Beyond “Back to Normal”

Small businesses look toward ways to grow.

By Andrew Ancheta





As the effects of the Covid pandemic fade and businesses that suffered the most anxiously await a return to normal, new demographic trends and city plans suggest “better than normal” could be the future for South Bronx small businesses.

While the emergency is officially over, businesses are still struggling to catch up with deferred bills and obligations. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents Hunts Point, recently declared, “COVID is not over – it’s not over healthwise, and it’s not over economically.”

But many post-pandemic challenges also present opportunities for growth in underserved communities, especially those in the South Bronx.

The rise of e-commerce during the pandemic reduced the number of dollars flowing into brick-and-mortar retail shops, now struggling the most. Meanwhile, online retailers are eyeing the Bronx as the most convenient site for last-mile warehouses. One planned facility is expected to reach 1.2 million square feet.

The Adams administration has proposed a five-part plan to facilitate the city’s recovery, by revitalizing commercial corridors and overhauling business regulations to make it easier to launch and operate a company. Part of that plan includes accepting new ways of doing business, such as making open restaurants permanent and finding ways to support small-and micro-businesses.

In addition to removing punitive regulations, the recovery plan also includes subsidies for business improvement districts (BIDs), which provide neighborhood and business services in growing commercial districts. The new plan also includes a $75 million fund to help small businesses secure capital – although an onslaught of applications has put that fund on hold indefinitely.

While many businesses did not survive the three-year economic drought, the crisis also exposed some of the hardships that faced Bronx businesses even before the pandemic. And as the city starts laying the groundwork for economic recovery, those changes could help turn Bronx communities into thriving commercial districts.

In December 2022, the Department of Small Business Services released reports on the business needs of each of the city’s commercial districts, based on feedback from merchants, consumers, and other research.

In the South Bronx, merchants rated safety, sanitation, and parking as their top concerns. Merchants surveyed said the lack of inviting, accessible public spaces posed a significant barrier to area shoppers.

Source: Mott Haven: Commercial District Needs Assessment

The need is particularly pronounced in Mott Haven, where nine out of ten merchants identified safety and sanitation as the key barriers to attracting more shoppers.

In Hunts Point and Southern Boulevard, the top concerns were safety and parking.

Asked what types of government resources could help their businesses, many merchants in these districts cited access to legal and financial services. Again, this is a shortfall that became most apparent during the pandemic, when Bronx businesses missed out on generous government loans because they lacked the financial connections to take advantage of them.

Source: Hunts Point Longwood, The Bronx, Commercial District Needs Assessment

Curiously, this is one area where the city authorities have already alighted on a workable solution. During the pandemic, the Economic Development Corporation partnered with the private actors to fund the Small Business Resource Network, providing in-person specialists to help small businesses apply for loans, grants, and other bureaucratic hurdles that might be difficult for mom-and-pop businesses.

Source: Southern Boulevard, The Bronx, Commercial District Needs Assessment

The resource network was “really effective in the Bronx,” says Michael Brady, who oversaw the Third Avenue Business District for most of the pandemic. At least 10,000 New York businesses received some benefit from the program as of last year, 75% of which were women and minority owned.

Now that the pandemic urgency is diminished, funding for the small business network is slated to dry up this fall, although several political leaders are pushing to permanently fund it.

The migrant crisis represents another opportunity. Hundreds of migrants arrive in New York City every day, costing the city over $1 billion in housing and other services to date. These migrants could represent a big addition to the city’s economy if the federal rule requiring them to wait six months before seeking work were adjusted. Employers desperate for help are putting many to work, regardless.

In part, fixing the city’s business problems is likely to entail a pivot from Manhattan towards the outer boroughs. While the “core” commercial areas in Manhattan have not yet recovered from the pandemic, peripheral business districts absorbed some of the lost business activity. In the Bronx Hub retail spending in 2022 was nearly 60% higher than the pre-pandemic level.

Those changes may become permanent as the city adapts to a “new normal.” Last month, the Department of City Planning introduced the “City of Yes–Economic Opportunity” plan, an ambitious rezoning proposal that would alleviate some of the restrictions on businesses around the city.

One major reason for the plan is due to the shifting demand for commercial space. “Remote work presents challenges for neighborhoods with office spaces, but opportunities for neighborhoods where people live,” the proposal said.

The proposal, which will go through several months of hearings and information sessions, is aimed at simplifying zoning regulations–like eliminating the laws that prohibit certain businesses from operating on the ground floor, or prohibiting live entertainment in some smaller establishments. It also aims to improve the “vibrancy” of neighborhoods by changing the requirements for new buildings, especially in areas with pedestrian traffic.

