Movin’ On Up, Movin’ On Out: A Story of Gentrification in Yonkers

All, Journalism

Central African Market on 25 Warburton Avenue in Yonkers, apart from selling African and other international food items, also sells what looks like random items from the home of a hoarder. An opened slow-cooker, still in its sun-faded box from the nineties, sits in the window display. The shelves and packed with tins, bags, packets, spices, cookies, and shea butter lotions in plastic tubs, their casing covered in a thick layer of dust. In the back to the left of the store are rolled-up sheets of African wax-print fabric, piled high on top of each other. To the right is a freezer that stores dried fish and other meats. Some of the meat looks like it has been there as long as the store has existed, and the freezer, when opened, emits a strong smell.

The owner of this store is Mr. Kwaku, a short, broad man originally from Ghana, but who currently lives in the Bronx. He wears glasses, but only ever looks over them, not through them, and he walks with jaunty, active steps. Mr. Kwaku’s store on Warburton Avenue is the only one open on the block. Surrounding it are shops that have been closed for months, the roll-down security gates covering darkened windows. According to Mr. Kwaku, soon his shop will blend in seamlessly with its surroundings. His lease is up by the end of this month, and there won’t be a chance for him to renew it. And even further on, though nobody really knows when, the entire block will be demolished to make way for a new, 197.4 million dollar project.

Downtown Yonkers is currently undergoing what they call a “revitalization”, Yonkers City Hall’s attempt to make Downtown Yonkers the new hub for the city. This revitalization has many components- it includes the unearthing and daylighting of the Saw Mill River, the demolition of old, “blighted” buildings down Main Street, and the building up of luxury apartments and ground floor retail spaces taking up the “blight”. The new shops and restaurants have really cleaned the place up, but the sharp increases in prices means that local Yonkers residents are very divided on the change.

The gentrification of urban development is, especially now, becoming a relatively common phenomenon in American cities. “Oh, it’s a big, big thing now,” says Komozi Woodard, history professor at Sarah Lawrence College and longtime activist. According to census data from 50 major cities across America, nearly 20 percent of cities with lower incomes and home values have experienced gentrification since 2000, compared to only 9 percent in 1990.

Fanon Howell, professor of urban studies at Sarah Lawrence College, lays it out simply. “Benefits of gentrification may include new businesses, investment opportunities, and greater police presence. Disadvantages include displacement, commercialization of space, and loss of community.”  

Woodard believes that gentrification serves to benefit the middle and upper-class citizens who are moving into gentrified neighborhoods. “The way that public services are being distributed is shameful. Public services should not be biased towards upper and middle class folks, but once white rich people move in, all the public services in the area get improved.”

Harlem is a good example where this development has occurred with the influx of wealthy whites. Woodard recounts a personal anecdote to illustrate this phenomenon. “There didn’t use to be an elevator for the train station in Harlem… my wife used to have to carry the baby carriage down the stairs, which obviously, isn’t very safe. But now that white people moved in, there’s an elevator in the Harlem train station.”

On top of that, Woodard is critical of the current trends in urban development of the collaboration between public and private actors, and believes the rise of the wealthy is wrongly bolstered by the government. “If you make your millions of dollars in the private industry, good for you. But if the public is giving you even more afterwards… that’s a question of right and wrong.”

But Woodard also thinks that under the current system of capitalism, displacement may be somewhat necessary to provide public services to underserved areas. “The definition of urban development is to replace low-income people with higher income people. People do need better services. So, under capitalism, you need people with higher incomes to improve the public systems.”

In Yonkers, many people are happy with the changes that are coming. Mandee Ortiz, 30, thinks the revitalization has been positive for downtown Yonkers. “It brings a different crowd, a different atmosphere. It reminds me of the feel of Central Park,” she said. Anthony Martinez, a student, agrees. “[Before,] it felt like an area you needed to be careful in. It feels calmer now.” Wilder Manturana, 20, also feels like downtown Yonkers has gotten safer. “I’m pretty glad [about the developments.] There’s so many gangs in Getty Square. It’s so annoying.”

Others are frustrated at the price hikes in the revitalized areas, both for housing and shopping.  “It’s so expensive, no one can live here,” complains Clever Gutierrez, 14. “While [the area is] better, there are other things we need, says 33 year old Kel Lewis. “For example, there could be low-income housing [in the area]… things are getting more and more unaffordable.”

