The construction of a 7-Eleven is the latest sign of change in West Harlem's Little Senegal, a neighborhood known for its high number of West African immigrants.
Construction began this month on the convenience store at 116th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. The 7-Eleven will take over the spaces occupied by Africa Kine, a traditional Senegalese restaurant, and Kennedy Fried Chicken.
Africa Kine is moving uptown to 2267 Seventh Ave between 133rd and 134th streets, further from the heart of 116th Street's Little Senegal, while a new Kennedy Fried Chicken is under construction next door to the old franchise.
According to Margaret Chabris, Director of Corporate Communications for 7-Eleven, the company expects the new store to open in the summer or early fall of 2015. It remains unclear how much money the company is spending on the lease for the new store.
"We don't make the cost of our expenditures public," Chabris said in an email to Spectator.
Though there's been new development—just last year a longtime mosque serving the community closed after 16 years—the aura of West Africa still pervades the neighborhood. Many local convenience stores advertise the ability to send money to Africa, and, on West 116th Street, French can be heard nearly as often as English.
One block from the new 7-Eleven, on West 115th Street, sits the Malian Cultural Center, a small office that services local residents from the country of Mali. But West Harlem's rapid gentrification has affected its large West African community, according to Namory Diabate, treasurer of the Malian Association, who said that some are leaving the neighborhood.
"The rent is kind of pushing people out," Diabate said. "People who went out of business here, they were West African people."
To Isabel Penaranda, CC '15 and a member of the Coalition Against Gentrification, the closing of Africa Kine to make way for a 7-Eleven is symbolic.
"A lot of people talk about gentrification as a form of ethnic cleansing," Penaranda said. "And that's a strong word, but that's what it amounts to."
As a multinational chain, it is easy for a store like 7-Eleven to exploit local communities, Penaranda said.
"It's also one of the characteristics of gentrification—you have chain stores replacing local stores," she said.
Meanwhile, local business owners and residents in the neighborhood are more split on the issue.
"There's been more businesses coming in," Faith Talley, the general manager of Harlem Tavern, a restaurant directly caddy-corner from the planned 7-Eleven, said. Talley said she doesn't think the new convenience store will have much of an effect on the neighborhood.
Still, Talley and other local shop owners noted that the community has changed—from its composition to its rent prices.
"The diversity of the neighborhood is changed," she said. "Definitely a different mixing of the races, to be sure."
Jessica Pollack, the general manager of Make My Cake, a bakery on 116th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue that has been in Harlem for 25 years, said she's witnessed a number of changes in the last five years.
"There has been huge gentrification in this community," Pollack said. "The rents in this community have skyrocketed. ... Definitely the income level has changed in this area."
In West Harlem, 116th Street is still lined with Senegalese and West African restaurants and shops. But just a few steps down the street from the 7-Eleven construction site, a large "for rent" sign hangs in front of the shuttered Mafatihoul Bichri Restaurant, indicating the changing times.
One block further east, Le Baobab is, according to its website, the first Senegalese restaurant in Harlem. Unlike Pollack and Talley, Capone Brown, who has been working at the restaurant for a year, says Little Senegal has not been affected by the gentrification of greater West Harlem.
"There ain't nothing changing in the neighborhood," Brown said. "On this side, business is good."
One block north of the 7-Eleven, on Frederick Douglass Avenue at 117th Street, is SoHA Square Market, an open air space for local vendors and stores to sell their goods.
Joseph Riley Land rents a space five days a week in SoHa Square Market to sell organic food items at his store, Riley/Land. Originally from Tennessee, Land moved to Harlem nine years ago.
"It changes literally every single day," Riley Land, who is also a freelance writer, said of West Harlem. "It's actually becoming a really diverse neighborhood. Not just white people moving into the neighborhood, but a lot of everyone moving into the neighborhood."
But the change is not all positive, according to Riley Land.
"This neighborhood has a rich cultural history, and I hate to see that going away," he said. "To get some of the nicer things, it's just gonna be something that coincides."
Some neighborhood residents might point to new stores like Riley Land's as part of the perceived problem.
"I saw someone today who was walking by and he said, 'Look what's happening to Harlem,' and he was talking to me––but I've been here awhile," he said.
Temo Chinven, who owns a fruit stand right in front of Harlem Tavern, doesn't think a 24-hour convenience store will be good for a neighborhood that is primarily home to new family restaurants.
"I don't think it's the right place for a 7-Eleven, in this neighborhood," Chinven said. However, Chinven said he doesn't expect the new store to affect business at his stand, which he's been operating for two years.
Diabate is more optimistic about the new store.
"I think it will probably help," he said. "It gonna hire people, hopefully, from the neighborhood. The type of thing 7-Eleven sells––in this neighborhood, we don't have any of that."
As for 7-Eleven, the company expects its first-ever store in Harlem to stay in business for a long time.
"We are leasing the location for 10 years plus options for renewal," Chabris said in an email.