There is no empty space in Oasis Jimma Juice Bar. What part of the shop isn’t occupied by people and food is still full to bursting with smell and sound. The sharp, clean scents of fresh fruit and turmeric jostle for your attention, butting up against the high whir of blenders and the clatter of the 1 train outside. Health-related aphorisms jump out from the posters on the lime-green wall to greet the continuous flow of both students and locals who drift in and out––in this house, you respect “Nature’s amazing pharmacy!”
At the center of it all is owner Abdulsalam Abajebel, who seems to somehow have this chaos under control. He greets every customer with a smile or fist bump. It is as though Abajebel has created a literal oasis from the cold grayness of New York.
It is difficult to imagine this space without its stacked boxes of produce, display cases of crisp-fried sambusas, or world map covered in international currency (“we start from here!” proclaims a bubble pointing to Ethiopia). But five years ago, the storefront was sitting empty. In that time, a cluster of stores around it has spent long stretches of time vacant as well.
The block on which Abajebel’s shop sits is in the middle of Manhattanville, on Broadway at Tiemann Place. To its immediate left is a string of restaurants, new and old: a seafood place, a Chinese joint, counter-serve falafel. And for a long time, to its right, on the northern corner of the block, was a florist and a dry cleaner.
Those two lots, though, sat empty for over two years. Now there sits a Starbucks, clean and corporate, which opened in March of 2016.
Small businesses like Abajebel’s foster a sense of community that empty storefronts threaten and national chains lack. Ongoing displacement of small businesses along Broadway is leading to instability and social isolation in Morningside Heights, Manhattanville, and Hamilton Heights, as long-vacant storefronts create holes in the fabric of community. Of the 21 blocks between 110th and 140th Streets on Broadway with space for retail, 15 of those have at least one vacant storefront; north of 125th, 10 of the 11 blocks able to support street-level businesses have one or more vacancies.
The proliferation of vacancies is part of a wider, city-wide trend. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer had a team count vacant storefronts on the whole length of Broadway in the summer of 2017, and found 188 vacancies, leading her to call for city-wide efforts to index vacancies. A November 2017 report by city councilwoman Helen Rosenthal, of the 6th District—just south of the area I examined, which sits in the 7th District—found that 14 percent of the 422 storefronts on Broadway between 62nd and 109th were unoccupied. Two weeks ago, Mayor de Blasio described himself as “very interested” in imposing fees on landlords who keep their spaces vacant for extended periods of time.
When sitting in his LeFrak office one early afternoon, Aaron Passell, an urban sociology professor at Barnard, explains that he sees vacancies as results of “a particular kind of mismatch” between the businesses that would want to occupy a space and the landlord who owns it. In Manhattan, this mismatch is often as simple as astronomical rent.
Howard Aaron, a senior director of retail services at the New York branch of the commercial real estate company Avison Young, understands a trend toward selling businesses as part of the increase in rent, since new landlords need to make back what they spent on the building. Aaron Gavios, partner at Gavios Realty, agrees. For landlords “to rationalize the purchase price” of buildings, he says, “you have to have a rent roll that’s sustainable.”
But landlords don’t always wait for tenants who are willing to pay as much as possible. Landlords also think about the types of businesses they want in their neighborhoods, and may turn down certain businesses in hopes of attracting others. National chain businesses provide a stability that many small businesses cannot, say both Passell and Gavios, meaning that letting a space sit empty for five months or five years becomes an appealing option when there may be a contract with a reliable giant on the other end. As Corey Ortega, vivacious Democratic District Leader, activist, and West Harlem native (“hell yeah, born and raised!”) puts it, “If I were a landlord and I’m in the business of just making money, I’d scream to high heaven, saying, ‘Oh man, I got a Duane Reade! That rent check is gonna clear every month for the rest of my life.’”
