The Future Of Harlem’s Mart 125 -Part I

The Town Hall Conversation You Probably Didn’t Hear About

Harlem’s Mart 125 located directly across from Apollo Theater, closed since 2001

The future of Mart 125, the former city owned vendor’s market on 125th across from the Apollo Theater has been in question for nearly two decades. The concept space, initially envisioned in 1979 as an attempt to bring street vendors inside and incubate Black owned businesses, opened in 1986 with roughly 50 vendors. Mart 125 closed to the public in 2001 after a tumultuous period when many of its vendors were evicted from that space. The legacy lingers, and the space continues to be a topic of conversation and sacred space in the community years later.

On June 25th, at Touro College on 124th Street, Community Board 10 which represents Central Harlem held a meeting titled “Spaceworks Town Hall Meeting.” This was an opportunity for interested and concerned residents to share their thoughts and concerns on the future of the Mart 125 space whose doors shuttered in 2001. Not the first of these conversations, ideas for what the space would become have gone through several variations over the past few years.

The room was filling up by the 6PM meeting start time, and more people continued to flow in during the Town Hall. After signing in with the helpful CB10 staff, the meeting started with brief introductions by the Spaceworks team as well as CB10 Chair Cicely Harris. According to some attendees, this Town Hall conversation was born out of a meeting Spaceworks had with CB10, where it was then established a community forum would be a proper channel to get word out to the broader community about intended plans for the Mart, and solicit feedback.

While no press appeared to be on hand, I had access to my Instagram live feed, and a charger I was able to borrow during the event, so I went to work attempting to capture as much as possible during the meeting. Unfortunately, due to iphone storage issues (dear Apple, do better), the entire video was unable to be saved, but was available for a 24 hour playback on Instagram. These notes reflect what was captured on camera during the meeting, and reviewed by me during that 24 hour playback period. While not perfect (ie. some names were difficult to hear and capture), it is an honest attempt at recreating and elevating some of the general community concerns expressed during this important (and passionate) Town Hall. This commentary is my own.

The atmosphere in the room was tense. Anyone who is engaged in what happens in Harlem understands that the history and future of the space is of great significance, increasingly so as gentrification continues to take hold in the community, ushering out many of the buildings, and subsequent reminders of Harlem’s past. At a time where non-landmarked Harlem iconic spaces like Lenox Lounge get converted to a Sephora, it is clear to see that amongst those community members and concerned citizens showing up to many similar town hall meetings, there remains a lingering feeling of “but is it too late”?

The presentation opened up with a brief introduction to Spaceworks and talking points about their model, by their Executive Director Risa Shoup. Including the cover page, the deck was 10 pages. It outlined “Spaceworks mission & values,” their “community,” who the team was on the Mart 125 initiative (Spaceworks, Firelight Media, NYC Cultural Affairs, NYC Economic Development Council). The deck highlighted what the team had “learned so far” including artists wanting to create work in the community they live in, and needing access to subsidized work space, including for music recording, film/ digital media, and community led programming, as well as intergenerational programming.

Spaceworks outlined their community engagement strategy which consisted of reaching out to “20+ Harlem based cultural & community non profits, as well as individual artists and local elected officials.” There was a profile of Firelight media (founded by legendary director Stanley Nelson), because Firelight is a proposed anchor tenant in the cultural space according to the proposal. The follow up “Future Engagement” slide referenced the following:

May & June 2018 Presentations to Community Board 10

Summer 2018: procurement of architect by the Project Team; table talk with community members; ongoing development of Harlem Community Advisory Council

Fall 2018: Commence design process; Spaceworks launches Harlem Creative Community Grant; Spaceworks and Harlem Community Advisory Council host participatory planning meetings

Winter/ Spring 2019: Design finalization

There is an addendum to the future Engagement page which states: “throughout the development process ongoing engagement with local community members and organizations will continue.”