In Yonkers’ case, every new development encroaches further inland, closer into Getty Square and Larkin Plaza, both hubs of activity where shops, cheap eats, and bus stops organize the lives of everyday Yonkers citizens. In the midst of this, Mr. Kwaku’s shop sits right next to an section of the newly daylighted areas of the Saw Mill River in Larkin Plaza, and its small, dingy atmosphere sits sharply in contrast to its prim and proper surroundings.

Soon, Mr. Kwaku’s entire block on the corner of Warburton Avenue will be torn down and rebuilt by developers (specifically, Rising Development and RxR Development in a merger agreement) to be made into a high-rise, luxury apartment complex. And Mr. Kwaku’s block is only one in the long line of already built luxury apartments; similar ones built by different developers are found closer to the water on 66 Main Street, 92 Main Street, and 1 Alexander Street, among many others.

Chris Jones of the Regional Planning Association feels positively about this type of, what he likes to call, “centered growth”. “Research shows that centered growth tends to be more efficient, and provides the best opportunities for low-income growth,” he states- though the Regional Planning Association serves the greater NY Metropolitan area and Westchester County, and the last time it helped developed plans for downtown Yonkers was in the 90s.

When asked if Yonkers revitalization was currently successful, Jones did not offer a solid answer. “I don’t know… I don’t want to say the daylighting was a success, or not.” But he still holds that the revival is largely positive, even with smaller businesses like Central African  Market being pushed out. “You can’t eliminate displacement… [but] you do want to improve the tax base.”

Tim Rutledge of Rising Development, one of the merger developers involved in the new project that is about to replace Mr. Kwaku’s block, also thinks that the revival will “supply much needed housing”, “supply hundreds of jobs through construction”, and will “create demand for a higher standard of living”- but in Mr. Kwaku’s case, all he is left with is an expired lease and nowhere else to go.

The latest threat to Mr. Kwaku’s shop is not the first time he has experienced this. Mr. Kwaku has been in Yonkers long enough to witness the beginnings of the development. He was there to see the buildings in Larkin Plaza torn down and turned into the Yonkers Public Library, and the Saw Mill River daylighted right by it. At that time, Mr. Kwaku’s shop was newly-opened on 106 New Main Street. After moving from Ghana to the U.S, Mr. Kwaku settled in the Bronx, but noticed that his friends in Yonkers would travel to the Bronx to go grocery shopping for food that tasted of home. “I realized there was a lot of Africans… moving up here, more and more. But there was no African shopping.”

Mr. Kwaku’s shop took off, but trouble set in quickly. The landlord of the building was itching to sell the property to developers, and he wanted his tenants out. When a shop in a neighboring building caught on fire, the landlord tried his best to evict his tenants on account of the water and smoke damage his building suffered from the fire, but Mr. Kwaku took his landlord to court and won the case; the judge’s decision was in his favor because there was no structural damage to the building. However, after barely a year, he had to relocate his store when his landlord informed him that the building had been “condemned,” for reasons still unknown to Mr. Kwaku. “[The landlord] came one day and told us there are so many violations against him, so we [could not] occupy it anymore… I suspected it was because he never repaired the smoke damage… They gave us 24 hours to move.”

From there, Mr. Kwaku has been plagued by troubles of locating, and settling in, a space in Downtown Yonkers due to shoddy landlords or obstacles from City Hall itself. After the fiasco at 106 New Main Street, Mr. Kwaku was quickly redirected by a friend to 25 Main Street. 25 Main Street had not been properly used in over 10 years, and needed a lot of work. “I had to fix the place up. I had to file that with the city, and they gave me permission to fix it up.” But soon after Mr. Kwaku had spent time and money renovating the new store with City Hall’s permission, he was notified that he could not open up his shop there after all.

“[City Hall representatives] sat down with me, and I was told to find another place, because there was a big restaurant opening across the street… They were anticipating big businesses coming over, and restaurants.” City Hall approved gentrification in Downtown Yonkers was dictating where Mr. Kwaku’s shop could, and perhaps more significantly, could not be located.

