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Harlem Yoga Studio Fights to Avoid Shutdown

By Jeff Mays | November 30, 2012 11:38am

HARLEM — The owners of Bikram Yoga-East Harlem are in the middle of their most important warrior pose yet as they fight to raise $20,000 by Monday to stave off closure.

"We were told we have until Dec. 3 to come up with the full balance of $52,000 or we would have to leave. We have $32,000," said Stephanie Pope Caffey, who opened the 116th Street yoga studio in 2008 with her sister, Jennifer Pope.

Pope Caffey said their trouble began last year, just after the shop began to turn its first decent profit.

Con Edison notified them they owed $45,000 because their utility bill had been incorrectly estimated since 2010, the owners said. The lights went out in the studio in July, forcing the women to scramble to come up with $25,000 to get them turned back on while they contested the bill.

That led them to fall behind on rent, property taxes and the water bill, they said. Their landlord and management company at the time was willing to work with them but then things changed.

After court hearings and a visit from a marshall in the middle of a class, the landlord obtained an eviction.

Pope Caffey says the landlord has now given her a Dec. 3 ultimatum to come up with all of the back rent or lose the space forever.

The sisters have now turned to their clients, friends and the Harlem community for help in raising the $20,000 they need to avoid joining the many other African-American owned businesses in Harlem that have closed in recent months.

"Anybody who has had a struggling business knows you don't want to let anyone know at first, but then you get to a point where you have to let people know," said Pope Caffey. "I feel we support our community a lot. For people who can't afford the classes we find a way."

The studio is soliciting donations on its website and via Facebook, and other Harlem businesses are busy spreading the word that Bikram Yoga, which has been closed altogether for a couple weeks, needs help.

The landlord could not immediately be reached for comment. But a woman who works at Management Source, the management company for the building, said the owners of Bikram Yoga-East Harlem, were constantly behind on their rent.

"Every agreement that both parties came to, she violated. She got so many chances," said Susan, an employee who declined to provide her last name. "The landlord still has to pay the mortgage."

Pope Caffey admits that running the business was difficult and she often agreed to terms she knew she'd have a hard time fulfilling.

"It has been a challenge from day one," Pope Caffey admitted.

But for the two sisters, who are African-American and grew up across the street from the studio in the Taft Houses, opening the studio in 2008 was the fulfillment of longtime goals.

"We fell in love with Bikram 20 years ago and we just came to a point in our lives where we wanted to give back to our community," said Pope Caffey. "With the high rates of obesity, asthma, diabetes and heart disease in this neighborhood, we wanted to give the community alternatives to maintain their health."

Bikram Yoga is a series of 26 poses and two breathing exercises that are practiced in a heated room. As a part of their mission, they offer an $8 community class and special deals to introduce area residents and newcomers to the benefits of yoga.

Kathryn Leary, a yoga teacher, said she has seen the health of clients who live in the neighborhood improve.

"Many of the clients I have taught have come in with serious health issues, such as arthritis and knee replacements. They have managed to see their health improve and have even done things such as get off of high blood pressure medication," said Leary. "There's a tremendous need for this in the community."

When Bikram Yoga opened, there weren't many dedicated yoga studios in Harlem. Four years later, there are several. The studio regularly welcomed roughly 100 students to one of its six daily classes. More than 80 percent of its clients live in Harlem and the Bronx. Many are minorities.

The pair liked to think they helped show other owners that yoga could thrive in Harlem.

But being pioneers has its risks. They opened at the height of the recession, making it difficult to get funding. Even local non-profits that lend money to small businesses were wary. The sisters said they risked their personal credit to open the studio.

"We know most businesses fail. But look at businesses that are shuttering and there's a common denominator. Something is not right when in a matter of months you have multiple African-American owned businesses closing," Pope Caffey said.

Among the black-owned Harlem businesses that have closed recently are Hue-Man Bookstore, bowling alley Harlem Lanes, Nectar Wine Bar and Society Coffee.

Sherman's Barbecue, a 60-year-old rib joint that served the Beatles, and Mobay Uptown, a Caribbean soul food restaurant along 125th Street, have also been shuttered. In the last few weeks, Harlem Vintage has also closed and Lenox Lounge is in jeopardy.

A group of politicians and local business leaders met this summer to brainstorm ways to help small, black-owned businesses.

The problems facing many black-owned businesses, the group agreed, are the same ones affecting Bikram Yoga-East Harlem, including a lack of access to credit and capital to ride out the rough patches.

"Small businesses of color like ours don't have the resources or the credit to weather the storm so we can thrive," said Pope Caffey. "I understand about the gentrification of Harlem, but I don't want to see the entire landscape of Harlem, both residential and commercial, change. It's breaking my heart."

Marva Allen, owner of Hue-Man, which has transitioned to an online book retailer that organizes special events, said many of the black-owned pioneer businesses are being harshly affected by the new interest in Harlem.

"Some of the businesses who anchored Harlem and made it possible for others to come are now being pushed out," Allen said.

"Harlem has gone national and national brands are redefining Harlem," she added.

Allen said the politicians and others who negotiated the land deals and financing that brought national chains and real estate redevelopment should have expected this displacement of small, locally-owned businesses and put safeguards in place to prevent it.

"It's important that Harlem remain a community," she said.

Pope Caffey said she remains optimistic about reaching the $20,000 mark within the next three days. The amount of support and e-mails coming in have shown there is a demand and appreciation for the services they offer, she said.

"It's a lot of money," she said. "But I have a fighting spirit and a belief in the power of community."