people to the site.
Now NHEMA is working with the Grand Central Partnership to get planters and other artifacts from Grand Central Terminal to beautify the area which is one of only three three tri-modal transportation hubs, with buses, subways and commuter rail, in the city along with Penn Station and Port Authority.
There will be new trash cans and there are also plans for a farmer's market.
The area has long suffered from an overwhelming amount of trash and an abundance of drug treatment programs.
Between 700 to 900 homeless people gather daily at a bus stop at Lexington Avenue and 125th Street to commute to shelters on Ward's Island. On some days, the trash bins in the area are overflowing by noon.
In spite of recent investments in housing and retail in the area, it creates an atmosphere that is not conducive to business growth, said Smith.
Other winners include Urban Upbound in Queens that will help residents of the New York City Housing Authority's Astoria Houses launch businesses, Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation in the Bronx which will work to reactivate a corridor near an elevated train line and the DUMBO Improvement District which will install "sculptural fitness stations" that will function as a free outdoor gym and fitness circuit.
In East Harlem, the homeless cleaning program will launch later this month. The temporary cleaning jobs are meant to be a stepping stone that will lead participants to other services offered by the Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless. Outreach will be conducted at the bus stop and on Ward's Island.
"It has the potential to be one of the strongest business districts in New York City," said Smith. "We just need to make it look better."