What retail is present and what retail is not present is no accident: It is a result of a series of decisions by various players, from landlords to consumers to city officials. The commercial landscape of an area can be both a cause and effect of larger social issues, or as Passell puts it, the intersection of “the pursuit of profit with neighborhood quality of life.” With the University’s Manhattanville expansion and a lack of affordable housing, Aaron says, students are “pushing north” and bringing with them a more affluent consumer base. “Usually what happens is that people have to first live in the building, the newer tenants, then comes the retail.”
The walk up Broadway from 110th to 140th takes you through a variety of ambiences. There is, at the southernmost end, the final stretch of the upscale Upper West Side retail bustle. People flit about outside when it’s nice out, examining fruit at Westside Market and running to catch the bus. Said retail quickly becomes less personable, though. Just across Broadway from Westside, there is a Vitamin Shoppe, a Chipotle, a Five Guys, the brief respite of a local shoe store, and then a Starbucks. In the next block up, from 111th to 112th, a quarter of the street-level storefronts are empty.
Abajebel––known to his customers, his friends, and a disproportionate number of random people on the street as Abdi––fled Ethiopia at a young age after his father, a community doctor, passed away on his return from the Hajj. After traversing North and East Africa, Abajebel moved to New York. Manhattanville, he noticed, lacked places to eat that were healthy, quick, and affordable––“there was just McDonald’s.” He decided to create a space that was oriented toward nutrition. The first Oasis opened in 2012 at Broadway and Tiemann Place, near 125th, after Abajebel spent three months working nights so he could spend days remodeling the space. Abajebel tries to maintain the same spirit of generosity he saw his father model as a doctor. “Who has money, they can pay. Who don’t have money, they can come,” he says. “My door is open for everyone.”
Chuike Anderson, a Brooklyn native and one-time West Harlem resident, spends Saturday afternoons in Abajebel’s second location of Oasis, at 139th Street. She smiles fondly when she talks about the space, where she has just led a yoga class. At one point, Anderson starts to talk about Oasis using the term “juice bar,” and then stops short, turning to Abajebel, her long, tied-back dreads sweeping over her shoulder. “What is it you like to say? ‘Community center.’”
Much press analysis of commercial real estate trends in Manhattan focuses on areas rather different from anything found on Broadway between 110th and 140th. The New York Times comments on Broadway in SoHo, “which may be Manhattan’s hardest-hit area,” while WNYC frets over “high-rent blight” in “some of Manhattan’s busiest and most prosperous streets.” The Guardian, meanwhile, laments that in Manhattan, “some of the most expensive retail areas in the world are blitzed with vacant storefronts.”
But just because areas like Manhattanville and Hamilton Heights may have historically been less well-off doesn’t mean they don’t suffer from the same trends as the rest of the island. Today, it’s safer to pass time on the street, but Chuike’s niece, Asia Anderson, still sees the area as threatened, in a new way. There is a sense of insecurity, one that targets a sense of well-being. An empty storefront is a threat of something bigger and more uncontrollable than simply one store: It rings, to them, of a neighborhood falling apart. Asia feels fearful when she sees empty spaces. “It makes me think, if they can’t afford rent, how am I gonna afford rent? If they can’t stay, how can I stay?”
“It doesn’t feel good,” says Chuike of walking past vacancies on the street, shaking her head. “It almost makes you feel like people are not engaging in the city.”
In the mid-April Saturday sun, Hamilton Heights is full of people doing just that––engaging in the city. Bus Stop Diner welcomes you into the neighborhood at 135th, where people stroll in and out, order the usual, and greet one another by name. Just up the street, there are salons and discount stores aplenty, and elders outside speak rapid Spanish over games of dominoes. Even walking past cell phone stores and smoke shops, you journey through Hamilton Heights less from block to block and more from one boombox to the next. It is difficult to shake the feeling as you walk down the street that this place may just be more important than anything else, anywhere else. This is, unlike so much of this city, so unshakably someone’s home.
Interactions with your neighbors are core to living and working in New York, says Martha Faibisoff, who until last year co-owned clothing store Liberty House at 112th and Broadway––the neighborhood surrounding her former store is, in her eyes, “really a small town.” The space where Liberty House used to be has sat vacant for over a year, and she misses the interactions that used to take place there. She remembers Liberty House as somewhere she knew all the kids’ names, where people came in times of stress and grief, where they gathered to air their opinions. “You know, seeing other customers, talking to other customers, that’s kind of a special thing,” she says.
