While the Brooklyn Heights station is closed for repairs, decades-old businesses are looking to city and state agencies for relief
Three months after the Clark Street subway station ceased operations for repairs, owners of businesses inside the subway arcade are beginning to feel the pinch. As they struggle to operate inside a practically lifeless station, which serves the 2 and 3 lines, they await authorities to fulfill promises of financial support and prompt reopening.
“It’s torment every month,” said Salahuddin Aziz, who has run the Sun News newsstand in the station for 25 years. “I go home with nothing. I’m wasting my time, losing money, and there’s no help from the government.”
Aziz, who emigrated here from Pakistan, owes his landlord $40,000 in rent and is currently taking home about $200 to $300 each day, compared to the $500 he made during COVID and the $1,500 to $2,000 he made pre-COVID.
On Jan. 27, Councilman Lincoln Restler, the newly elected representative of the district, visited the station, accompanied by Small Business Services Commissioner Kevin Kim.
“We have been trying to identify every different way to bring resources, grants, loans and attention to the challenges facing these small businesses,” Restler said.
The councilman, who grew up just two blocks away from the Clark Street station, recalls visiting Aziz as a child to buy candy and magazines. “These places are beloved. They are integral to the fabric of our community,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to try and provide help.”
Three days ago, Aziz applied for a $10,000 grant as part of the state’s Small Business Recovery Grant Program and is waiting for a response.
“They say they will talk to transit, the landlords, get emergency loans,” he said, adding that he couldn’t pay back a loan even if he could secure one. “They say they’re going to do something, but nothing yet.”
According to Julianne Cho, Director of Communications for the Department of Small Business Services, the department is helping business owners with lease assistance, connecting them to financial support through their Capital Access team, and facilitating applications for small business recovery grants.
Nigel Price, the owner of Drip Coffee, said the officials were “extremely helpful” in working with him to navigate the financial assistance processes of various city agencies. But after applying to at least a half dozen of them, he has not secured any aid.
“There’s months of submitting documents and validating paperwork, then when you’re almost to the finish line there’s no more funds available or you just never hear back from them,” he said.
Price’s gross revenue has decreased by roughly 65% as a result of the station’s closure. Before November, he was averaging a daily revenue of between $800 and $1,100. That has since declined to between roughly $300 and $460. Price said he has not been able to draw a salary for any of the shifts he works and that he is three months behind on rent.
“Hopefully once the station is open again, foot traffic can help dig us out of the hole by the end of the year,” he said.
Cheung Han, owner of Han’s Market, a 23-year-old grocery store inside the station, has already used a significant portion of the $150,000 he received in grant money before the closure to make up for his losses during the pandemic. He has not been able to pay the rent, $14,500, for January or February. At lunchtime Wednesday, he said he needs his mid-day regulars back in the market.
“Normally, 600 people come each day,” he said. When the store wasn’t shut down completely during the city’s COVID lockdown, Han was bringing in about 150 customers each day. Due to the station’s closure, that number has risen only nominally to between 200 and 250.
According to data from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), ridership at the Clark Street station between 2019 and 2020 dropped 68.9%, or by roughly 3,849 riders on an average weekday, significantly decreasing foot traffic in the station even before the station’s closure.
The construction zone has blocked the entire exterior of the station, making it difficult for customers passing by to discern if businesses are operating. The Department of Small business Services is working with the MTA on signage to ensure the community is aware that the businesses are open. “The MTA has worked collaboratively with all of the businesses to complete this project as quickly, safely and with the least amount of impact possible,” an MTA spokesperson said.
But, not all businesses, like Mohammed Samir El Hammoumi’s Js-Rugs, are even listed on the signs.
El Hammoumi, who opened his store in December 2020 after emigrating here from Fes, Morocco, hasn’t sold a single rug since the station’s closure. Before that, he used to sell roughly five rugs per month, priced at around $700 each. Though he has various online stores showcasing his rugs, he said people simply prefer to see a rug in-person before potentially spending hundreds of dollars to purchase it. He is at a standstill until commuters return to the station. “It’s worse than COVID,” he said. “There’s no traffic.”
Though El Hammoumi said he has not been contacted by anyone offering assistance, his landlord decreased his rent from $1,300 to $800 per month. While he is not in danger of shutting the shop, he is paying rent out of his personal savings. Even if he did have a sign advertising his business, he said it wouldn’t be enough. Councilman Restler agreed. “I'm disappointed that the MTA has not been able to identify more ways in which they can help these small businesses,” he said.
An MTA spokesperson said the construction project remains on-track for reopening this Spring. If the project is delayed at all, even if only for one month, business owners like Aziz and Han said they are not sure they could survive.
Restler plans to conduct additional check-in calls with business owners during the coming days to get “concrete updates” on what tangible support each business needs. But he stressed that securing financial assistance, and helping these businesses get back on their feet, can take time.
“The clear support they need to stabilize will extend beyond the period of the subway closure through the foreseeable future,” he said. “They have gone into significant debt during this period and it will take time for them to work their way out of it, if they are able to hold on.”