“I filed the papers. And they allowed me to fix it. I spent quite a good amount [of money] to fix the place. When they were about to give me the certificate of occupancy, it became a problem. That’s how they negotiated with me.” According to City Hall, Central African Market was simply not the right type of shop for the upscale vision they had for Main Street.

Facing this, Mr. Kwaku relocated again. Finally, Central African Market was allowed, by Yonkers City Hall, to settle at 25 Warburton Avenue, where he has been for over 10 years- the same place Central African Market is today.

In the present time, the same dilemma plays out like a recurring nightmare. Facing the end of its lease, Mr. Kwaku has tried, with great difficulty, to find a new place, and thought he had finally found one at 16 Warburton Avenue. The rent was to be $3500 a month. “I painted the whole area, cleaned it up. I ordered refrigeration. And I sought his permission, the landlord… He said yes, you can do anything you want. Basically I was doing everything according to the book.”

But like before, that offer crumbled beneath his feet. Mr. Kwaku found out that the landlord had “terminated the lease,” and unless he could exceed $8000 a month, he would no longer be able to rent out the place.

“He told me that he didn’t sign [the lease]. Even though I have the notarized form that the city gave me. Before I [renovated] anything in there, the city gave me this form that the landlord needed to notarize, and he did.”

The landlord had been bought out, even though it was technically illegal. “He got a bigger offer. So he had to break it.”

16 Warburton Avenue now boasts a shiny new storefront, a modern yellow font emblazoning the sheet glass in the window: “Purchase College Center of Community and Culture”. Opened by New York City’s CUNY Purchase, it is a fitting reminder of what is and isn’t considered community and culture in Yonkers. Central African Market stood no chance, and Mr. Kwaku, after investing money, time, and effort in 16 Warburton, was stranded. Other available storefronts in the area Mr. Kwaku inquired about were now, with the new developments, too expensive. “What will I do? I don’t know. I really don’t know.”

The issues of accessibility and price increases in gentrified and other developing urban areas is a major concern to both locals and academics alike. The commercialization of land is a major issue in Downtown Yonkers- not only for affordable housing options, but also for local business owners like Mr. Kwaku having to struggle to keep up with incrementally expensive rents. This is becoming more and more of a concern, but it is unclear what exactly should be done, or even if anything should be done about it.

“Generally there are ways to minimize displacement. It starts with an engagement process. [The process should] look at existing businesses and ask, ‘what would benefit them?’” says Jones from the RPA. But is any engagement process occurring in Yonkers at all? From Mr. Kwaku’s experience, it doesn’t seem to be. While Mr. Kwaku is understanding about his business being displaced for the further growth of the city, it is hard getting both City Hall and developers alike to help him relocate his shop. “I’m glad, a big project can make a difference. But [none of them are thinking] of the tenants whatsoever. Like this afternoon, Tim Rutledge [from Rising Development] told me [about being relocated], “That’s your problem. That’s not my problem,” says Mr. Kwaku.

Jones from the Regional Plan Association believes that there tends to be less protection for businesses as compared to affordable housing for a number of reasons. “Businesses, by their nature, have more turnover,” he explains. “Therefore, there tend to be more programs and subsidies for housing, but not as many for business owners. There tends to be a mentality that businesses don’t need as much protection as housing.”

Another factor is that of residency versus ownership. “Residents are voters, but not necessarily business owners,” says Jones. Because Mr. Kwaku lives in the Bronx, he does not have the civic duties and responsibilities of a Yonkers citizen- meaning he has even less say than a regular Yonkers citizen on decisions regarding his own store.

Mr. Kwaku is part of the Yonkers Downtown and Waterfront Business Improvement District, a nonprofit organization that bands together businesses in the area and City Hall to “[formulate, promote and implement] the economic revitalization and general welfare of the BID District and the City.” In the BID, Mr. Kwaku is considered a “Class B member”, which, according to the BID by-laws, is“… [a tenant] with written leases then in effect for commercial spaces within the BID District.” According to this, Mr. Kwaku would be able to vote for the BID’s Class B directors- 2 of them that would sit on the Board and represent their needs.

But in Mr. Kwaku’s experience, this was never the case for him. Even though he was part of the BID on paper, he never felt connected to the organization, and the BID was never helped represent him or help him search for new places to relocate. In other words, when asked if he felt that the BID had done anything to protect him, Mr. Kwaku only scoffed. “Not that I know of.”

