Swank vs. Street Smart in Harlem

Hans Modeste, a street vendor in Harlem, said that new residents don't care about how different Harlem is now. "They will never know the Harlem that I know."
Hans Modeste, a street vendor in Harlem, said that new residents don't care about how different Harlem is now. "They will never know the Harlem that I know."

— He calls himself Hans.  An artist and businessman, Hans Modeste, 60, sells jewelry, music, and replicas of ornaments from ancient Egypt on the corner of West 126th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem.

“I work a lot with my hands,” Modeste said, “so I call myself Hans.”  Modeste sits down next to a table that displays his merchandise.  With calloused fingers,  he picks up his latest art project, a paper mache alligator.

On his table are several miniature pyramids and tiny busts of Queen Nefertiti.  Surrounded by vinyl records and pictures of Bob Marley, Modeste says he’s lived in Harlem for most of his life, though he is originally from Grenada. Fifteen years ago, he left the neighborhood and moved to the Bronx.  “Now the rent’s too high,” said Modeste.  He says he cannot afford to move back.


126th & Lenox Before & After

Lenox Ave Panorama

Once a non-commercial haven for cheap apartments and street vendors like Modeste, Harlem is now host to big box retail chains, luxury apartment buildings, and dozens of upscale restaurants similar to those found in downtown Manhattan.  Modeste’s business seems worlds apart from what’s sold just up the street in stores like Staples, Dunkin’ Donuts, Marshalls and a CVS.  Nearby are two new posh restaurants.  One is Red Rooster, where President Obama ate last year. The other is Chez Lucienne, with Hors D’Oeuvres and $14 Salmon burgers on the menu.  Four blocks away is The Lenox, a new luxury apartment building with some units going for over $1 million.

Average household income in the neighborhood also reflects the shift in tastes.  The median income for a central Harlem household in 1989 was, in 2009 dollars, $24,000.  In 2009, it was $45,000.

Many people welcome this new Harlem.  Anahi Angelone, the owner of the Corner Social, a new bar and restaurant on the same corner Modeste sells his art, is one of them.

“I fell madly in love with the neighborhood,” said Angelone, 31, who moved here two years ago.

But she noticed there weren’t many places she could go to hang out.  “I felt like I had to go on a train and hop down town if I want to enjoy myself,” said Angelone, who lives half a block away from her new saloon.  “So I felt that I wanted to open a bar with good food where people can meet their friends for drinks or meet new friends.”

So far, she says, the idea seems to be working. On a recent Tuesday night, men in neckties and blazers, and women in three-inch heels sat at polished wooden tables.  Paintings of old Harlem decorated the walls in the back.  The price of a cocktail: $12.  For a beer, it’s $7 to $12.

“I like the crowd,” said first-time customer April McCoy, 39, who works at J.P. Morgan Chase. “The conversation seems to be flowing.  There’s no animosity.”

“It’s a much needed place,” said Michele Ivey, 43, who works in marketing.

“The ones who have the money go there.”
– Hans Modeste,
Street Vendor

But some longtime Harlem residents like Modeste aren’t so enthusiastic about the neighborhood’s newest establishment or its polished wooden seats and $12 cocktails.  They aren’t too happy about how the neighborhood has changed either.  Rising rents, and the loss of small, community friendly shops leave people like Modeste displaced.  They are unable to participate in Harlem’s contemporary grandeur—but they don’t want to let go of their old ways either.

“I won’t take part in the social amenities,” Modeste said.  He refuses to eat at the Corner Social.  “The ones who have the money to go there.”

Tony Muñoz, who has lived in east Harlem since the 1980s, also does not like a lot about his neighborhood’s new vibe. “Now you see dogs running around Marcus Garvey Park,” Muñoz, 53, said.

Fans of  Harlem’s more upscale spots aren’t oblivious to the changes, however.  “Half of the people here are not from here,” said Michael Harrison, 42, a writer and a longtime Harlem resident.  He looks around at the clientele at the Corner Social.  “In my opinion it’s pushing out a lot of people that grew up here.”

Those that came of age in Harlem might remember that the Corner Social on Lenox Avenue used to be a scented oil shop called Scents of Nature.

A little over a decade ago ‘mom and pop’ stores dotted the blocks around 125th Street.  Running from east to west, 125th Street is considered the heart of Harlem.  It’s home to the Apollo and the Victoria Theater, and the Studio Museum in Harlem.