In a separate proposal, the mayor has also pledged to expand economic opportunity in Hunts Point, with a 15-year plan to improve public safety and open spaces.

While the continued build-up of luxury high rises along the Harlem River has driven out many older small businesses that can no longer afford mushrooming rents, the arrival of new money in the neighborhood holds the prospect of new markets for those able to adjust their business models and offerings.

As the recovery proceeds, and plans turn into action, one thing is clear – small businesses are the past and future of the South Bronx. They remain the backbone of the community and enjoy long-time neighborhood loyalty.

“That corner store is a therapist, it’s a daycare center, it’s a bank. How many big businesses do that for their customers?” — Youssef Mubarez, Yemeni American Merchant’s Association.


More Food and Fun:

A South Bronx Wish List

Residents gush over their favorite local shops. Still, many say their neighborhoods need more fresh produce outlets and youth activities.

By Dashiell Allen and Christine Zeiger
Sunny Nagpaul and Judith Marks contributed reporting

Backyard of the Bronx Brewery (Jose Ruiz - Bronx Brewery)

Paule Valerio Zebo is grateful for St. Mary’s Park. It’s one of the few places in her Mott Haven neighborhood where she can bring her young child.

“Thank God they have this park now,” the 10-year neighborhood resident said while pushing a stroller through a playground at East 147 Street and St. Anne’s Avenue, on the park’s west side. “They really renewed it so we can enjoy that. But before it wasn’t like that.”

Our reporters set out, on the streets and through social media, to ask South Bronx residents what their favorite small businesses are — and what they’d like to see more of in their community.

Even as most showed pride and support for the mom-and-pop stores that line local streets, many expressed a desire for more youth activities and fresh food shops. Despite living near one of the largest food distribution centers in the country, the Hunts Point Produce Market, some said they travel outside of the South Bronx to buy groceries.

“I do think it is one of the most underprivileged boroughs in the city, yet the people here are great,” said Jessica Heinze, who was also in St. Mary’s Park. “The culture here is beautiful, but it’s like the wild, wild West, though. We do have the highest rate of asthma, but we don’t have a [farmer’s] market that goes year round, like 14th Street” in Manhattan’s Union Square Park.

Here are some of the favorite spots South Bronx locals recommend:


Source: Google Maps

In addition to fresh fruit and vegetables, Heinz wants to see “better bagels and croissants” in her neighborhood. Still, she’s a big-time fan of La Isla Cuchifrito, a Caribbean fried foods spot on East 149th Street.

William Evans also was quick to praise the eateries serving up authentic food or culture. He cited Beatstro, which reminds patrons that hip-hop originated in the Bronx, via the graffiti art and old LPs that adorn the restaurant. “That’s what it’s all about,” Evans said.

He echoed the call for more access to fresh food. The “South Bronx is a food desert when it comes to stuff like that,” he noted while chatting on Alexander Avenue.

Agatha Patterson, who lives in Mott Haven near 142nd Street, regularly leaves her neighborhood for healthier grocery options. “I currently go to the Whole Foods in Harlem for most food needs,” she told us over social media.

Jewel Gaddy, a Hunts Point resident since 1998, traverses the borough to get groceries.

“I just went food shopping this morning and I went to ShopRite on Bruckner Boulevard [in Soundview] and I went to the meat market on 233rd and White Plains Road [in Wakefield] because there’s no meat market over here,” she said, while getting her hair cut at Sira’s Unisex Salon on Hunts Point Avenue.

A woman who asked not to be named also pined for a local butcher’s shop.

And she wished there were more outdoor activities for children in the South Bronx. “I’m a mom of two, so I’m really thinking of having more fun stuff to do with kids,” she said while standing inside El Progreso Hardware on Hunts Point Avenue. She  plans trips to the Bronx Zoo and is excited about going to the Bronx Children’s Museum but longs for closer options.

A woman near Bill Rainey Park, who didn’t want her name used, said she’d like a “community center, especially with a basketball court inside.”

Amaurys Grullon, owner of the Bronx Native clothing store, is proud of the South Bronx’s businesses, but said he’d love to see “another layer.”

“There should be a rock-climbing business, there should be a paintball. You know what I mean? So just more activities,” said Grullon, who grew up in Hunts Point.

One user online agreed. “A CLIMBING GYM,” they wrote in all caps in response to the Mott Haven Herald’s Instagram post calling for suggested additions to the South Bronx.