On The Brink, Harlem Small Biz Looks For Plan B

Maybe it’s the three empty barber chairs that haven’t been used in months.

Or the rent that is due soon.

Or his daughter, whose picture stands out among the old Yankees photos decorating the shop.

Whatever it is, Tony Garcia can’t tell exactly why he hasn’t found time to paint recently. Life has been keeping him busy, he says, glancing up at an image of a midnight sky cradling the moon and stars. Most of his artwork, hanging on the worn white wall over the waiting area in his barbershop, dates back to 2009.

“I pay my bills first, before I do anything else, and lately all I’ve been able to do is pay the bills,” says the licensed barber, “Hopefully things will get a little better.”

Garcia, a father of two, has paid the bills by using clippers as tools to craft hair into fades, ceasers or afros for nearly 14 years. As owner of Tone’s Barbershop on 125th Street, he is one of East Harlem’s long-standing small businessmen who’ve managed to stay afloat amidst a swift wave of cultural and economic change. But the rising property values and the emergence of competing businesses over the last 10 years are placing his shop’s future in jeopardy.

“The radical change in Harlem is the magic word called gentrification,” said Harlem historian Andi Owens, founder of the Genesis II Museum of International Black Culture. He explains that Harlem’s makeover — from new corporate businesses to housing and charter schools — has drawn higher income residents to the neighborhood.

Census data shows that there are 433 whites living in the four-block radius surrounding Tone’s Barbershop, a 38 percent increase from 2000. The Asian population has also increased, but blacks and Hispanics are still the vast majority. However, the black population has slipped 18 percent since 2000.

Owens adds that Harlem’s tax structure has shifted and that property values have soared. In turn, native Harlemites have had to either adjust to the higher costs of living in the neighborhood or relocate.

The tug-of-war between old and new has spurred a debate on the pros and cons of Owens’ magic word. Despite cleaner streets and lower crime rates, according to NYPD stats, some are worried that Harlem’s rich cultural history could fall victim to change.

“It’s a fight on both ends of the spectrum, to change and rebuild as well as maintain and restore,” said lifelong East Harlem resident Raichelle Thompson-Pressley.

The different textures and types of hair littering the floor around Garcia’s barber chair reflect the racial change. Although the numbers aren’t drastic, he says that about 5 percent of the customers walking through the big glass door nowadays are white.

“Hair is hair to me, it’s all the same. If you have experience, you’re going to know what to do with all kinds of hair,” he said with a smile.

But the hike in property values has made holding on to his shop difficult.

“It’s a big difference, I would say it maybe doubled,” he said, comparing his monthly rent now to when he first opened up.

Though he charges a couple dollars more than he used to, the rent is still a burden. Also, the three empty barber chairs in the middle of the shop are daily reminders that he has to bring in new staff, a move that has been slowed by the missteps of previous workers and tight funds. Currently working alone, he hopes to have the other chairs occupied by the holidays.

Many small businesses around Garcia’s shop have closed after struggling financially. At the end of last summer, there were 16 empty storefronts on 125th Street between Fifth Avenue and the FDR Drive, noted in the East Harlem Commercial Corridors Assessment.

As these smaller businesses clear out, new businesses, often corporate, move in. In the past two years, over a thousand new businesses have sprouted in East Harlem alone, according to ReferenceUSA.

Frank Grecco opened Famous Famiglia at the corner of 125th Street and Lexington nearly two years ago, expanding the pizzeria chain to 124 locations worldwide.

“The toughest part was gaining the trust of the community,” he said, “But over this short period, they’ve realized that me and Famiglia we do a lot here benefitting the community.”

Though the business has thrived, some still see the growth of larger businesses in Harlem as a negative.

“The only thing they want to survive are chain stores and discount crap, and they try to squeeze every little business into oblivion,” said Evan Blum, owner of Demolition Depot, located a few doors down from Tone’s Barbershop.

For Garcia, the growth of new competing businesses has left him battling for customers.

“Before I got here, there were like two or three other barbershops around me, now it’s maybe like 10. So people have more options,” he said, “If they see I’m busy they just go somewhere else.”

But for his faithful customers, like Gregory Perkins, Garcia’s skill set and consistency keep him as their first choice.

“There’s a barber right across from where I live, on 110th Street, but I still make the trip up because it’s worth it,” he said.

Despite holding court through the neighborhood’s changing face, Garcia doesn’t see his business standing five years from now if the economic struggle stays the same. He’s currently taking truck-driving classes, hinting at a new career.

“I know I can’t keep doing what I’ve been doing, so I’m trying to look at other options,” he said, “I need a backup plan.”

Copyright © 2012, WPIX-TV – Original post can be found here.

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