“There was the old Baby Grand Bar and lounge that should have been a landmark,” said Monique Ndigo Washington, a Harlem community activist and founder of Taking Back Our City, a grassroots organization.  “We had Martin Paint Shop.  The people who worked there were from the community.”

Residents fear this legacy will be lost as the neighborhood shifts, explains Washington.

“When you dictate to a community what they should have in their neighborhood, how it should be brought in, it’s almost as if you are erasing their heritage and it makes them nervous,” Washington said.  “There was a time when I couldn’t walk down 125th Street. I felt a loss. There was a spirit that was gone.”

New places like the Corner Social give the newcomers a chance to form their own heritage, their own traditions and lifestyle.   All of this is done to promote consumerism, Washington believes.  The result is higher rent and new luxury condominiums, starting at $500,000.

“You are going to price people out.  Vendors are not going to stay,” Washington said.

Modeste is a case in point.  He’s fully aware he’s been priced out.  He sees the changes.  He lives it everyday. “Now you see people walking dogs.  The homosexuals,” said Modeste. “You didn’t see that when I was growing up.”

But for now, he can’t ever imagine his life without Harlem. Everyday he still travels to his old stomping grounds to set up shop on the sidewalk.

Modeste puts down the paper mache alligator when a woman stops to look at his table.  No sale.  He hasn’t sold anything yet today.

“Harlem is home,” said Modeste, shrugging his shoulders.









Basketball City Warms Up to Change the Game

Basketball City still needs a paint job before opening. When the hoops come down, the facility could change the way basketball is played in the Lower East Side.

— Beautiful Saturday afternoons draw Lower East Side ballers to Hester Street Playground. This is where some of the neighborhood’s best basketball players bring their Nike sneakers—and their game faces. All three courts were full on a recent Saturday, with two teams of five players on each court. The sun beamed down on the players, who battled for loose balls, rebounds, and ultimately, for a victory. Above the courts along the sidewalk, residents watched and gave their criticisms of every misstep.


The Neighborhood’s Courts Up Close

Though the 80-degree weather was perfect for hoops, the players had to overcome the less than ideal court conditions. Cracks ran through the concrete and across the withered-away half-court line, causing the ball to bounce in unwanted directions like a football. The hoops were naked with no nets. And there were barely any distinguishable boundary lines; a feud broke out after a player stepped out-of-bounds during an acrobatic lay-up, but no one was sure where the boundary lines actually were to decide whether he stepped out of bounds or not.

“Maybe you should paint the lines,” said the player whose move was under question.

This is New York street basketball. It has its own rules, its own quirks and its own traditions—and it’s the way the game has been played on these streets for decades. Here in the Lower East Side, basketball stars learned how to shoot and dribble at the Hester Street Playground and built toughness while fighting for rebounds at the Lillian M. Wald Playground.

But basketball on the Lower East Side could change this summer. A new $12.5 million basketball haven, situated between the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges, is set to open after five years of community negotiations. Once a gas depot for city vehicles, the facility, called Basketball City, will feature seven pristine hardwood courts, all of which will be lit by bright overhead LED lights. Each court has two NBA-quality Spaulding hoops with perfect nets. The newly installed air conditioning system will keep players cool during the summer, and a second-floor bar area will refresh players while giving them views of the East River. This is not a venue for streetball. The courts are level, the hoops are all at regulation size, and there are no game-altering craters in the court.

“It’s like a Madison Square Garden in our backyard, and we have access to it.”
– Tom Parker,
Community Board Member

“It will be a great place for kids to hone their games,” said Bruce Radler, the president of Basketball City. “Playing on outdoor courts deals with a lot of variables, and they’re unusable in the winter. Basketball City will be reliable.”

It’s also much more expensive. It’s tough for local families to spend $250 for youth basketball programs that span six weeks. And the five-day summer camps for kids ages 8 to 17 will cost more than $300. Basketball City will run 13 of these sessions.

The adult recreation leagues are more costly. For a 10-week season with playoffs, a 10-member team has to come up with $2,150. Each player then has to pay nearly $100 for uniforms, lockers and other fees. Recreation leagues are attractive to big companies; Monday leagues at Basketball City’s Chelsea Piers center matched teams from the New York Post and Daily News with squads from the Food Network, Goldman Sachs and Ernest & Young.

These costs may not seem so extravagant at first, but 40 percent of the households surrounding Basketball City (three surrounding census tracts) make less than $20,000 income, according to the American Community Survey (five year estimate, 2006-2010).  There isn’t much room for a recreation team that represents the nearby Valdeck Houses when the costs are so expensive.