The presentation of the deck was followed up with additional remarks by Preeti Sodhi, Project Director at Spaceworks. There was a brief presentation by Firelight Media’s President Marcia Smith who was known to many in attendance. Most of the speaking points were in the deck that was handed out, but Marcia spoke on behalf of Firelight, because in the proposal of the building design for this latest iteration of the Harlem’s Mart 125, Firelight would be an anchor tenant in the proposed new space. Lastly, a male latinx Spaceworks vendor who was born in Harlem and currently uses Spaceworks in the BX spoke to his use of the space, their affordability, and the services they provide.

It was the moment he began handing out his business cards that the owner of a Harlem CBO from the back of the room raised their hand to ask if now was the time for questions. The attention went briefly to a black woman at the front of the room, also was a Spaceworks user, who spoke briefly about the format for the Q&A, underscoring the fact there would be one microphone.

The format determined by the CB10 Chair was that questions would start from the back of the room to the front. While that meant some of the elder attendees who arrived early and sat up would have to wait to have their questions answered front (roughly five of whom were original Mart 125 vendors), it was clear that there would need to be a process established early. CB10’s John Lynch had the unenviable task of handing off the mic to speakers.

The almost immediate questions from the audience (predominately Black Harlem residents, or individuals with ties to the space) involved the plan details not mentioned in the deck that was handed out. Specifically: what were the terms of the transfer, how long is the lease for, why the arts instead of prioritizing emerging sectors like technology & STEM, who was being considered for prime retail space in the new location, why wasn’t there an RFP process for this bid, how committed is Spaceworks to the community, is this a done deal? Additional questions concerned how to improve access to capital for small businesses, what can be done for the original Mart 125 vendors who were displaced, why was Spaceworks chosen, and what was the Economic Development Council’s role in all this?

There were many more questions than answers.

SAFE in Harlem’s Felicia Pullen opened up the Q&A taking the time and speaking up while the Spaceworks representative was handing out his business cards. She called for utilizing the space to build resilience in the community. And while she acknowledged her support of arts & culture, she also expressed being “all for educating our children” and ensuring that Harlem residents were included in the construction and maintenance of the space, as well as the architectural design of the space. Strong concerns were expressed about not simply showing up with a plan already developed and without involving this community from start to finish.

Another voice was that of Silicon Harlem’s Bruce Lincoln who had questions about the sustainability of the space and its existing revenue model, knowing historically the Mart 125 revenue model was never sound. Bruce urged the organizations represented in the room to consider how we can incorporate the past and our elders, while also being mindful of newer communities with creative ideas. “Tech is the second largest sector in the city and it’s the fastest growing sector in Harlem, it’s not arts & culture, it’s tech.”

Long Gallery owner Lewis Long continued throughout the evening to frame the conversation in terms of understanding the location and retail implications of the space. Clearly a supporter of cultural institutions as a gallery owner himself, he urged the attendees and powers that be to not forget the fact that the square footage (18K square feet according to a representative from the Department of Cultural Affairs) is some of the most desired in the community. He stated it would be a missed opportunity to not address the economic implications of that on possible anchor tenant considerations, across from the Apollo; one of the most heavily trafficked areas in Harlem.

Regina Smith, Executive Director of Harlem Business Alliance, expressed frustration at what she felt was a “what you bring is the best thing for us” mentality. She claimed it was a very “paternalistic” decision by the EDC to believe that Spaceworks, a third party incubated under the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, was disrespectful. Regina believed that a Harlem organization, particularly a Black lead Harlem based organization, should’ve had a chance to be considered. As a Harlem resident she was “offended,” and proclaimed “we have a right to be angry.”

Dr. Kay Samuels, an elder from the community, expressed knowledge of Spacework’s free space model, and giving free space for community lead organizations, and that they do try and work with the community. She also said the community needed to shoulder some responsibility over what she called “mischief” by Harlem politicians, and the community’s role in either voting for those elected officials, or not voting at all. Dr. Samuels suggested that the urgency was on community members to show up at more board meetings to stay informed of when major decisions affecting our community are being made. “When we’re talking and raising all this cain about what Spaceworks is doing, what this one or that one is doing, when we don’t pay attention on what’s going on in our community, these things should not sneak up on us. If we were going to board meetings we would know what’s going on…I’m raising cain for this community, and yall should show up too.” In between having strong words for Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s office and representative Athena Moore, Director of the Northern Manhattan office, Dr. Samuels said “we have to demand more community involvement.”