Those who are a little more open to displacement as a form of growth and opportunity include Theresa Tilson. A Community Service Coordinator at Westhab, a non-profit organization that offers low-income housing and other services to people in Westchester county, she believes that while displacement is not ideal, it is inevitable in the greater scheme of development. “You have to learn to straddle both [sides],” she says. “You have to think, what’s the overall good for the community?”

According to Theresa, there are some businesses that are more desirable than others. “Some of them are storefronts that participate in… dubious activity. Some of them are not so willing to participate in building the community… they are isolated, and owners are only interested in doing their own thing.” And Theresa brings up one more pattern of smaller, poorer businesses- there tends to be a lot of the same thing. “To be frank, how many dollar stores do you need in the area?”

Tilson thinks the current development of downtown Yonkers is largely positive, and Westhab is currently encouraging new businesses in the area to employ their clients. Anthony Sanchez from RxR Development, agrees. “I’d assume the business owners would be happy about the redevelopments, as it would attract more customers.” While the influx of customers can improve business for many shop owners, these statements cannot apply to businesses being displaced by the same development that touts higher employment and customer rates. And it seems clear that developers have not considered these factors. When asked what would happen to existing businesses struggling to stay in the area from either rent increases or literal displacement, Sanchez could only respond that he was not the appropriate person to answer that question.

And what are the community-building requirements of businesses? Mr. Kwaku believes that his shop plays an important role in providing a space for the African community in Yonkers, and he works hard to make sure his store also is a hub for information. Posters in the window announce people looking for roommates in Yonkers and handouts announce the funerals of community members and African churches.

Mr. Kwaku’s shop also provides a service that allows Africans to send remittance money back home for cheaper rates. “[Customers] pick [these] up and know what’s going on. I know the Yonkers African community very well. They invite me to their functions, and I go, because they are my customers… I have to support them. That’s what I do.”

But, regardless of the community services and information offered, stores catered towards ethnic and racial minorities like Central African Market tend to be seen as useless blemishes by developers and politicians alike. Though, for his own sake, Mr. Kwaku tries not to see his struggles as products of racism, it can get difficult. “Sometimes, I’m tempted to believe [it]… I come to think of certain things, and I say, wait. Is it me personally, or is this a bigger thing than I know?… Is this just happening to me, or is this happening to everyone else?”

“The Africans in the diaspora… we’re just there. How many times have you seen these politicians reach out to the Africans? You don’t see that.”  

In the window of the storefront next door to Central African Market, a large navy poster board states, with a plain white font, the following:

“CITY OF YONKERS PLANNING BOARD WILL REVIEW THE PROPOSED USE/DEVELOPMENT OF THIS SITE OCT. 21, 2015 AT 5:30 PM IN CITY HALL. FOR INFO, CALL 377-6555.”

It was a meeting that where the entire Warburton block that Central African Market was located would be discussed, and Mr. Kwaku was debating whether or not to go.

“[Will] my presence will make a difference? I don’t know what to do.”

It was a good question to ask. The developers and councilmen were going to be deciding what would replace Mr. Kwaku’s shop, and it was clear that his livelihood and community would be ignored in this process. Would his presence make a difference, or would he just walk away feeling even more disheartened?

Mr. Kwaku eventually decided he would go after all. After attending his son’s parent-teacher conference in the Bronx, Mr. Kwaku rode the bus into Yonkers and walked into City Hall at 7:00 PM- just in time to hear the developers and architects from RxR Development start their presentation. Mr. Kwaku took off his cap, looked around the hall, and shook the hand of a suited man that had been there for the majority of the meeting. The man was Andrew Romano, the lawyer that represented him for free in the case against his landlord at 106 New Main Street. Mr. Kwaku called him “a good guy.”

The developers started to explain the plans of development, motioning to the large glass and brick facade of the building. There would be 442 residential units, with space for retail on the ground floor. The facade of the building would be modern but also respectful of the red brick that was common in Downtown and Waterfront buildings. Aside from luxury apartments and retail spaces, the building would contain a fully equipped gym also a private “self contained garage”, run “entirely by valet, 24/7, 365 days”, with “enough spaces for all retail customers and residents of the building”- a bit of a funny proposition, when many of the appeals before had included the elimination of parking spaces that were deemed “useless” for the community had been approved. The developers also emphasized that the new developments would bring a more “attractive demographic” to Downtown Yonkers.