But Radler has discussed his intentions on helping the Lower East Side residents in need. This includes holding free summer camps, sponsoring sponsorships and running clinics.

“Any time you have kids in an organized activity, not on the street,” Radler said. “They’re better off they’re better served, they learn life skills, being part of a team. That’s why we think the organized activity is so much more important than just free play.”

Though Basketball City is a pricey luxury, Radler is working with the community to give them services, according to Tom Parker, a Community Board 3 member. Parker worked with Radler to offer $25 basketball clinics to community children ages 7-16 on Sundays. For at least nine hours a day, the courts are open for local schools, not-for-profit organizations, and other local groups.

“It’s a multi-million dollar facility,” Parker said. “It’s like a Madison Square Garden in our backyard, and we have access to it.”

But Victor Papa, president of Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, a Lower East Side advocacy group, views Radler’s Samaritan side differently. It took too long to get some programs that benefited the Lower East Side, Papa argues, adding that he believes Radler should be more willing to help.

“Radler has made arrangements with schools with groups would use the facility,” Papa said. “But no effort was made to secure free time for our individual kids who are not part of institutions. Kids who need it most are the kids not attached. They’re aimless and the most likely to get in trouble.”

Many of these kids are also unaware of Basketball City’s eventual presence in the neighborhood. Basketball players at Henry M. Jackson Playground on Henry Street were baffled when asked about the new seven-court facility not too far from the playground. They had never heard of Basketball City. During an audit and report of city playgrounds, Comptroller John Liu cited the Henry M. Jackson Playground for having “tripping hazards or cracked safety surfaces.” These are all problems Basketball City will never have.

“I know a lot of people will probably love it,” one Jackson Playground player said. “But it sounds expensive. I’ll probably stick to my slanted hoops and cracked concrete.”

Greenpoint Businesses Adjust to Younger Crowd

Eva Wieczorek, the owner of the hair salon in Greenpoint, Brooklyn bearing her name, serves her customer for 40 years. "It's a big honor to have customers like that. I must have done something good". Photo by Natalia V. Osipova
Eva Wieczorek, the owner of the hair salon bearing her name, serves her customer for 40 years. "It's a big honor to have customers like that. I must have done something good"

— “I miss my old customers,” says Eva Wieczorek, the owner of a well-groomed hair salon bearing her name on Nassau Avenue in Greenpoint. Since 1970, when she started her business, the regular customers were her compatriots, working-class Polish immigrants. But in the last decade, most of them left the neighborhood that didn’t fit their budget anymore.


Play the Change Game

Hear From Merchants

From 2000 to 2010 in Greenpoint, the population of 30-year-olds, the largest age group in the neighborhood doubled, Census comparison show. And as they moved in, they brought new tastes and consumer habits to the formerly conservative, Polish neighborhood.

Over the same period of time, the population of Polish-born immigrants in New York declined from 61,546 to 55,581, the Census bureau reports.

Vintage boutiques with names like Fox&Fawn and Kill Devil Hill, hip bars and cafes such as Papasitos and Troost have supplanted the neighborhood’s mom-and-pop shops and old-fashioned pizzerias that Wieczorek and her customers had come to love.

The businesses that have remained have had to adjust to the new, younger residents. Some of them have done it successfully and found their own ways to prosper.

Eva’s salon, for example, now orders more extravagant hair dyes like purple and green.

That’s what “yuppies” often ask for, says Wieczorek, 62.  New residents also increased demand for services that Wieczorek’s former customers likely never requested, services like hole-head bleaching for men and straight and sleek hairdos for women.

Wieczorek, however, smartly made changes.  manages the salon with her son Daniel, 34. She realized she could no longer handle demands for the newly popular services so she began recruiting people with the proper skills.  She haired several stylists the same age as the new clientele.

Older customers still opt for perms and wavy styles, but Wieczorek says the salon doesn’t do them as often as it did in the past.

“We are getting modern,” says Wieczorek.

“When you think of somebody working manually, ‘skinny’would not be a word to describe what people typically would wear.”- Ed Veneziano,
Clothing Store Owner

While she misses her old client base, she confesses, the change has been good for business. In the past two years, she has seen demand for beauty services grow by 20 percent, and people who live in the area now have more money to spend. “We love them,” she says.

Another family business a couple of blocks away, Greenpoint’s Toy Center on Manhattan Avenue, also welcomed the change in neighborhood demographics. When owners Herman and Nancy Hernandez took over the shop eight years ago, the local community was predominantly Polish. But Hernandez now says more non-Polish young families seem to moving into the area. “They are very faithful customers to the store,” he says.