Mike Grambling, an original Mart 125 vendor, believed 50–75% should be earmarked for vendors, and use the rest for corporate space because the Mart started as a Black business incubator, and should be kept in the legacy of that tradition.

Another original Mart 125 vendor in attendance spoke about seeing how community churches were expanding, and cited considering air rights in thinking about opportunities to expand the Mart space vertically to meet the desired needs that many in the audience discussed. In her words, “we gotta think a little higher than what they’re presenting to us.” There was also a question about whether homeless or low income residents might be able to have housing developed above the mart.

One woman, a resident on Harlem for 40 years who continued to speak out loudly and have her voice be heard throughout the town hall, interjected and said “they don’t want poor people on 125th street.” To this response, community activist Julius Tajiddin gave context for some of the zoning stipulations for 125th street which had been agreed upon years ago (2006/2007) to not create a slippery slope for high end condos to exist along the 125th street corridor. Julius himself had questions about the internal space allocation and usage for the Mart, as well some of the city’s workarounds to ensure the cultural designation that seemed to be agreed upon for the space, and who approved them. Julius expressed making space for a retailer like Golden Crust who may soon need to relocate from its current space (possibly as the Urban League Museum space comes online).

Valerie Kennedy, a community member and lawyer in attendance who happened to previously serve as SVP for Diversity, Innovation and Strategy at the Economic Development Council, had concerns about the economic framework used for the decision. She said the city’s mission expresses a desire to “catalyze job growth in New York,” yet there was a decision to remove the tech incubator space from what had previously been presented, which seemed to not be in alignment with the EDC’s mission. There was also concern over the use of public dollars on the project, and the lack of transparency. The emphasis was that while Spaceworks was the proposed facility operator for this proposed project, the idea itself was “incubated at EDC.” Using a powerful metaphor, Valerie stated “the EDC can’t throw the brick and hide (their) hand” with regards to their involvement in orchestrating this proposal.

The disparity was also acknowledged with the next door tenant scheduled to house a 25,000 square foot recreational rock climbing facility serving many members outside the community, while the Mart 125 was limited to 18K square feet. Absent a revenue model, business plan, or analytical framework, Valerie wanted to know how the project was able to get as far as it did. She spoke to EDC’s historic dismissal of communities of color in this process, and that the decision makers on behalf of EDC represented in the room “don’t look like us.” Using EDC’s own language, Valerie asked the question “how is this going to catalyze the economic future of Harlem?” For her the question remained: how is EDC doing so much to promote the growth of tech and innovation in other parts of the city, and “so little has been done in Harlem?”

Empress Ima Ethiopia, speaking up from the back of the room, had businesses in Harlem for many decades. She was across the street from National Black Theater, started on Lenox Avenue, her list of locations continued. In her own words, “I don’t like the word vendor, I like the word entrepreneurs, because you have a way of looking down on vendors like we’re some kind of disease.” She acknowledged the systemic difficulty of Black startups saying, we cannot get money from the banks. Much of her focus was on what Spaceworks had been tasked by EDC to do with the space, acknowledging EDC “gave Spaceworks the task,” by not opening up the RFP/ bid process to competitors. In addition to having operated her business on the lot where Whole Foods (which she referred to as “Hell foods”) now exists, Empress concluded by stating “we were sold out; our own people sold us out.”

Harriet Rosebud, co-chair of the Arts & Culture committee at Community Board 9 (serving West Harlem) proposed having the Spaceworks team present before their board because “this is what happens when there is not transparency.” While she readily pushed back against the notion the community did not need arts and culture spaces (community feedback has suggested they do) she did state the problem is the mart was really about business spaces. “What we need to do is sit down and marry the two so a little bit of what this space is designed for can be realized.” Harriet acknowledged the space was designated for something different, and hopefully by coordinating with Arts & Culture committee on CB10, they can identify how to roll out their findings to the community. There was also expressed concerns as a cochair over not knowing anything about the Town Hall until last minute, and what Spaceworks involvement was.

