Commerce and Community

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By Errol Louis

Good in the ‘Hood: Bombay Masala
Hot on the heels of Sushi Tatsu II, a Japanese restaurant at the corner of Franklin Avenue and Dean Street, an Indian restaurant has opened a couple of blocks away. Bombay Masala is at 678 Franklin between St. Marks Ave. and Prospect Place, and they are open 7 days a week starting at noon.  It’s a little pricey, about $11 or $12 per entr‚e, but I can personally vouch for the vegetarian samosas, chicken tikka masala, chicken kurma, banana pakora and the garlic nan bread.  They deliver, and take credit cards for delivery. The phone number is 718-230-7640.
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Copeland’s R.I.P.
The funeral of a good friend should be a time for celebration rather than mourning, and so it must be with the closing of Copeland’s, the soul food emporium on West 145th Street that opened in 1958 and shuttered its doors just shy of 50 years later, at the end of July.
According to the New York Times, the restaurant’s founder and chef, 82-year-old Calvin Copeland, believes the shop is a casualty of the changing face and tastes of Harlem. Black patrons, according to Copeland, have been moving out of the neighborhood, and “the white people who took their place don’t like or don’t care for the food I cook,” he said. “The transformation snuck up on me like a tornado.”
Tornado is right. New construction is everywhere in Hamilton Heights, and the new shops indicate a new kind of customer. As Copeland’s closes, a branch of New York Sports Club and a Starbucks are slated to open a few blocks east on 145th Street.
The lessons for Harlem businesses should be clear. One lesson is that it pays to buy real estate: companies that own their space can’t be priced out of the market by rent hikes and can bank potentially tremendous upside profits from rising property values.
The second lesson is that as younger and wealthier families move uptown, entrepreneurs must be prepared to adapt to their tastes. And it’s important to keep in mind that newly arriving black yuppies, or buppies, can be just as demanding as their white neighbors – and will vote with their feet and their wallets if they don’t get what they want.
When it comes to soul food, for instance, Copeland’s stuck to a traditional menu and presentation, notably the restaurant’s famous Sunday brunch, complete with a gospel choir. It was a favorite among older Harlemites, along with the now-defunct Wilson’s Restaurant and Bakery on Amsterdam Ave. and 158th Street.
Much of the soul food trade has shifted 30 blocks south to Amy Ruth’s on 116th and Lenox, where Carl Redding – who learned the ropes as a dishwasher and baker at Wilson’s – offers a snappier menu with chicken & waffles, salmon croquettes, ice tea and sweet potato pie spiced with cinnamon. More importantly, the restaurant stays open 24 hours on weekends to accommodate the late-night party crowd.
Amy Ruth’s Redding understands his clientele and bends over backward for them. There’s a bench outside where patrons can rest while waiting on the often long lines to get in, and the menu playfully names individual dishes after local celebrities and near-celebrities. Diners who want short ribs of beef order the Hon. Keith Wright; to get the chicken and waffles, you ask for an Al Sharpton.
There’s no need to mourn the passing of Copeland’s: a profitable half-century run is something most businesses can only dream of. But the next wave of Harlem landmark institutions should realize that serving the turbulent, demanding market uptown will require getting to know the new neighbors.
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From the Mouth of Babes, Common Sense
One of the anti-development blogs recently hit a new low by publishing snarky remarks aimed at a high school kid named Sean Murphy who wrote a better-than-decent op-ed in BTHS News, Brooklyn Tech’s online student publication.
Having lost court cases, regulatory rulings, local elections and public support, it seems trying to bully and discourage a child is about all the antiproject people can do while the bulldozers hum along.
What provoked the attack on Murphy is the fact he describes the Atlantic Yards conflict the way that many people in central Brooklyn see it, which happens to conflict with the antidevelopment orthodoxy promoted by a vocal minority. Here’s a sample:
“Native New Yorkers, primarily of African-American heritage, greeted the project with open arms. Many of these individuals weathered some of the worst years New York City ever experienced, when it was not uncommon to find junkies shooting up on DeKalb as gunshots blared on adjacent Lafayette Avenue.
“On the other hand, Bruce Ratner’s plan has been vehemently opposed by the nouveau riche of the aforementioned ‘old Brooklyn’ communities, most of whom are out-of-towners. Using Ratner’s invocation of eminent domain rights in select, isolated portions of Prospect Heights as a ruse for protest, these individuals fear – unjustly, especially if the development is a success – that their property values will rapidly decrease.
“They could care less about the surplus of job opportunities for lower-income residents that Atlantic Yards will unleash; to them, the acquisition of a historic brownstone is merely a stepping stone to the eventual Village loft or Dakota apartment.”
Good stuff, Sean! If you are reading this, don’t let the attacks bother you: telling the truth well always draws squeals and squawks from those who would rather not have their actions and motives examined.
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Black Business Boom
According to a report by the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy, the number of new firms and total revenue by Black businesses grew sharply between 1997 and 2002. Comparing Black- Hispanic- and Asian-owned businesses, the report found that the number of Black-owned firms grew by 45.4% to a total of 1.2 million firms and now make up about 5% of all companies in America.
Unfortunately, these Black firms reaped less than 1% of all business revenue, proving there’s a long way to go. But it seems clear the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well. The full report is available at www.sba.gov/advo/research/demographic.html.