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How the Pandemic Could Expel Black Culture from Harlem

“When the nation bleeds, Harlem hemorrhages.”
-Tren’ness Woods-Black

In Manhattan, lies what many have come to know as the heart of Black culture in New York City (NYC). Harlem has been a sanctuary for Black expression for about a century but it was not always so. Up until the 1900s, the majority of Harlem’s population was white. Then, during the Great Migration, thousands of Black people who fled the Jim Crow South settled in Harlem. Although these new Black Harlemites laid the foundation for Black excellence in Harlem, they also endured brutal successive struggles that posed continuous threats to them.


First, the Great Depression ravaged the 30s bringing with it the segregationist redlining policy that relegated many Black Harlemites to low-quality subsidized housing projects. Soon after, this low standard of living sparked several riots in the 40s, Harlem rent strikes in the 50s through 60s, incredibly destructive race riots in the 60s, terminal poverty throughout the 70s and 80s then rapid gentrification of Harlem from the 90s till date.


Now, this new decade, the 2020s, brought the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and it has become yet another fatal threat to Black Harlem.


Back in April, data analysts revealed that not only was COVID-19 twice as deadly for Black people than whites in NYC, the pandemic was also killing their businesses at the same rate. Shortly after, huge press organizations like the New York Times (NYT), CNN and The Guardian, took to the streets to tell the pandemic stories of Black Harlem business owners. However, what they have failed to mention is what this means for the community.


Central Harlem is now less than 40% Black (down from their 98% share of the population in 1950) and Black-owned businesses in Harlem have been struggling to stay open for decades. In fact, according to the local economic development group, Harlem Park to Park, its small Black-owned business membership in Harlem has dropped from 80% in 2011 to 65% in early 2020. So, Black Harlem was already struggling before the pandemic really hit in March. If the virus continues to take Black-owned businesses and Black lives at this accelerated rate, Harlem may soon return to its white origins and all the decades of Black culture will likely be wiped out. 


The restaurant industry was hit exceptionally hard by the lockdown that started in March because many restaurants thrived on indoor dining and once the lockdown started in NYC, restaurants were limited to pick up, delivery, and outdoor seating. The Cove Lounge in Harlem is one of these restaurants. Before NYC restaurants opened for indoor dining on September 30, the owner of the Cove Lounge, Alyah Horsford-Sidberry, told CNN Business that without the revenue from indoor dining, they cannot pay rent. “If [Gov. Andrew Cuomo] doesn't allow us to have some kind of indoor seating, that basically puts us out of business,” she said.


Alvin Lee Smalls, the owner of Lee Lee's Baked Goods, told CNN Business a similar story. Smalls struggled to pay rent because most of his pre-pandemic profits came from walk-in customers but after being forced to use delivery apps, like Grubhub, during lockdown, their fees guzzled his profits.


Chef Cisse Elhadji is another Black business owner who faced challenges relying on delivery platforms like Grubhub and Uber Eats which are notorious for their steep fees. Elhadji owns the Ponty Bistro in Harlem, and in an interview with me, he revealed that although the increased take-out and delivery sales sustained them throughout the indoor-dining ban, using these delivery apps significantly reduced the restaurant’s profit margins.


Nevertheless, Elhadji stays optimistic, believing that the pandemic is basically another hurdle in the series he’s had to face as an African immigrant working to be a successful Black chef and entrepreneur. From speaking English as a second-language to financing his business, he believes life struggles taught him lessons that have helped Ponty Bistro survive.


“When we first set out, we had to scrimp and save and work harder than most… During this pandemic, we have used that same grit to help us to maneuver any hurdles. We face adversity often… As people who can deal with that and still operate a business, it has been one of the reasons we were able to get through adversity throughout the pandemic,” he said.