A friend of Harriet’s seated next to her acknowledged that the EDC has not incubated a black community based organization in Harlem. “We waited 20 years, what will 2 more years do to incubate a nonprofit org from this community to be given the knowledge and resources to come into this community. Why can’t we make that happen?” The heavy emphasis was on the space remaining an economic hub for the community, and this community member felt strongly that changing the designation was harmful to the long term mission of the historic space. “It’s like taking a synagogue and turning it into a supermarket.”

Another speaker, Terry Wisdom, a self funded small business owner who has been in the community 39 years, and whose family was originally in Harlem, focused her comments on seeing how this decision could be “rolled back, revisited, and made transparent through the community.” She too felt disrespected by the EDC’s decision to skip over community based organizations in Harlem, calling out many of the vendors in the room who she had supported over the years. “You’re basically telling us we’re second class and don’t know what we’re doing. We know what we’re doing…there are many people with degrees. We’re fighting for our life here.”

In a moment of reflection, and a change of pace from many of the comments of the evening, one CB10 member took time to reflect on the “raised energy” in the room, acknowledging that much of it had to do with the concern of what she referred to as the “sacred space” of Mart 125 which has meant so much to Harlem residents who have lived in the community over the last four decades. She expressed frustration, having attended the previous CB10 meeting with the proposed facility operator Spaceworks, that a more convenient time couldn’t be identified to hold a meeting and draw more community members. She started to share some of what she had written after the first meeting, but stopped, instead emphasizing the displacement of the original shop owners, and to remind everyone to make time for self-care during these passionate moments of community interaction.

Resident and Harlem District Leader Cordell Cleare acknowledged “any new use of that space would’ve included this community, especially the businesses that were in there. They should be at the table from the ground up, they shouldn’t be at the table after the menu was selected and the food has been served.” According to Cordell, “nothing is a done deal,” and there is still time to pushback visions not in alignment with the community.

Lastly one of the remaining voices to speak that I was able to capture came from an original Mart 125 vendor. In her own words “We all can’t sing the same song and I want to be brief, but I and several other individuals in this room tonight are original Mart 125 tenants. The community didn’t support us, and when we got kicked out, we got kicked out the business. Rent was being paid but we were still kicked out. We need some kind of compensation. When you consider, think of those merchants that were kicked out, and those that were left. Give them something in return and pass it on to their children.”

While there were responses to audience questions issued periodically from Matthew Kwatinetz, EVP of Asset Management for NYC EDC, and Spaceworks Executive Director, they were intermittent in part because of the pace of the questions. In capturing their feedback, Risa Shoup said of Spacework’s model, they focus on “affordable retail, or if it might be amenable to go up a floor, retail businesses to generate rental income for the property. They generate rent from the property from a variety of tenants.” It was also during this response period that the attendees learned Risa’s background in community development and the arts, having overseen several initiatives in the Bowery neighborhood, something not referenced upfront. Matthew acknowledged that Spaceworks is not solely responsible for selecting programming in the space, and that their experience is “in running real estate in partnership with the community.” As for why Spaceworks was designated control as an operator instead of a locally based organization, he said “as we work with very specific community organizations that haven’t run real estate before very often it drives them into bankruptcy and then the go fallow,” or uncultivated. The EDC’s EVP acknowledged there have been “many cultural failures” across the city, and the city has not identified a suitable locally based operator after several failed attempts at reimagining the Mart 125 space.

In response to this particular comment, Valerie, a former EDC employee, stated the lack of a successful model around community lead culturally designated spaces “is a market failure.” Her suggestion was that the city work to address directly, instead of relying on private entities like popular coworking spaces (many of which are expensive and unaffordable for community residents) to fill that void.

[Part II - I will provide my brief thoughts and takeaways from the CB10 Mart 125 Town Hall conversation]

A guy who cares about Harlem. Strategist, HireHarlem Co-Founder, Manhattan Community Board 9, Former EIR @civichall, NMAAHC Ambassador, V.C. Thinker & doer.