Harlem Diarist

Kathryn Wylde
Doing the Right Thing
Winter 1996

What makes last December’s killings on Harlem’s 125th Street even more tormenting is that the conflict between vendors and storekeepers, blacks and Jews, was already on its way to a peaceful resolution, in one of those unlikely New York compromises that even a novelist couldn’t have dreamed up.

In midsummer 1994, Mayor Giuliani consented to demands of 125th Street merchants and community leaders to remove hundreds of unlicensed street vendors, who clogged sidewalks and competed with legitimate businesses. But local political leaders, presciently fearing resentment and violence, were reluctant to endorse a police action to uproot the vendors, mostly African immigrants. They asked the mayor to relocate them to a suitable nearby site.

Business Commissioner Rudy Washington got the relocation assignment. After a quick search of city-owned land, he found a “temporary” site at 116th Street and Lenox Avenue. But moving the vendors from the neighborhood's business hub to a virtual wasteland nine blocks south was a tough sell. The imminent threat of eviction-along with the practiced intervention of the Reverend Al Sharpton and others-galvanized the ragtag collection of micro-entrepreneurs into a political movement. For a while, smart money was on the vendors holding their ground.

As it happened, the relocation site was across the street from the Masjid Malcolm Shabazz—the mosque of the late Malcolm X and the anchor of this corner of Harlem for more than half a century. The mostly Muslim vendors looked to the resident imam for direction. Recognizing both a moral obligation and an entrepreneurial opportunity, the imam agreed that the mosque would adopt and manage a marketplace for vendors, under contract with the city.

The city paid to blacktop the lot, erect signs, and bring utilities to the site; the vendors would pay $8 a day for a table in the open-air market. On October 17, 1994, the vendors moved, virtually without incident.

Conventional wisdom held that the market would quickly fail. But it is thriving, with more than 200 vendors doing a brisk trade seven days a week. The mosque has set up a booth to take credit cards and is working on an ATM terminal. The new market has become a stop on the route of the tour bus companies that bring hundreds of international tourists daily from midtown hotels to visit Sylvia's restaurant and other Harlem landmarks.

What accounts for this surprising success is an unlikely partnership: the clean-shaven, nattily clad imam's unlikely helpmates in launching this African-Islamic venture were the bearded, black-suited rabbis of Borough Park, Brooklyn. Their alliance came about when the imam approached then-lieutenant governor Stan Lundine for help in overcoming his community's isolation from the mainstream economy. Lundine had heard exactly this lament a few years earlier from Brooklyn's Hasidic small businessmen, and he helped them get state funding to form the Business Outreach Center (BOC), a program that connected them-and, later, other would-be entrepreneurs -with potential lenders, customers, lawyers, accountants, and consultants.

The imam admits to swallowing hard when, at Lundine’s request, the rabbis invited him to join the BOC network. But he accepted the invitation to establish the Shabazz BOC, which—with the help of BOC central in Borough Park—advised the Shabazz Vendors Market on management and advertising and is now holding twice-weekly entrepreneurial training seminars for the vendors. The BOC has already helped five vendors move into their own permanent stores on 116th Street.

Today, in a hopeful example, Harlem’s Muslims and Borough Park’s Jews are linked “on line” by technology and a shared commitment to fostering entrepreneurship and economic independence that cross ethnic and religious lines.

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