161st Street: Yankees Looming, Bronx Booming?

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The crisis that started on Wall Street is now hitting main streets everywhere. WNYC has started a new project called Main Street NYC to track the changes on five streets. Last month we took you to Smith street in Brooklyn. In the Bronx we're going to 161 st Street just in the shadow of the new Yankee Stadium.

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Urban planners and developers have begun the process of converting this commercial strip into a global marketplace. A massive proposed rezoning has many long time Bronx residents watching this street closely. WNYC’s Elaine Rivera has the story.

REPORTER: Walk by the landmark Yankee Tavern on 161st and Gerard Avenue in the Bronx on any given day and most likely you'll see 79-year-old Troy Rigby - with his trademark seaman's cap sitting at the window. It's a Hopperesque site. The dapper neighborhood regular spends hours on a barstool in pensive thought.

From his bar perch, Rigby envisions what's to come:

RIGBY: Big changes will come in the next five years when new hotels and new businesses open in the area. They're right now issuing co-op notices in the area - everything is changing.

REPORTER: Local business owners feel anticipation and some trepidation as they wait to see what the new stadium and revised rezoning will do for them.

Joe Bastone is the owner of the Yankee Tavern and is secretary of the 161st Street Merchant's Association. As the finishing touches are being put on the Yankees new home, Bastone describes the level of construction activity.

BASTONE: 161st is moving along - we they're finishing up a Metro North station there's a major shopping center adjacent to us there's the new Yankee Stadium.

But Bastone echoes what other business owners along the strip feel.

BASTONE: It's on the upswing - the question is with the new economy - the bad economy - how fast it's going to progress. Right now the stores on 161st Street are not doing well I think obviously they're going to get an influx when the Yankees season starts - the question is how much business are they going to get is going to be as good, better or worse.

REPORTER: In the meantime, unlike other bar venues, in the neighborhood that shut down off-season, the Yankee Tavern is open year-round. He's got a steady lunch crowd clientele from the nearby courthouses along with construction workers. But, it's not enough in this economy. So, Bastone has made changes to his menu.

BASTONE: My biggest thing here is $5 special food specials for lunch and that's keeping a volume people coming all day but when you're discounting things you're not making a lot of money.

REPORTER: Near the tavern, is Jeans Plus, a store that caters not only to Yankee fans with its baseball jerseys and other souvenirs but they also sell the latest styles of clothing to locals in the neighborhood. Manager Abdul Traore describes what's going on:

TRAORE: Oh, right now the business is very, very slow - we cut the people's hours they don't even have 40 hours.

REPORTER: Traore is hoping that when the new stadium opens up - sales will jump again. So do, Mike and Helen Hong who run a souvenir shop two doors down from Jeans Plus.

Like Abdul, Mike Hong says it's been slow. He hopes with the opening of the new stadium in April business will become profitable again. But Hong expresses his ambivalence about the new venue. While it will once again bring more people to the neighborhood, the new stadium is now across the street - not on the same side -as the Hongs' shop. So if people don't come out on the street, the fear is they may just shop at the new stadium's souvenir stores.

HONG: I was thinking about that but usually inside the stadium the prices are higher than us. I'm a little worried but I'm not worried too much only because Yankee Stadium is the other side so when new people passing by maybe they don't cross to this way maybe they just park and go straight to stadium but price we have very reasonable price compared to inside stadium.

REPORTER: But some of the 161st Street merchants - who run the local pharmacy and liquor store - don't fele that vulnerable. Mitchell Goldstein has been a pharmacist at Leff Prescriptions for 32 years. He says business seems to remain consistent - whether the Yankees are in town or there's an economic downturn.

GOLDSTEIN: I think people are going to give up a beer before they're going to give up a tube of toothpaste so I don't the economy really affect it - people are still going to need their staple items that you need in a drug store.

REPORTER: Manuel Mercedes, manager of Stadium Wines and Liquor a few doors down says the liquor business has been good, too.

MERCEDES: The store has been here 75 years through wars and Depressions and when things are good we celebrate and when things are bad we drown our tears.

REPORTER: Mercedes doesn't see the store going anywhere.

MERCEDES: We will survive this store this store in particular will be here as long as the wrecking ball doesn't get us.

REPORTER: But that wrecking ball could swing through this area if the proposed rezoning laws pass. These would allow landlords to build vertically on the property they now lease to these neighborhood merchants. That will allow for new hotels, condos and office buildings. But it's not just many of the local store owners who are concerned - it's also the current residents. In a neighborhood that is 95 percent black and Hispanic with a median annual household income of $24,000, many fear they will be pushed out to make way for a more affluent community.

Seventy-nine-year-old Troy Rigby, a senior citizen on a fixed income who has lived near 161st Street for more than 10 years, sees himself as a possible casualty of a prosperity that has been moving steadily north from Manhattan for more than two decades.

RIGBY: If people have retired early - or they're already retired - can't really live here anymore - well I'm one of them. So, you know, you keep moving, you can't sit still changing of the guard of the time, life goes on.

REPORTER: The seven-month public review process of the proposed revised zoning laws will begin in the spring. Final approval is not expected until next year. For WNYC, I'm Elaine Rivera