News | West Harlem

Along a now-thriving Harlem boulevard, small businesses unite

More development in West Harlem means more customers, but for small businesses along Frederick Douglass Boulevard it also means more allies.

Businesses along Frederick Douglass between 110th and 124th streets recently joined together to form the Frederick Douglass Boulevard Alliance, a partnership promoting the street as a restaurant row and a gateway to Harlem.

The boulevard has become a trendier spot for restaurants and small businesses for the past few years, so the FDBA’s first project was to create a color-coded map as a guide to the avenue’s many shops and storefronts.

“The map, that’s really significant because that not only says, ‘Come here,’ but tells people where to go,” said Seven Brown, owner of Harlem Skin Clinic, located between 114th and 115th streets. Brown also serves on the leadership team of the FDBA.

Attracting customers who don’t live in the area to uptown Manhattan is one of the biggest challenges Harlem shopkeepers face.

Brown said her salon business could not have been successful in Harlem 10 years ago. “Prior to this, most people didn’t come past 96th Street,” she said. “It was gradual, but now the community is ready to support it.”

“The client base in Harlem wasn’t able to support that kind of business at the time. People looked at these types of services as luxury items,” she said.

“There’s so many new businesses opening as well as a new condo building opening, so there’s just a lot more vibrancy,” Susannah Koteen, who co-owns the restaurant Lido at 117th Street and serves on the FDBA leadership team.

FDBA co-president Lia Sanfilippo, who also co-owns the restaurant 5 and Diamond between 112th and 113th streets, said she sees the alliance as one that can serve both businesses and residents.

“It’s an avenue for all of the different types of businesses to get together and make sure that Harlem continues to thrive because,” Sanfilippo said. “The businesses on Frederick Douglass Boulevard are just people that love the community.”

Sanfilippo said she hopes the alliance will promote Frederick Douglass Boulevard not only to locals but also to the entire city “to let them know what is happening above 110th Street.”

But more opportunities for businesses also mean a greater need for the business owners to band together.

“Even though times have changed, we’re in economic crisis … and it provides support for merchants,” Brown said. “Together, you have more voice than by yourself.”

Koteen said, “It feels like a real community. People are really excited about the amenities that are coming to their neighborhood.”

Bringing more foot traffic uptown will help keep businesses afloat, but the added attention will also require the alliance to keep up the appearance of the street, according to Sanfilippo.

Beautification is one of the alliance’s main goals. As a visually appealing way to prevent littering, the FDBA is rolling out new garbage cans with labels promoting the sponsoring businesses.

The FDBA has partnered with the Harlem Community Development Corporation, a state-subsidized organization that focuses its efforts above 96th Street, to create the map.

“We’re in the position to provide them with the tools necessary to succeed,” HCDC president Curtis Archer said. “It’s always encouraging.”

Archer said he gives credit to the small business owners for making the alliance a success, but the HCDC will continue to provide technical and logistical support to the merchants based on their needs.

“We can certainly propose or come up with an idea or a strategy, but the business owners have to take ownership of the initiative,” he said.

Working with partner organizations, such as the Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center, Sanfilippo said that the FDBA hopes to have a street fair in the spring and also to invest in a street cleaning service.

“We chose the word very carefully—‘alliance’—because that’s what we do,” Brown said. “We band together to make sure this works for everyone to keep the community going and keep the businesses open.”

gina.lee@columbiaspectator.com

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