Hernandez, 48, a former policeman, says traditional toys like Lego and Barbie dolls still sell well, but in the past five years different types of toys have risen in popularity. Durable wooden toys, as well as ones made of eco-friendly recyclable plastic, fly off the shelves.

“The young hipster families are looking for more earth-friendly type of toys,” he says.

Hernandez says young customers pay more attention to design now, and look for exercise toys, something to ride or to play with outdoors. Electronic and innovative toys such as micro robotic bugs and spiders or “beyblades”, metal toy combat sets, are also among top sellers now. “I get more of this stuff now,” says Hernandez.

In the donut and pastry shop Peter Pan across the street, the owner Donna Siafakas says she also has witnessed her clientele change dramatically from about two years ago. Long lines of young customers patiently waiting to be served is something Siafakas didn’t expect to see 10 years ago.

“Even myself, if I see a place with a crowd I would keep going. But these people come in and wait patiently in line, even in cold. And it’s amazing to me,” says Siafakas, 55, who has run the bakery with her husband Christos for the past 20 years. She says, if previous customers saw 10-15 people in line, “in a couple of minutes, they would be out.”

At Peter Pan, which opened in 1950, business is blossoming thanks to Greenpoint demographics’ change.

Siafakas says a few years ago she installed a coffee machine to offer espresso and cappuccino. “Before then we just had plain American coffee,” she says. Traditional Polish customers weren’t big espresso drinkers.

Jelly donut sales are another indicator of the changing tastes of  Peter Pan’s customers. “Polish people were big fans of a jelly donut, because they made what they called punchki which is a Polish donut with jam inside,” says Siafakas. Once a best seller, jelly donut now is the least popular item in the menu.

To fit new customer tastes, the bakery added a red velvet donut. “About a year or one and a half ago, we began to think about what they would like. And red velvet was very hot at that time,” says Siafakas.  The bakery substituted traditional red velvet cake’s crèam cheese frosting with glaze. She says, it’s better to eat them on the go this way, just as young customers prefer.

The neighborhood’s young hipsters and artists, Siafakas points out, seem to like the new offerings, but also appear to appreciate what the store has always been known for: its old-fashioned donuts.

For 20 years the bakery has kept low prices: for two dollars customers get a donut with coffee.

“It’s something that we had before that appeals to them. I think, it’s nostalgia of the place,” says Siafakas.

Before her family took over the bakery in 1993, it had been in Greenpoint for 42 years already.

The family did not change the recipes or the interior. The round bar stools remained – and they still do. Siafakas, who was born in Greenpoint, says, her mother always took her there to treat her to donuts after going to the movie theater that was nearby.  “I used to twirl around, and my mom always tried to stop me. Children still do, and I don’t stop them, because I think it’s fun.”

Inside the Greenpoint’s retail old-timer across the street, Cato’s Army and Navy, hardly anything has changed in the past decade either, or so it seems. The shop started as a men’s clothing shop 37 years ago and catered mostly to blue-collar workers, which were the main settlers in the neighborhood. Now business is shifting from practicality toward fashion. That’s what new Greenpoint residents crave.

The shop sells the same items, but in smaller sizes and brighter colors. The owner Ed Veneziano, 57, says, 10 years ago he wouldn’t even order size 28 for male pants.

“It would be too small for our traditional customers,” says Veneziano.  “When you think of somebody working manually, “skinny” would not be a word to describe what people typically would wear,” he says. “Greenpoint has been a blue-collar neighborhood forever,” says Veneziano. His traditional customers would have looked for clothes comfortable to work in.

Now the offerings are more stylish and appeal to women too. Veneziano said, he recently started selling female Western and military clothes.

“The challenge of local businesses was to figure new local residents’ needs.  And for some business it has not been successful. There are a lot of empty storefronts on Manhattan Avenue,” says Veneziano.

He refers to of Valdiano’s pizzeria across the street. Its closed door now carries the announcement: “Thank you for years of support.” The pizzeria, which had been there for decades, went out of business at the end of March.

Veneziano says, fortunately, his shop’s usual assortment became fashionable outside the blue-collar workers’ world.  But his survival, he says, depends ultimately on the fleeting preferences of consumers.  He just got lucky.

“It’s like a lottery ticket,” says Veneziano.

PNG icons in multimedia courtesy of Julia Soderberg, Olivier Guin and The Noun Project