New York – When Margarita Santana first arrived in New York, she made coffee filters in a New Jersey factory. She worked with other Dominicans who longed for traditional home cooked meals. Eventually, she quit the factory job to cook.
Slowly, beauty salon workers in her Washington Heights neighborhood caught wind of her venture, then their clients. As word spread, her business grew. She started in her kitchen, then the basement of her building. They got so popular, she and her three sisters opened a restaurant called Margot.
You could call this an American dream. But that would miss the larger point of the venture — their restaurant was a way to make Dominicans comfortable in their new country and the sisters have been weaving their culture and their love into the Washington Heights community since they opened their doors opened 26 years ago. Margot itself feels like a home. It is tiny and cozy and she, her sisters or her sons are always around — it’s bustling with people who know each other. It’s the kind of place where everyone is welcomed with “mi amor!” and, besides Christmas and New Year’s, it’s always open.
That will change on December 31 because Washington Heights, a Dominican enclave in Northern Manhattan immortalized on Broadway by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” and on the small screen by MTV’s reality show “Washington Heights,” is changing. Sure, merengue and bachata still spill out of stores and car windows, but a growing number of long-established storefronts have been shuttering, as rents increase.
“There has been a lot of change — in all instances [landlords] are dealing with some of the oldest businesses in the neighborhood,” said Carlos Segura, one of Margarita’s sons.
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In this case, the landlords of Margot's building told merchants at the end of summer that they must close so they could renovate the aging spaces. Margot, a money wiring service, and a carniceria [meat store] that has been around for more than 30 years will leave and, in anticipation of increased rents, likely not return.
“It’s too much to start over,” said Nurys Correa, one of Margarita’s three sisters who are involved in the store. Nurys, the youngest at 68 years, manages it and works from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. most days. If they can return or move into a similarly-sized space in the same neighborhood, she can see coming back. But if they have to rebuild in a new location, she just sighs at the thought. “I’m very tired.”
Calls and emails to the businesses associated with the landlord have not been answered.
Change is not a new story for New York City, but it has been felt acutely in Washington Heights. Over the summer, a whole block of Latino-owned storefronts just three blocks north of Margot was evicted. Minority owned businesses are particularly vulnerable, charge merchant associations. A New York Times story indicated in April of this year that small grocery stores known as bodegas are also closing in high numbers in areas of northern New York that includes Washington Heights.
In Washington Heights, rent varies from $50 to $100 per square foot, depending upon renovation and location. The national average for commercial real estate rentals is about $28 a square foot.
“It’s about unfair short term leases,” said Kirsten Theodos an organizer from Take Back NYC, a group that proposed a bill that would create a commercial lease renewal process that would give merchants some power in the negotiations. The bill has supporters, but not enough to move it into law. “This is predominantly happening in Hispanic communities.”
State Senator Adriano Espaillat has been involved in discussions about the restaurant.
"This neighborhood has come so far from the days of drug infestation, and I am so proud of that progress,” Espaillat wrote in an email, calling Margot part of the soul of the community. “However, we must balance progress with the needs of the people and businesses who stayed with this community during the hard times.”
Espaillat said he is championing a bill at the state level for stronger rent laws — but Theodos was critical of changes at the state level saying no matter how well meaning, they would effectively be "toothless."
Just days before the scheduled close date, business owners and those fighting to protect them met with landlords to discuss the proposed closure. The new rent has not been released yet.
Maximo Javier, who is helping establish a Business Improvement District (BID), pointed toward the walls of Margot, which are dense with faux wood paneling but sparse with other decorations. “Look at the walls,” Javier said. He pointed at a picture of Polita Vega, then others all mugging with Margarita. “It’s a who’s who in the Spanish community.”
Ingrid Amparo, who leads a merchant’s association and is working with Javier to establish the BID, has been helping the family locate a new space. It’s been a difficult search, she said, because the rents are so high. But she is committed partly because she has seen enough businesses – including her own flower shop – lost to rent hikes. But for her, it’s also personal. When her father moved to the neighborhood from the Dominican Republic, he got meals from Margot when she cooked from her basement. And when he couldn’t couldn’t find work, they’d still feed him regardless of his ability to pay. Margot still makes it a point to keep its prices low (a lunch special called a small but with generous portions of chicken, rice and beans cost $6).
“That’s something that stayed with him,” Amparo said. “He was always grateful.”
Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.