Main Streets, NYC: 161st Street Revisited

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As the economic waves began to hit hard against Wall Street, WNYC started to watch Main streets in the area to see how small businesses were faring.

In February, merchants on 161st Street in the Bronx were watching with anticipation as the finishing touches were put on the new Yankee Stadium. Local merchants there waited with anticipation - and some skepticism - for the new $1.5 billion Yankee Stadium to open its doors. WNYC's Elaine Rivera recently visited again and there have been some surprises.

REPORTER: In June of 1995 the decision to keep the Yankees in the Bronx and build a new stadium was announced. Yankee President Randy Levine made a promise.

LEVINE: When we started this project we wanted to make sure that this project that this project was something that the community really wanted and something that benefited the Bronx - we made sure no business or residence would be displaced and none will.

REPORTER: Now local merchants have been wondering - and worrying - about the economic impact of the state-of-the-art stadium. They see it as a kind of a sports mall with its 125 concession stands, 56 souvenir shops and a half-dozen high-end restaurants, bars and suites.

Before fans even get to the gleaming new facility on game days, they spill out of the 161st Street Yankee stadium subway stop, and can walk right into the Hard Rock Cafe, or go next door to the official Yankees team store.

After a recent game, Yankee fan Michelle Wolinsky had a drink under a patio umbrella at the chain restaurant's outdoor tables.

WOLINSKY: Why go across the street when the subway lets you out here and everyone filters into the stadium and there's plenty do in there. They have a lot more selection of food inside of the stadium then they used to and for that reason it's a lot more attractive.

REPORTER: This is not what merchants along 161st street were expecting to hear. At the nearby Yankee Tavern, a watering hole that's been around since 1923, waitress Caroline Stover has witnessed a drop in customers.

STOVER: Usually whenever the Boston Red Sox play it's extremely crowded here at the Yankee and it was exceptionally slow this year it was probably if not slower than some of the other home games.

REPORTER: Peter Katsihtis is the manager of the Crown Donuts Diner two blocks away. He says the 24-hour diner has not been hurt as badly because of neighborhood regulars. But he's heard grumbling from other restaurant owners who has counted on the spillover from the Yankees' new home and even renovated in preparation.

KATSIHTIS: Everybody in the whole neighborhood I mean ourselves included, everybody banked on this, everybody thought that this was going to be great for the neighborhood, we were extremely optimistic about it at first, and unfortunately that just hasn't been the case.

REPORTER: And it's not just that a struggling economy and new venues that are hurting the neighborhood stores, says Katsithits. He and other merchants believe the Yankees inadvertently may have turned off fans by charging exorbitant ticket prices.

KATSIHTIS: A lot of our regulars who are season ticket holders - we only see them three four months a year and they've been coming in saying hey, I'm not going to see you on Sundays this year because I couldn't get the Sunday package I couldn't afford it - this and that.

REPORTER: Mike Hong has run D&J Variety Store for more than a decade. But the new stadium's location across the street, no longer puts his souvenir shop on the same side. Hong says he believes that the steel police barricades, there for safety purposes, along with the MTA giving directions, are factors why his business has been off by about 30 percent this year.

HONG: MTA transit they sending the people straight, so a lot of people who cross to come to 161 st it's hard to cross by this way because they want them to go straight.

REPORTER: But lately, the Yankees have been on a winning streak - drawing more fans. Some 161st street businesses - like the local pharmacy and liquor store - are maintaining their local customers. But these merchants are warily paying attention to something else - the proposed new rezoning laws.

MERCEDES: The question of the rezoning of the area which will mean the store will probably be demolished

REPORTER: Manuel Mercedes owns Stadium Wine and Liquors which has been there for 75 years. Now, if the rezoning proposals, which received preliminary approval in March are finalized, it could change the scale of this low-rise commercial strip.

MERCEDES: I don't see anyone in their right mind paying a good price for something that is not going to be there for a long period of time.

REPORTER: Mercedes says that will make it difficult for commercial tenants to sell to another small business owner. The reason: developers can buy the land the stores occupy, kick them out, and build up.

In the meantime, local merchants hope fans will eventually tire of the stadium's novelty and expense. They're looking for more people like Dan Grubb. Grubb tried out the Hard Rock Cafe but said he felt like he'd had a mall experience.

GRUBB: If you've been in one Hard Rock you've been in them all, there's nothing new, there's nothing that really feels like the Bronx and when I come up to the game, I want to feel the Bronx.

REPORTER: Right now, Grubb appears to be in the minority. A Hard Rock Cafe spokeswoman said on game days business has been better then they had expected. For WNYC, I'm Elaine Rivera.