Neighborhood bodega fights to stay open in Washington Heights

CHRISTINA KELSO     December 4, 2018      Columbia journalism school

On Halloween morning, Mohammed Al Saidi stood quietly smoking a cigarette in front of the locked door of his family’s Washington Heights bodega.

The 29-year-old Yemeni immigrant has spent almost every day of the past five years behind the counter of A & F Grocery, a barebones shop run by his father and uncle for three decades. But not today.

The store, its regulars, and the walk to and from his nearby apartment are all he has seen of America so far, he said. And a paper eviction order that was taped to the glass behind him on Oct. 25 isn’t going to make him leave.

Around him is a landscape in flux. The energetic Dominican neighborhood, stretching from 150th to 190th streets between Harlem and the Hudson, has long been one of the last holdouts for affordable rents in Manhattan. It’s a place where Spanish is as common as English, and where people newly arrived to the United States commonly circumvent the language barriers of employment through small-scale entrepreneurship. Every day, crowds of street vendors sell shoes, clothes, books and snacks outside of rows of small family storefronts with sun-faded signs.

But that identity is fading fast.

An August analysis by the real estate company StreetEasy found Washington Heights to have one of the fastest rising average rents in New York City, with an increase of 39 percent from 2010 to 2018.  

In February, Manhattan Times described long-time residents and business owners being priced out of the neighborhood in an article entitled “The Disappearing Dominicans.” In June, a New York Post article called Washington Heights “the new Williamsburg.”

And what’s clear on paper is clearer in the streets.

Over the past six years within one block of Al Saidi’s shop, a small florist became a GNC vitamins, a local pizzeria became a Subway, and a small beauty supply shop became a Boost Mobile.

Outside A & F Grocery, unable to access his rows of unsold chips, drinks and colored glass pipes, Al Saidi spent the morning nodding to familiar faces on the street determined to not be next. Every so often, someone would stop and tug unsuccessfully on the shop door and he would have to tell them that they’d closed – he hopes – temporarily.

“Old guys from the neighborhood, they say, ‘Mohammed, I’ve come to this store since I was a child,’” he said. “They’re shocked when they see it’s closed.”

Several hours a day for nineteen days, he planted himself in the same spot on the sidewalk, often sitting in a forest-green fold-up chair.

“I stay here all the time,” he said. He was waiting for the landlord Robert Leshno to come by on his regular rounds to check the building. “I want him to know I’m still here.”

Jerry Coral, who ran the adjacent Coral Diner for decades, was not there. At the same time Al Saidi’s family was evicted from their business, Coral shuttered his.

Following a dispute with Leshno over building conditions, he blanketed its windowed walls with black plastic sheeting and hung a small sign in the door reading, “Coral Diner will not be in business until the landlord/management company make the space we rent suitable to operate again!! We love you all but they are pushing us out.”  

A few days later, the sign was gone.

On Nov. 6, Al Saidi arrived at the front of the store around 5 p.m. It was already dark. Unfazed by a misting rain, he marched up and down the sidewalk in the same blue scrub-like pants and tan wool coat he wears almost every day, stopping everyone in sight to sign a petition in a green paper folder asking them to “side” with the shop in its dispute with the landlord. He has hired a lawyer and would keep these signatures for court, he said.

After a short time of walking and conversing with former and would-be customers, he broke into a defiant smile.

“I’ve been out here for five minutes and I have all these signatures!” he said.

At 10 p.m. that night, he was still there.

The petition was typed by longtime customer and friend of the family, Robert Greene, 58. After the eviction, Greene stepped in to help Al Saidi, whose English is limited.

“He’s the same age as my son,” Greene said, holding a clipboard of handwritten notes recording what he believes are illegal and unethical actions by Leshno to push the family out.

“This is a ma and pa store,” he said.

Greene was such a regular customer that, in moments he was short on cash, the family would allow him to take items on a handshake promise to pay for them later.

“Where else can you go at two in the morning and get diapers without any money? If I didn’t have the money to buy milk, I couldn’t just go to a chain store and buy it.”

But a week later, the forest green chair had disappeared and Al Saidi’s spirits dropped. He had expected to have reopened and the financial toll on his family was weighing on him.

“There are people in Yemen waiting,” he said. He usually sends $1,000 to $2,000 home to his mother and father.

He no longer sits in front of the door every day, but instead comes by when he suspects his landlord might be there.

Leshno says he never wanted to be a landlord. His building contains eight storefronts from 3801-3807 Broadway under the name Dynamic Broadway Corp., which was previously managed by his father and uncle. After their recent deaths within months of one another, Leshno inherited the responsibility. He’s only a 15 percent owner, but acts as manager because he lives closest to the site, he said.

Leshno grew up in Washington Heights, where his family has lived for more than 60 years. They purchased the building in the 1970s to protect the lease of the family furniture store within it, not to become landlords, he said.

“We don’t like to throw tenants out,” he said. “We care very much about them.”

On a Nov. 13, as Leshno walked business to business checking in on tenants, Al Saidi and Greene confronted him. Stepping out of the early evening dark and into a liquor store to talk, Al Saidi insisted that he was a poor landlord.

Pointing to ongoing construction on the second story above them, he said, “If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t be fixing the building.”

It was a statement with irony not lost on Greene and Al Saidi.

Al Saidi’s uncle, whose name is on the lease, started withholding rent a year and a half ago when a water-cooling problem in the building caused their utility bills to skyrocket.

“They did have astronomical bills,” Leshno said, “But that’s the tenant’s responsibility. They can’t withhold rent.”

Leshno says that the lease stipulates that building repairs are the responsibility of the tenant.

“Like any landlord, we’re looking to make a living,” he said. “We’re not looking to make a killing.”

In regards to Al Saidi, Leshno said, “He’s not my tenant.” The lease isn’t under his name, so I can’t speak about him”

While he is not the tenant, Al Saidi, who took his father’s place in the shop after his father returned to Yemen, and was on track to inherit the business, has a clear stake in seeing the store reopen quickly.

Al Saidi’s struggle to keep his business is just one example of a larger shift in the upper Manhattan neighborhood.

Beside the two stagnant storefronts, a flower shop bustles with life. Cutting flowers stems at a small counter behind rows of vibrant greenery, Merry Flowers owner Jesus Tiburcio expressed resigned frustration at his neighbors’ closures.

It’s nothing new, he said.

Tiburcio worked in a nearby flower shop for 20 years before the closure of that business, due to rising rents, left him jobless. Tiburcio and his wife Maria adapted to that time by starting their own business. Now they have seen their own rent rise from $4,000 to $9,000 a month in five years, and are struggling to pay.

Asked if he would renew at the end of his lease, Tiburcio said, “I have to do it. If I move, it will be worse for me.”

Doris Holloway, 74, who has lived in Washington Heights for more than 40 years, has mixed feelings about its changing character. After buying two bags of plants from Tiburcio, she described seeing more and more “fancy strollers” on the sidewalks and “real estate agents droning around.”

“Lots of people you’re not familiar with looking at their iPhones, looking up at the buildings,” she said.

It’s sad to see local businesses close, Holloway said, but admitted that additions like a two-story, upscale grocery store have also made the neighborhood more convenient. Her friends used to complain about how far uptown she lived, she said.

“Now they’re saying ‘Dory, are there any apartments available in your building?’ And when there are apartments, they’re gone within a week.”

It’s possible that the neighborhood’s popularity boom could begin to flow more feet and heavier wallets through Al Saidi’s shop. But, as it stands, he’s still waiting for the door to open.