This idea of integration between storefront and community comes up over and over again. Abajebel chooses his decorations and music so his customers can “see themselves.” Ortega describes his favorite Dominican diner as “literally a representation of the community.” Asia says, of a stretch of 125th that is now populated by chains and empty storefronts, “you don’t see us in there anymore.” It seems that to lose a store you care about, run by someone you care about, frequented by people you care about is to watch money wipe away a space that held you and your culture and your community up as important and valuable. To watch businesses you used to frequent sit empty is to lose some way of looking at yourself––to lose the mirror in which you recognized who “the people” were.
According to Gavios, Columbia rarely brings in national chains. He brokered the deal that brought Joe Coffee into the Northwest Corner building on the Morningside Heights campus. Starbucks, he says, “badly wanted” the space Joe got. Fendell and Faibisoff both agree: “Columbia has been great,” says Fendell. Faibisoff calls the University, Liberty House’s landlord, “very good” to them, saying that “they care, which is wonderful.” It seems that Columbia makes a point of keeping local businesses around on property it owns.
But that good intent on the part of the University does not seem to have successfully stemmed the tide of vacancy or chains. By virtue of the expansion northward, Columbia has shifted the area’s consumer base, which brings its own changes in the retail landscape, resulting in storefront vacancies as landlords compete for businesses attractive to students.
Passell points to urban theorist Jane Jacobs to explain the immediate consequences of vacant storefronts for a community. In her New York-focused urbanist manifesto “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” she writes that cities fundamentally require “eyes on the street.” For a community to be sustainable, it must be self-regulated, and regulation requires that the residents of a neighborhood are responsible for some piece of the street.
Vacant storefronts leave a part of the street uncared for, which can lead to that area becoming a beacon of social decay. As Passell puts it, “if there’s nobody working there, there’s nobody looking out their window.” Bob Fendell, owner of University Housewares and University Hardwares at 113th, whose businesses bookend a vacant former nail salon, feels that the presence of vacancies creates an environment in which pieces of the street aren’t cared for. “The street is brighter when there are stores,” he says. An empty storefront is at best saddening, at worst unsafe.
Residents, real estate brokers, and professors have some disagreements over ways to move forward—Chuike and Ortega want people who care to reach out to local government, while Gavios feels that government tends to be hapless and unknowledgeable when it comes to regulating real estate—but they all agree that the uptick in vacant lots cannot be resolved by regulation alone. It requires some level of citizen action.
“Do you shop online?” Faibisoff asks me when I interview her, as if to hold me personally accountable for the neighborhood’s changes. She has a point: Gavios, Passell, and Anderson all agree that the strongest way combat vacancies seems to be individual initiative. If consumers, particularly the Columbia-based consumers beginning to move into new areas, take it upon themselves to shop at small community businesses instead of chains or online, they don’t just support individual community members, they support the whole fabric of the community. You as a consumer contribute to change just in where you choose to stop for coffee, whether you like it or not––it’s up to you to decide just what kind of change that’s going to be.
“We can’t stop change,” says Abajebel, looking out the window of Oasis. “Change is gonna come. But change must come for everyone, not just for some group.” Surrounded by the hubbub of his store, watching the flow of people in and out, it’s easy to see what he means. This neighborhood is at a tipping point, at the intersection of forces as local as the Columbia expansion and as vast as Manhattan real estate trends. “We have no lack of resources. We have a lack of awareness,” he says.
Someone comes into the shop who needs to ask him a question, and he goes to help them. Someone is always here, requesting something. While he gets up to respond, I examine the posters behind him and their advice––what to eat for good eyes, how to ease joint pain. One of them in particular seems to be more prophetic than pharmaceutical. “Those who think they have no time for healthy eating, will sooner or later have to find time for illness.” The same seems to be true for the streetscape just outside.
Have fun leafing through our eleventh issue!