Originally published on NYCityLens.com.
By Amy Chyan
Yellow smiley faces and employees’ royal-blue vests, immediately bring Wal-Mart to mind. But there are no smiley faces here in Harlem where some residents and small businesses are protesting the possibility that the national retailer will set up shop on the vacant lot at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue.
In the past few years, large brand-name stores like Staples, Marshalls and Old Navy, have opened on the corner across from the vacant lot, bringing tough competition to local businesses.
Concerns about the negative impact that another big-box store, like Wal-Mart, could have on Harlem businesses, especially during hard economic times, had community leaders, residents and even a state senator speaking out. On Thursday, Oct. 6, the group rallied with signs and raised its voice in front of the vacant lot.
“They feel threatened by the giants that will squash them,” New York State Sen. Bill Perkins said of the local stores currently open for business on the block. “We are in a David and Goliath situation.”
The strip along 125th Street in Harlem is no stranger to change. The New York City Economic Development Corporation’s website states that it is focused on transforming the Harlem main street, between Broadway and 2nd Avenue, into “a world-class arts, cultural, and entertainment destination and regional business district.”
In addition, 125th Street is named a New York City Business Improvement District, with one of the many goals to “promote 125th Street as a great location for local national retailers to do business.”.
Alex Yepes, the managing director of the Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center, said the struggles and successes of local businesses vary.
“It ranges from skill sets to longevity in the neighborhood, whether they change with time or update themselves,” Yepes explained. “Even brand new businesses need to tweak and adapt. Sometimes they go in with too much ambition and sometimes not enough.”
Yepes also said that some of the big-box stores have already been operating in the neighborhood for close to 10 years. “Whatever effects it’s supposed to have, it’s already there.”
ESmith Legacy Incorporation, a real-estate development company co-founded by former NFL player Emmitt Smith, is also interested in the real estate location that Wal-Mart has set its sights on. The company has proposed building an $81 million project on the site consisting of a hotel and retail space. ESmith Legacy Inc. was not available for comment by phone.
President of Harlem Community Development Corporation, Curtis Archer, said the community is ready to assist all businesses, large or small.
“It’s a business decision,” said Archer. “If they feel like the demographic is right, they’ll bring it in.”
Small business owners in the community are concerned that competing with a corporate brand will be difficult. The small businesses, State Sen. Perkins said, contribute to the community. Comparatively, corporate stores do not focus on hyper-community issues.
“They’re family,” said Perkins of the local storeowners. “They’re part of the Harlem family during the good times and the bad. We don’t want to see them suffer.”
Along 125th Street, many storefronts are closed with their metal gates pulled down, neon signs dark and out of commission. Temporary stores, like Ricky’s, which has set up a fleeting Halloween emporium across from a row of empty storefronts, are taking advantage of seasonal sales. After Halloween, the retail space will once again be vacant.
A few stores down, NY Bedding’s, a local boutique selling linens and beddings, had their first sale of the day around three in the afternoon.
“We are obviously a community that is interested in living wages and quality products, but we don’t want to do that blindly,” said Perkins. “This is not the wild, wild west where everything goes. You need an agreement with the community.”