A strip of mostly Pakistani- and Bangladeshi-owned businesses have been uncharacteristically quiet recently. Lining 37th Road, they overlook sidewalks full of litter and debris. The road itself is an island of new tables and chairs, often empty.
Since Sept. 20, when the Department of Transportation converted this Jackson Heights road into a pedestrian zone following a multi-year study, the businesses there have been struggling. The 15 clothing stores, Internet cafes and restaurants, stretching from 74th to 77th streets, cater to immigrants from Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan.
Shopkeepers blame sagging sales on the road closing. They say that the lack of automobile access has caused potential shoppers to take their business elsewhere.
“I used to make over $1,200 a day,” said Nooruddin Dashti, who owns the jewelry store Al Qahhar. “Now it’s hard to make $200 to $300. All this since they closed the street.”
Last week, the brightly lit shop was glaringly empty. The store’s largest gem, a chandelier, cast light on the glass display cases, where gold and silver necklaces, rings and beads were on view. A pair of earrings can go for $100. But the day before, Dashti said, the store did not make a single sale. He added that he had not paid his employees in three weeks.
The typical rush on the weekend of Eid al-Adha, a Muslim holiday that took place in early November, was absent, according to Dashti. He has fallen behind on his $11,000 a month rent payments for the store and was unable to give to his Muslim faith center, the Muhammadi Community Center. The facility is run by Qazi Imam Mohd Qayyoom, who is, like Dashti, a long-time Jackson Heights resident
“Two members of my congregation, they’re supporting us. So last time when I went to their shop they were giving us a complaint that our business is not good. They said, Imam, please do something for us, prayer, stuff like that, and I said, OK, I’m trying my best,” Qayyoom said over samosas at the Kebab King, a restaurant on 74th Street across from the 37th Road area.
Qayyoom came to the United States from Sylhet, a small town in Bangladesh, in 1991. He has seen firsthand how the small businesses have been hurting since the road closed.
“It hurts sales in other businesses and restaurants nearby that depend on each other,” Qayyoom said. His congregation and interfaith community center have directly felt the impact.
“Today’s the 11th and we didn’t pay the rent yet, because we didn’t collect on the money yet,” Qayyoom said.
Shazia Kauziar, owner of Cafe K2, said she had experienced a 60 to 70 percent loss in sales since the road closed in September. Compounded by the effects of the winter slump, sales have been less than $60 a day, Kauziar said.
Cafe K2 has served Indian, Nepalese, Pakistani and Bangladeshi fare — like “chat,” a spicy dish with onions and chickpeas — on this street for 18 years.
Kauziar joined the chorus of business owners struggling to pay rent.
“We are behind on our rent,” Kauziar said. She added that the road closure has made things difficult because former customers who can’t find parking are taking their business elsewhere.
“Owners are getting tickets from the Sanitation Department for the trash,” said Mohammad Pier, president of the Bangladeshi Business Association. “This is not good. We are impacted badly.”
Dashti was one shopkeeper who received a ticket from the DOS. On Wednesday, Nov. 9, just minutes before opening his shop, an agency employee walked up as Dashti was pulling jewelry out of a safe and placing it in the display window.
“They said that my sidewalk was dirty. But I just opened the door. It is not right,” Dashti said. He was fined $100.
Many community members blame the trash problem on the recent influx of people who use the newly installed tables and chairs on 37th Road. They say that the homeless, who sit at these tables and chairs outside their stores, leave litter and discourage business.
“[The homeless] bring garbage and drugs here. People don’t want to walk here early in the morning,” said Muhammad Rashid, 56, a 12-year resident of Jackson Heights. Rashid is a member of Imam Qayyoom’s congregation and is a friend of some of the business owners.
Pier explained that there is only one opening to busy 74th Street from the now pedestrian three-block strip, which further limits parking and complicates access. Area businesses met with Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) and Congressman Joseph Crowley (D-Queens, the Bronx) two weeks ago.
“Everyone is aware of the situation,” Pier said. But he questions what will be done about it after the six-month trial period expires. The central demand of the business owners was simply: “Re-open the road.”
Jack Friedman of the Queens Chamber of Commerce and Seth Bornstein of the Queens Economic Development Corp. said that neither organization had been contacted regarding the owners’ concerns.
Kathy Dawkins, a DOS spokeswoman, would not comment on the issue of business owners receiving tickets for trash, but did say that because 37th Road is a commercial strip, Sanitation does not have a responsibility to collect trash there.
And Nicole Garcia, a representative for the Department of Transportation, issued the following statement:
“As with all our projects, we continue to monitor the area, and have an ongoing dialogue with the community to get feedback on ways to further fine-tune this important safety and mobility project.”