In a changing Harlem, West African vendors struggled to preserve business

The scaffolded building on the left is at 264 W. 116th St., and the one on the right is at 2132 Frederick Douglass Blvd. Jianghanhan Li for Global City NYC

The scaffolded building on the left is at 264 W. 116th St., and the one on the right is at 2132 Frederick Douglass Blvd. (Photo by Jianghanhan Li, GlobalCity NYC)

At a busy intersection in Little Senegal, between 116th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, the redevelopment of two building sites has put West African vendors, who have been there for years, at risk of relocation.

A building at 2132 Frederick Douglass Blvd. that has sat vacant for about two years is scheduled to be demolished to make way for a new apartment building. The building owner, Joseph Rabizabeh, said “In two months, it will start,” and it will take “two years to finish.” The construction is likely to mean that vendors like Takima and Maoiam, who have been selling African products in front of the building for years, have to move to somewhere else soon.

West African vendors outside of the building at 2132 Frederick Douglass Blvd. Jianghanhan Li for Global City NYC

West African vendors outside of the building at 2132 Frederick Douglass Blvd. (Photo by Jianghanhan Li, GlobalCity NYC)

“I don’t know where to go next,” said Takima, from Ivory Coast, sitting behind a table full of colorful fabrics and accessories. The scaffolding that went up around the building more than a month ago has now been conveniently used to hang African clothing. Takima, who has been at this location for about seven years, said she was unaware that construction was about to begin soon and that she would probably have to move. Takima said in the past she had tried to go to the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market on West 116th Street, “but there you have to pay every day. Here, no pay.”

On a Friday afternoon, Takima’s three sons were riding bikes and scooters on the sidewalk under the scaffolding. Takima said they went to a school nearby, and “after school, the children come to play here.” When asked if she could support herself with vendor business, Takima nodded and said “Yes. My children’s father is working in Ivory Coast.”

Maoiam and her vendor. Jianghanhan Li for Global City NYC

Maoiam at her vending table. (Photo by Jianghanhan Li, GlobalCity NYC)

Maoiam, also an Ivorian woman, has been selling African accessories and textiles here for the past six years. She said she knew about the soon-to-come construction, but she was reluctant to speak any further about her personal opinion on the construction. Maoiam has already moved her table to a new spot in front of New Harlem Halal Meat, a grocery store next to the scaffolded 2132 Frederick Douglass Blvd. building.

Sidy Diakhate, who usually passes by the building on his way to his phone business inside the Association of Maliens in New York building on West 115th Street, said of the vendors, “Many of them don’t want to talk about it. I don’t think there’s a network. But they’d turn to their imam for help about their problems.”

The building at 2132 Frederick Douglass Blvd. used to be Masjid Aqsa Mosque, a well-known religious and social hub that had served the West African Muslims community for about 15 years, before it was evicted over a rental dispute with the landlord in the fall of 2013 and had to move several blocks away. Like many other West African Muslims, Diakhate used to go to the mosque regularly. “The mosque brought people here,” he said. “In the past, people all came here and pray. Especially on Friday nights, there were so many people on this street.” But nowadays, Diakhate said “People just go to the smaller mosques close to them.” With the vacating of Masjid Aqsa Mosque, others left this building quickly as well, including an African clothing merchandise, a Guinean restaurant and a Harlem car service company. “It scattered people,” said Diakhate. Despite less traffic, these West Africans vendors have remained on the street in front of this empty building for the past two years.

Just a few steps away, the building at 264 W. 116th St. has been under renovation for the past year. The franchised convenience store 7-Eleven is said to be opening on the first floor soon, according to Ibrahim Diakhate, a Malian vendor who lives nearby.

Ibrahim Diakhate was attending to a customer. Jianghanhan Li for Global City NYC

Ibrahim Diakhate attending to a customer. (Photo by Jianghanhan Li, GlobalCity NYC)

For the past two years, Diakhate has been here selling African foods and drinks, such as okra, cassava, plantain, roasted peanuts and ginger-water drinks. His table is right by the entrance of the 116th Street subway station on the B and C trains, a busy spot. Many customers came by on the Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend.

On a regular day, Diakhate said he would have at least 20 customers, and sometimes as many as 50 customers. “Some came for $1. Some came for $20,” he said. His busy time is from Tuesday to Saturday.

Diakhate pointed to the building and said “I used to do business inside,” when the owner of a previous shop let him rent some space to sell inside. Ibrahim expressed concern that, with the arrival of 7-Eleven, it possibly “will make other stores close. It will sell anything, drink and food.”

When asked about where he would move next once the 7-Eleven store opened, Diakhate said: “We don’t know. We’ll wait. If they say you can’t stay here, we will move there, where that lady is,” at the street corner at 116th St and Frederick Douglass Blvd. “If they are fine, we will stay here.”

“The business don’t like to move. If you moved, the customers can follow you, but it takes time, one month or 3 month,” said Diakhate. “The customers don’t like to come to you. Some do, but not a lot.” Besides this, Diakhate has another problem when it comes to moving: He shares a vendor permit with his business partner and he alone couldn’t own the decision of relocation. “Because she has a paper., I can’t be by myself. It’s not easy.”

Diakhate used to be a teacher, and taught French, history and geography in Mali. He said he went to Russia to study economy and politics in 1987, and served as the mayor of Bamako, the capital of Mali, for three years. “My English teacher Christine told me I should use my knowledge to do something,” he said. However, he couldn’t find a decent job in the U.S., as he overstayed on his last tourist visa.

“I am looking for American opportunities,” Diakhate said. “I would like to do politics stuff, like running for congressman in Mali, after I made enough here.”


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