“You have to rule in the streets. What One-Block Small Business Owners Want To See From Boston’s Next Mayor
Small business owners are the backbone of Boston’s economy, and 19 months after the pandemic began, many are hanging on for life, struggling with rent, labor and shortages. supply, and an economy still profoundly affected by life under COVID-19.
As Boston prepares to elect a new mayor in a historic election, many are now saying, more than ever, that they want a Chief at City Hall who will do more than lend a sympathetic ear.
“I think there’s still this perception, and it’s well deserved, that it’s just a problem” of doing business in Boston, said Nia Evans, executive director of the Boston Ujima Project, which offers assistance to business owners of color. “It is inaccessible to deal with the city.
Unlike their predecessors, the two finalist mayors actually have personal experience of running a small business: City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George owns a knitting store in Dorchester, while Councilor Michelle Wu owned a tea room in his hometown of Chicago. Both built on those roots and made small businesses a key platform in their campaign. And some hope it predicts a much needed change of perspective from City Hall.
“We need boots on the pitch, that’s very important,” said Langston. “You cannot govern from an office. You have to rule on the streets.
In Langston’s case, it’s Fairmont Avenue in Cleary Square, a shopping mall near a train station that suffered without its flood of daily commuters moving downtown. But even in better days, opening and running a business in Boston is a struggle.
Karla Yearwood decided to open her juice bar here, energized by its friendly atmosphere. But when she found a space on Fairmont in 2019, zoning issues stalled her construction at every turn. Then COVID struck, and its ambitions were again blocked. Finally, Fair Nutrition opened in October 2020.
It was a difficult start. There were few commuters passing by to come. Her landlord told her she could get a rent reduction, but ended up suing her. She has devised a payment plan but barely breaks even and works nights in the warehouse to pay bills.
Many of these headaches could have been avoided, she said, had the city’s inspection services department been more organized. The resources offered by the city to help businesses open should be better marketed. If she had known Hyde Park Main Streets earlier, which defends neighborhood businesses, Yearwood said she could have avoided her zoning issues.
“There are a lot of hoops and loops,” Yearwood said. “If you get stuck in one, you could literally be going around in circles for so long.”
Pinales had help from Hyde Park Main Streets, but he too fell short. He grew up poor in the Dominican Republic and came to the United States in 2005 with a fourth grade education. Over four years ago, Pinales turned its restaurant, Rincon Caribeno, into a hub of mofongo and karaoke. He says it’s a dream come true.
But renovating the restaurant during COVID was a nightmare. A native Spanish speaker, Pinales found it impossible to connect with inspection services for help with permits, even with the help of an interpreter from Hyde Park Main Streets.
“Sometimes we would go weeks without hearing from anyone” he said through his translator, Matzaris Del Valle, a board member of Hyde Park Main Streets.
A spokesperson for the inspection services said the agency had appointed a Spanish-speaking inspector to assist it. But Pinales and Del Valle say if that was the case, they never knew it.
“I have never spoken to anyone in Spanish,” Del Valle said.
Pinales received $ 2,000 from the city’s Reopen Boston Fund to weather the pandemic, but was not eligible for larger aid amounts from the federal government because he is not a US citizen. The debts have accumulated and today, he is gradually paying off $ 18,000 in rent arrears. His electricity and gas were cut off for a while when he fell behind on payments. He also lost his house after falling behind in paying rent. He and his wife found a new apartment after several months, he said, visibly shaken. But he still has entrepreneurs to pay, and his children too are now in debt with credit cards.
“Sometimes he’s faced with a decision. Do I buy food? Or do I have to pay a bill or the rent? Said Del Valle.
Now he arrives at the restaurant at 5 a.m. and works until 1 a.m., doing all the shopping, cooking and cleaning because it’s so hard to hire help. He takes a nap on a cot in the basement.
Sometimes, says Pinales, he wants to give up. But most of all, he just wants help. He supports Essaibi George, he said. But whoever wins should watch out for immigrant business owners.
“There isn’t enough help for someone who wants to do good, who has a business that follows all the rules,” he said.
Like Pinales, Sealy turns to the city for help wherever she can find it.
For most of his work life, Sealy was an accountant who wanted to be a seamstress. In 2014, she became one by opening her boutique – Dress With Confidence – on Fairmont, selling dresses and skirts made from West African fabrics. COVID almost wiped her out.
“All the proms, graduations and weddings,” she said, “In the past two years I haven’t done any.”
Sealy’s friends and family helped pay the rent; corn she didn’t know that the other tenants in her building were renegotiating their leases. She spent over $ 30,000 to keep her doors open – that was her retirement savings.
“It took all my money,” she said.
Sealy tapped into the city’s resources to stay solvent, including helping Boston Main Streets to build a new website and acquire a new point-of-sale system.
More help like that would be invaluable, she said. The same goes for workforce training programs, said Sealy, who does all of her own tailoring because she can’t find a seamstress to hire. The housing crisis in the city is playing a role, she noted, as workers struggle to afford housing. So she was intrigued by Wu and his interest in rent control.
More than anything, Sealy wants the city to stand up for business owners.
“We need someone to help us get through the next day,” she said.
Langston and Londy agree. They also think about the long term.
The couple have been selling hair extensions and wigs on Fairmont Avenue since 2015, two years after their first launch their company, Intriguing Hair, online. They serve women who are losing their hair due to medical issues and, as one of the few such stores that can bill insurance companies, have built a thriving business with customers far beyond Hyde. Park.
COVID has hit. Sales fell 70 percent. And then their store was robbed following the George Floyd protests in June 2020, when vandals took advantage of the lack of police presence in Hyde Park, miles from the action of downtown, to steal $ 20,000. of products.
“They broke and grabbed everything they could,” Langston said.
The couple paid for the repairs instead of using insurance, to keep their premiums from skyrocketing. They received city and state grants and got a federal loan of $ 15,000. But they are still very much in debt.
“We are taking money out of the air to bring this all to life,” he said. “A lot of black businesses and blacks, we were born in debt. We live in debt. This is what we know our lives are.
Then, in June, an upheaval occurred: a real estate agent stopped by with a client looking to buy his building. The couple didn’t even know it was for sale. Langston was quick to put together an offer, and after significant bickering as well as support from local politicians, the couple said they were in the process of buying it themselves. But Langston is frustrated at not being privy to the sale, a challenge many small business owners of color face.
“We are trying to build something to leave for our son,” he said. “We both know what it feels like to be born without assets. “
They hope the next mayor will prioritize “black and brown economic development,” Londy said. And they want to see this mayor engage individually with small businesses, removing the red tape that entangles far too many entrepreneurs.
“If you are part of a local government, you have to see what your citizens and your constituents are going through.,Langston said. “They need to see your face.”