Rose Parmar turned around in her newsstand and pulled out a copy of El Diario stashed in a pile behind the counter. She had saved it especially for a customer, who handed her a five-dollar bill.
“Keep the change,” the customer told Parmar.
A few hours later on Wednesday morning, across 116th Street, Sher Singh opened the locks on his brand-new newsstand for the first time.
While not yet open for business, Singh’s stand is in the middle of a whirlwind of neighborhood outrage. Local residents are worried that the new newsstand, located between Broadway and Claremont Avenue, will take business away from Parmar’s stand in front of Ollie’s Noodle Shop.
Singh’s proposal to install a newsstand was rejected twice by the community board, but approved by the city anyway. Since its construction, residents have been pushing to close it down before it sells a single paper. Meanwhile, Parmar has followed its progress from across the street.
Parmar’s newsstand has operated on the corner of 116th and Broadway for 22 years. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, residents describe the stand—and Parmar herself, known to the neighborhood as Rose—as local institutions.
“She’s made herself totally enmeshed in the neighborhood. She sells Italian newspapers, Le Monde, as well as the New York Times and the Washington Post,” neighborhood resident Madeleine Tramm said. Tramm has lived on Claremont Avenue for over 40 years and has been leading the fight against the new stand.
Ed Sullivan, a former state assemblymember, lives on 116th Street across from the newsstand and wants to make sure Parmar’s business is protected. “There’s a presence on that corner all night long, which is good for community businesses. She works in that stand herself—she’s following all the rules,” he said.
Singh, who leases the newsstand on the downtown track in the 116th Street subway station, has been trying to open a second stand since 2004.
After his plan to put a stand in front of the Barnard gates was rejected by the school in 2004, he switched course and applied to open a stand above ground at 116th Street. He presented his plans twice to Community Board 9, which represents Morningside Heights and West Harlem.
According to CB9 chair Pat Jones, “In 2004, and again in 2008, Community Board 9 passed resolutions opposing another newsstand being at 116th and Claremont.”
But community boards only have the power to make advisory decisions, and the plans were sent forward to the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs and the Department of Transportation. The plans were approved.
“Now, exactly how that newsstand got approved by consumer affairs, honestly, we don’t know,” Jones said.
The Department of Transportation deferred to the Department of Consumer Affairs for comment. DCA did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
“About a month ago, all of a sudden this thing pops up like a mushroom,” Tramm said. A couple of days later, they had put notices under almost every door in the buildings along 116th and Claremont and started a petition. “We got 287 signatures in less than 48 hours,” she said.
Tramm, Sullivan, and eight other neighborhood residents took their concerns to the April 15 meeting of Community Board 9.
“As of last week, our district manager made inquiry of consumer affairs and we’ve not heard back,” CB9’s Jones said.
They have also targeted Inez Dickens, a member of City Council, and Daniel O’Donnell, an assemblymember, both of whom have written to the DOT and the DCA asking for explanation.
O’Donnell said that he has spoken with the DOT’s Manhattan borough commissioner and expects to hear from Consumer Affairs this week. “What’s unclear to me is what the review process is for approval,” he said. “What’s the purpose of having the community board take a position if the community board’s decision is ignored?”
Sullivan said that the lack of transparency has been unacceptable. “It’s not the first time a commissioner turned over a community board vote, but it should only happen in extreme situations,” he said. “We’re entitled to those oversights.”
Lynette Velasco, spokesperson for Dickens, said that she is looking into the process, but acknowledged the delicate balance between the satisfying the neighborhood and infringing on entrepreneurs.
“We still want to investigate the matter to see if anything can be done, we just don’t want displacement,” she said. “We do want to encourage small business development. … Maybe neither party would be displaced. You just don’t want to say—you can’t be there.”
While the neighborhood has been trying to bring it back down, Singh has been moving closer to opening his newsstand and says that he is mystified by local response.
“Why are they opposing? Am I doing any wrong thing? I’m selling paper and magazines,” he said.
He opened his newsstand underground in September 1978 and said he is just as much a part of the neighborhood as Parmar. “I’m in community for 30 years. They are opposing for nothing. Every department has passed. Everything has been done legally. Nothing is hidden there,” he said.
People may not know him as well because he is 79 years old and doesn’t work full-time, Singh explained, adding that his family depends on the newsstand and that a second one would simply provide local jobs.
But English professor Michael Rosenthal, who lives in the neighborhood, said that just doesn’t make sense. “There’s just no good reason on earth for having two newsstands 25 yards away. … Newspapers are newspapers. Candy is candy. It’s not as if we’re getting a better deal. I’m all for competition when it benefits the consumer,” he said.
Singh said that his impression has been all along that the neighborhood, as well as Barnard, was behind him.
“The community loves me. Eight hundred people from the community signed a petition for me,” he said, although he declined to provide the petition or names of his supporters. “In 2004, 2006, 2007 Barnard said no objection unless it blocked their gates,” he added.
Barnard released a statement Wednesday explaining that after Singh withdrew his application for a stand in front of Barnard, the school had taken no position on different locations.
“While we indicated that we did not think another newsstand was needed in the area, we did not object to the alternate location on 116th street location based on aesthetics or safety issues. Today, however, in light of community concerns with the addition and location of this new Kiosk at 116th Street between Broadway and Claremont, we can no longer give our support,” the statement said.
A DOT inspector gave Singh the keys to the stand on Wednesday, and he seemed unfazed by the opposition. “We’re going to open as soon as possible, just need to fix the racks. You cannot stop anybody in New York,” Singh said.
But Sullivan begged to differ. “This is not a country road—this is the sidewalk of New York City. You don’t have the right to run a business in New York. You need permission to do that,” he said.
Hedayat Barakati, who owns the halal food cart at Broadway and 116th, said he is very worried about the competition. The newsstand will have a fridge to keep sodas cold, he said, something he doesn’t have space for. Still, he said he’d be sticking it out on his piece of sidewalk real estate.
“I’m not going to move the cart. The cart’s been here for 17 years—I want him to move,” Barakati said.
Other newsstand owners and local residents don’t think that two can survive long on the same street anyway.
“My personal belief is with too many around, one is bound to go out of business or they all go out of business,” Tramm said.
At the newsstand at 111th and Broadway, Kabir Charania said he that is thankful for his five-block buffer from the closest competition and that he has no idea if his business would survive with another option so close.
“The business will split 50/50, I don’t know how they’ll both survive. One of them’s going to have to back out,” he said.
But Singh insisted that both sides of the street have enough unique visitors to support multiple businesses, and has no plans to back down–yet.
“If it doesn’t go well, I will close it, I will dismantle it. I take a chance,” he said.