By Jeff Mays
HARLEM—For 60 years, Claudio Caponigro has kept what he calls "postman hours" at his tiny barbershop in East Harlem.
"Every morning, rain or shine, I'm here 7 to 5. That's what the post office says," said the 80-year-old.
The shop, along with Rao's, is one of the last vestiges of a time when East Harlem was a neighborhood of Italian immigrants. But as business after business closed and large Italian families moved to the suburbs and were replaced by Puerto Ricans, and now Mexicans, Claudio's Barbershop remained constant.
That may not be the case much longer as a new landlord wants to more than double the rent on the 15-square-foot shop to $1,650 per month, a fee Caponigro says he can't afford especially since he still only charges $10 for a haircut and $7 for a straight razor shave.
Local elected officials, including Rep. Charles Rangel, Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez and East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito gathered at the shop at East 116th Street near First Avenue Thursday to urge the landlord to save an important piece of East Harlem's history.
"Claudio is more than a good barber, he is part of the history and the development of this community," Rangel said as he slid into Caponigro's barber chair which the congressman, who soon turns 81, said he hadn't seen anywhere in a long time.
The building was recently recommended as one of 19 structures deserving of individual landmark status in a potential East Harlem historic district. Sports Illustrated once conducted a photo shoot there and Jennifer Lopez filmed a music video inside the shop's walls.
Rodriguez, whose father took him to get his first haircut at the shop, said that Caponigro's situation is similar to hundreds of small business owners around the city and that he deserves a few more years at the location to retire with dignity.
"This is not just happening in East Harlem or Central Harlem," he said. "This is a part of people's business plan to displace tenants with high rent. We are not saying don't make a dollar, we are saying do it in a reasonable fashion."
Mark-Viverito said she would be willing to explore commercial rent regulation laws. "You can't operate a small business paying exorbitant rent," she said. "We don't want to see businesses like yours displaced."
Yat Man, an attorney for landlord Hong Lin, said his client is not a bad person and is willing to negotiate with Caponigro. One possible client for the space is a Chinese food takeout restaurant, which are not in short supply in the neighborhood.
"It's a business. Unfortunately my guy has a mortgage to pay. The bank is not going to care if he's trying to give a good deal to a nice guy," Man said.
Man said that Caponigro has already been in the space for almost two years without a lease, paying $650 while the owner dealt with the storefront next door. Caponigro has offered to double his rent to $1,200 per month but Man said that's simply not enough. The landlord is still open to negotiation, he said.
'We have legitimate offers for $1,650. If he wants time to slowly move out we'll give it to him. My guy is a small real estate owner. He is not a slumlord looking to make a ton of money, he just doesn't want to lose money."
Caponigro, still strong and with a steady hand, said he doesn't understand why a doubling of the rent isn't enough. If he tries to raise his prices, he'll probably lose customers in this working class and lower-working class neighborhood. He says he has always given out haircuts free of charge to people he knows can't afford them even as business dropped off during this recession.
"I want him to stay," said Francisco Garcia, 78, who has been getting his hair cut in the shop for more than 35 years. "Our heart will be suffering if he leaves. He's a wonderful man."
Maria Uyeki, Caponigro's youngest daughter, said she is flooded with memories every time she returns to the block where she once lived. Her grandmother lived a few doors down from the shop. The candy store that was next to the barbershop is now bricked up and the "real coffee shop" on the corner has been replaced with a Dunkin' Donuts. Andy's Colonial Tavern is also gone.
"One by one all of these places have gone out of business but my father survived. It's weird that he's being forced out of business," she said.
Rangel said he was hoping to work with the landlord and Rao's to find a way to maximize the barbershop's history to increase revenue through tourism.
Meanwhile, Caponigro, who has a date in court next week over eviction proceedings, plans to keep cutting hair
"The good people keep me young and I'm proud of what I do," he said.