'Ghetto' Harlem Liquor Store Gets New Look, Community Backing
HARLEM — The blazing red-and-yellow neon liquor sign, bulletproof plexiglass and riot gates are all gone. In their place are a red canopied sign, neatly stocked rows of Cabernet and Chardonnay bottles on open shelves, and see-through gates.
The Mount Morris Park liquor store — which gave residents of this rapidly changing historic district flashbacks to the days when Harlem was more rough and tumble — has been transformed by its owners.
In the process, owners and residents say they have worked out a solution they believe will allow both the liquor store and one of Harlem's most desirable neighborhoods to thrive, after controversy erupted over the shop's appearance.
"Hopefully business will be OK," said store manager Berihu Mesfin. "We want to be part of the community."
In order to make up for the tens of thousands of dollars he spent making changes to the store, which is located on Lenox Avenue and West 119th Street, Mesfin opened a few days earlier than Friday's planned debut.
Among his first customers was Ruthann Richert, a 25-year resident of Mount Morris Park and the treasurer of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association. She had stopped in to check out the alterations.
Richert had visions of wine tastings when she saw plans for a wine and liquor store. But after she saw the original neon and plexiglass design, she sent out an e-mail blast titled: "Abomination on Lenox! Help!"
"This is a wonderful change," said Richert, who purchased two bottles of Chardonnay for herself and another bottle of wine for a friend.
Customers cruised in and out of the store, purchasing liquor and wine while Mesfin's workers put the finishing touches on the store. There are new floors and a ramp to provide access to the basement-level shop. Some shelves also have to be reconfigured in the store, which is only partially stocked.
"I was excited when I passed by the store and saw they were open," said Cheyenne Sandana, who lives a few blocks away. "I was always hoping for a wine store in this area."
But the community wasn't always so excited about the store.
In a neighborhood with multimillion-dollar brownstones and condos, celebrity residents and plans for the 16-block historic district to grow larger, the store's design rattled a lot of nerves.
Some called it "ghetto," while others said the bulletproof plexiglass would attract the wrong clientele.
Store manager Moca Zeraye said he was even cursed out by an elderly man, a buyer for a French wine importer, who told him that the people who purchase his wines would not shop at a store encased in plexiglass.
And to add to their troubles, both the Department of Buildings and the Landmarks Preservation Commission cited the store for doing work without a permit and without getting proper approval because the store is located in a landmarked building.
DOB said the violations are still active pending a hearing, and LPC spokeswoman Elisabeth de Bourbon added that the owner has yet to submit an application to legalize the work done to the sign and the gate, although they have until next week to do so.
Mesfin said he has turned the issue over to the building's owner, noting he sought approval from the landlord before doing work on the storefront but was not notified that he needed permission.
Syderia Chresfield, president of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association, said the previous design reflected where the neighborhood was 25 years ago and not the direction it is heading.
"The outside appearance hurt, because it wasn't in keeping with the character of the historic district," Chresfield said. "Now that they've changed the plexiglass and the big blazing liquor store sign, it's more in line with what's going on around here."
Some area residents said the dustup over the store is indicative of the gentrification that has hiked rents and pushed longtime residents out.
But Chresfield disagreed.
"It's not a class issue. Why shouldn't things change for the better?" she asked. "The same person who was going to purchase a bottle of liquor with the plexiglass up can still walk in the store and make the same purchase."
Despite the enthusiastic response, Mesfin said he remains worried about security.
"I look at all the liquor stores around here, and they all have plexiglass," he said. "We are the only one that is opened up." As he spoke, a worker bounced around the store setting up a security system with multiple cameras and video monitors.
But Chresfield and others think that safety won't be an issue because Mesfin has already been embraced by the community. He donated champagne for the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association's holiday fundraiser, and Richert may get her wine tasting on Lenox Avenue after all.
She was making plans for Mesfin to host the association's spring wine-tasting fundraiser. The group would be required to purchase a large quantity of wine from the store for the event. She was also enlisting a friend to brand the unnamed store.
"We firmly believe in supporting our local businesses," said Richert.
"I'll go out of my way to come here."