A Few Words From a Black Business Owner in NYC…
Please consider this…
As I was taking it all in, the fanfare and the fear, the proselytizing and the pain, the deep, deep anger; I realized that if I wanted to become more active in the fight to battle racism in our country and city and industry, I needed to have a better understanding of it. So, I have asked some clients and friends who are black to tell us about their experiences doing business and living in NYC.
Jude Bernard has been a friend and client for 10 years. Here is his story:
Growing up watching Cheers on tv, I remember my dream was to own a bar restaurant lounge…kinda like Sam. Unfortunately I had no rich uncle to fund my first prospect, so I had to figure out a way to raise key money. My answer was real estate.
In 1998 I purchased my first investment property. It was a two unit house in South Jamaica Queens. Things went pretty well and over the years I found myself purchasing more and more properties. I was pretty good at this real estate thing, although it was not what I had planned on doing for a living, it was working out. My goal was still to get into nightlife one day. Specifically a FUBU type of place…for us by us. I never lost sight of the vision which was to make enough money in real estate so that I can open my own spot.
For years I had witnessed the unfair practices in the world of nightlife. I would get to the door with a couple of friends looking to have a good time then suddenly I would be told that there was a three or four bottle minimum required for admission, only to see the majority of patrons not required to shell out $1500 for a table by having the option to buy drinks at the bar. I wanted to one day have a place where people who looked like me would not have to spend more simply due to their skin tone and more than a sprinkle of us would be allowed in at a time without the fear of compromising the party. I always found it funny by the way, it’s like a recipe where you had to put a dash of color to be cool but not too much or you might draw the label of being “urban” a codeword for black or hip-hop party that would draw negative attention from the NYPD and FDNY.
A decade later, we were slapped in the face with the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Property values plummeted, my tenants lost their jobs and were not able to pay their rent. Everything that I had worked for began to crumble. I was literally down to my last few dollars when I came up with a plan that could both work and incorporate my dreams…. I would open an event space.
Vacancies for commercial real estate we are at an all time high in the city in 2008. I was able to negotiate a 4000 square-foot loft in Soho for pennies on the dollar. I told the landlord exactly what my plans were and he was fine with it. His only concern was my ability to pay the rent. I knew that wouldn’t be a problem since no matter how bad the economy was, people will still celebrate milestone events and corporations still needed a place to hold functions. It was a brilliant idea… or at least I thought.
One thing that I immediately realized was that I did not look like my neighbors in the building or in the neighborhood. As a black man, I stuck out in Soho like a sore thumb. One neighbor immediately started a crusade against me for the safety of the building and to prevent me from bringing in riffraff. Although I never had any incidents he kept complaining to the police, Fire department, Dept. of Buildings and Health Department about my being there. You would think that in a city as diverse as New York City I would have been able to get a fair shake by the city agencies, but no dice. The neighbors mobbed up against me with lanterns and pitchforks basically. That was the first time I realized that although this was a free country and technically you are free to do as you please those rights only apply if you are a certain hue. Being a black man, I have come to accept that certain people will always feel uncomfortable or unsafe in my presence. I was forced to close my business and face serious penalties by the city. That is when I first was introduced to David Helbraun and Helbraun & Levey team. They defended me through all of this. It was actually comical to watch how everyone in the building perjured themselves to get me out. Eventually I packed all my things and moved out like a thief in the night to avoid the embarrassment, my only crime was doing BWB…business while black.
My business model was solid, I just need to work out the politics behind owning a venue in the city. I had a longer run at my next location in Midtown but soon racism creeped in again. Another forced exit due to tenants in the building feeling “unsafe” with “people they didn’t know” late nights in the elevator. Just another case of code words. That was the last straw.
Fast forward a few years later. In 2016, I purchased an old bank in Bedford Stuyvesant and dubbed it The Brooklyn Bank. Although I own the place, I’m very conscious of being a black man running a business in the hospitality industry. On several occasions I’ve had white friends of mine represent themselves as the owner or manager to either secure a deal or avoid harassment. No different then the tactics I used to get a cab prior to Uber. I constantly feel the peering eyes which caused me to be very careful about the events that I host and the way I carry my business. I’m constantly leaving money on the table to avoid potential issues…even when I am well within my rights. My gentrified neighbors keep me on my toes and I constantly find myself bending to appease them because I know if they go down the 311 road, I will lose every time. I’m consistently checking decibels with noise meter, sweeping in front of their steps regardless of where the garbage came from and on the lookout for anything that may displease them. Sometimes it feels like as if I’m working for them. I guess that’s the cost of doing business as a black man…in America.
**If you would like to write about and share your experience, we would love to publish what you have to say. Please email me here.
Some things you should know as we march on:
Queen Bee and Rubio are all for the new PPP rules now so it looks like it’s gonna pass with a change to 60/40 for the spend ratio and 24 weeks to use it. Queen Bee was brimming with positivity when he murmured that it will pass “soon” but Rubes was more sullen and issued a CYA warning that: “people need to know that the way the Treasury has told us they are going to interpret that bill — if you don’t spend 60% of your money on payroll, if you only spend 59.9%, you will get zero forgiveness.” That’s awfully mean of Mnooch and the T Men. Why does everything have to be so goddamn difficult with the PPP? Relax already! We will get to the bottom of it so stay tuned.
Update: Bill 1956
This is the bill that would create a “Temporary Outdoor Dining Permit,” which would be issued by the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), which would allow food service establishments (all bars and restaurants) to serve food and beverages in approved open spaces. the City Council votes on this on Thursday in Committee and then on June 18 would be the earliest that it could clear the Council and head to the Mayor. More on the legislative process and how to get involved tomorrow.
The NYC Dept. of Transportation (DOT) would be required to identify such outdoor spaces – including sidewalks, streets, plazas – where service would be appropriate. The NYC Dept. of Health (DOH) would then be required to create guidelines to ensure that establishments follow proper social distancing and cleaning protocols. Additionally, NYC would be required to identify additional areas where food vendors could temporarily operate. The functions of this bill would be set to expire automatically on October 31, 2020, or when social distancing requirements are lifted.
From what we understand (and we’ve been tracking it closely), once 1957 is approved, the City agencies will have a short time to create an actual application for the right to participate. You can be certain that we will know this application front and back, the moment that it goes live and we will be available to file these applications for you. We know that there will be no City fee for processing, and that the City will not be requiring you to engage an architect to draw the plans (as they do with traditional sidewalk café applications). More info on the timeline, requirements and the application itself will be coming soon, so stay tuned.
What else? Oh yeah, we live under curfew now in NYC, the pandemic is still a thing, landlords are crankier than ever and we are still here fighting every day for our businesses and our industry and our friends and our country.
As Jerry and the boys would say: “Listen to the thunder shout/ I am, I am, I am, I am“