Al Hassell, owner of the Row Harlem, had a similar reason for his success. Once they reopened in the summer, the restaurant saw a 30% increase in revenue from the summer of 2019. In an interview with The Guardian, Hassell attributed the restaurant’s success to that “old-fashioned Harlem hustle” since Harlemites are “used to surviving when hard times come along.”


However, there are of course some of these Black Harlem businesses—like Harlem Skin, Laser Clinic, and Junie Bee Nails—who just couldn’t stay open, likely because of the in-person contact their businesses require.


In a nutshell, many Black business owners are worried about Harlem. Melba Wilson—the owner of a 16-year-old restaurant in Harlem called Melba’s, —told CNN Business that “everybody's worried about the history of these businesses, this community.” And honestly, we all should be.


Tren’ness Woods-Black, owner of Sylvia’s, in an interview with Reuters also expressed her fears about the disproportionate effect the pandemic has had on her community because according to her “when the nation bleeds, Harlem hemorrhages.”


Although legacy brand restaurants like Sylvia’s will probably survive, it does not make it any less of a struggle for them to keep their lights on. The soul food restaurant has been a Harlem landmark for 58 years with Presidents, politicians, and celebrities using the location to connect with the Black community through not-so-subtle photo ops. This strong base in the community did not keep their revenues from being slashed when indoor-dining stopped.


In the struggle to turn a profit, many businesses made a complete shift from physical sales to solely e-commerce. With the natural increase of online spending across the country once lockdown started, they were able to survive. Egunsi Foods, founded in 2014 by a Nigerian immigrant, Yemisi Awosan, initially catered West African food, but pivoted to exclusively online sales of packaged foods during lockdown. Awosan had been running the business out of Harlem until a few months ago when it moved to the Bronx.


Consequently, they turned to focus on sales of their packaged foods to third-party direct-to-consumer (DTC) retailers like Whole Foods, Amazon and Fresh Direct. During the pandemic, these companies saw increased demand from consumers so Egunsi Foods was able to stay afloat. These growing DTC sales were the main reason, Egunsi Foods decided to focus on their online sector and make strategic changes like revamping their website.


Some were able to compensate for their loss of revenue with small business loans from the federal government like the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loans. In the first round of funding, 95% of Black-owned businesses had practically zero chance of receiving a PPP loan because to qualify, businesses needed to have a relationship with a commercial bank. However, as a result of the longstanding battle between Black people and their credit in the systemically racist financial industry, many Black-owned businesses don’t have such a relationship.


Though, in the second round of loan distribution, community banks—which are common money-lenders in Black communities—were included so some Black businesses in Harlem like 67 Orange Street, Harlem Hookah, the Ponty Bistro, and Lee Lee’s Baked Goods were able to get loans.


Although the reporting was generally fair, factual, and sympathetic, one major flaw I found in the press coverage of this group was the lack of reporting specifically focused on the African businesses in Harlem. The mainstream press organizations mainly ignored these African immigrants leaving the reporting to community news sites like Africa in Harlem and Africa is a Country. However, after digging deep, I found a 1-minute BBC video documentary on their story and that was it from huge press organizations. This is not enough.


Now, although the press utilized their power to enlighten the people with their fair reporting of these stories, many reporters merely summed up their stories without answering the “So What?” question. Why exactly should people be actively worried about these businesses struggling?


Here’s why. For the better part of the past century, Harlem has been the center stage for Black excellence mainly because of its once huge Black population. But, over time, the social turmoil, decaying housing projects, and gentrified neighborhoods have run a lot of Black people out of Harlem.


Naturally, the Black-owned businesses in Harlem are essential to sustaining the heart of Black Harlem and if their businesses do not survive this pandemic, this creates even more space for white businesses to take over with their higher capital and ever-expanding white consumer populations. If this trend continues, the gradual erosion of Black-owned businesses and the Black population would take with it the decades of Black history and culture that is embedded in the roots of Harlem.


So yes, everyone should be worried because this is not just about saving Black businesses, it is about preserving Black culture.