The councilmen deliberated. One of them expressed concerns about the facade of the building. Did a specific side of the building have windows? He couldn’t see windows in the drawing plan. Could the developers put in windows? Otherwise, it wouldn’t look nice. The answer was yes, they could. The talk about the windows lasted a good 15 minutes.

“Be careful,” one of the councilmen quipped. “Don’t let anyone draw a mural on that wall.”

When the appeals for the project ended, Mr. Kwaku hurriedly walked up to one of the developers as he packed up to go. “Excuse me sir, excuse me. Hello, my name is Duah Kwaku.” Mr. Kwaku and the developer, Andrew Sanchez, shook hands. Mr. Kwaku rubbed his palms together. “I own a shop on 25 Warburton Avenue. The project looks great, just great. But you know, my shop is closing down. Please, sir, help me find a place to move.”

“I’m not the right person to talk to about this,” said Sanchez, not unkindly. He shook Mr. Kwaku’s hand again, and left.

Despite this failed interaction, Mr. Kwaku found the meeting to be quite helpful. “[Going to that meeting] made me understand the process a little bit more. When you are in there, you see how, you may think, “oh, [the developers] are ready. But [the councilmen] asked them a few questions, and they say no, go and do this, go and complete that. So, they too have their own processes that they go through.”

And that’s a characteristic of Yonkers in general, a place where bureaucracy reigns supreme, where plans get delayed by a year and paperwork abounds. Mr. Kwaku is all too familiar with it.

“In Yonkers, you can’t get going and do whatever… We have to file forms. We have to hire an architect. We have to do the drawings, and show everything… the cash register will be here. The stove will be here. The engine will be here. You have to show everything on drawing and on paper, and then you have to file with the city, and the city has to give you their approval. So it’s a long process.”

That process can stretch out even further if you’re seen as an impediment to development. “I’m not an enemy of progress. No. I want them to succeed just as I pray to succeed every day. And I know that when they succeed, I will too. But… they should give me a chance. I’m [a] tenant, not a squatter.”

While Mr. Kwaku has experienced false promises, he seems optimistic about this second wave of new developments. “When [development] started at the Waterfront, the BID said everything was gonna be bustling… but [business owners] didn’t see it,” he says. “Basically the rents went higher, in all our places… so maybe this is it. This is what is going to bring what we are all hoping for.”

But, according to Mr. Kwaku, none of this will matter unless developers start seeing local businesses differently. “We are the loyal ones here that have kept this place up for all this time.”

After a stressful two months, Mr. Kwaku has finally found a new place to relocate his shop. This time, it seems quite legitimate: he has already signed the lease with the new landlord, and Mr. Kwaku feels positively about him. “I was introduced to him by the man who owned the previous business at 16 Warburton, It was a furniture shop… I think [he felt] sorry for me and what I have been through.”

His new shop is close by. Just across the street from 25 Warburton, a large storefront has its security shutters painted over in a beautiful mural of trees and birds- but the inside is less than beautiful. The hired workers have just started clearing up the place to ready for construction.

Inside the building, Mr. Kwaku’s new store-to-be is currently a huge deteriorated hall, at least twice the size of his current shop. This afternoon, after his night job as nurse and running errands, Mr. Kwaku rushes to his new store to check on its progress. He is exhausted. “I work from 9 PM to 7 AM. When I get off work, I chauffeur for stuff for the shop. That’s why I’m always tired.”

It doesn’t look too different from the last time he visited. Random planks in the wooden floors are pulled up, revealing jagged holes. The hall is littered in its own random debris; planks, buckets, sawdust, and crooked metal strips lay haphazardly on the floor. “As you can see, I need to fix it up.” Mr. Kwaku motions to the ceilings, its formerly elaborate floral tiling peeling away like dead skin after a sunburn.

Mr. Kwaku walks to a shallow staircase- the basement. “This is where the refrigeration system will go”, he says, switching on a dim light. The light reveals as little as the dark did.

After months of struggling, his search has finally come to a close, yet he is still far from finished. Mr. Kwaku stands still for a second and looks around the dilapidated room.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” he says.

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