Fading away: Barbershops and gentrification in Downtown Newark, New Jersey | Photo Story

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16 mins read

Seventy Sixes 11 Central Avenue. The next major street over in downtown Newark’s historic zone is Central Avenue where me and my wife built, Seventy Sixes Barbershop.  We also were able to capitalize, somewhat, off of the changing city. For seven years, we owned the shop before selling it to one of the employees for the remainder of the lease.  

I say “somewhat” because it was very difficult to get access to resources that other businesses received.  Like all businesses, it’s not for the faint of heart, but we were a little too early in some respects, and too late in others.  

Too early for the vision that we had—a community barbershop that provided high-class services and organic, green products for an average price.  At the time, the area’s average client was not yet ready to pay for a great service, even at an average price.  

Initially, people walked out of the shop for haircuts over $10. I learned that they cared more about the price than the service because that is what they could afford. More so, after a typical client got a haircut downtown, they would have to spend $1.50 or more, to take the bus back up the hill.  I understood that because even though I had a barbershop, I still rode public transportation off-and-on.  

For my business plan, I thought that if I dropped my $17 dollar haircuts to $15 and did the first cut, at half-price then by the time gentrifiers heard about the shop, I could make up the difference charging them full price. Well, I was surely wrong. Not only was I giving out $6 cuts, I learned that businesses considered too “local” or native would not reap the benefits of newcomers.

The main part about gentrification that people don’t discuss is the lack of patronage of local shopkeepers by the new wave of migrants.  In Newark, the newly white, city walkers would walk into the newly white restaurants, while walking past a Black business owner or worker that’s been there 20-plus years.  Even though I was more than qualified and even provided a better service than most shops they have been to, few entered. 

Before opening Seventy Sixes, I was the only Black man who managed an all-white salon in a mostly-white town called Livingston, New Jersey. I knew them very well.  In my head, I was like, “I cut all around the United States and was certified by any standard, but the people coming into Newark by day then leaving at night, had no interest in my well-manicured shop.”

In spite of all the obstacles, I survived my first year eating from the local community of police officers, teachers, sanitation workers, and homeless populations who stayed at YMCA across the street. By the way, that YMCA is closing down in the next year or two, even though it services hundreds of families from multiple counties.

The new corporate transplants wanted nothing to do with me until some of my white loyal customers who drove down from Livingston were seen sitting in my chair. They came down to what whites saw as “the hood” to get a haircut because my service was excellent.  Though, that took time.

By the third year, the disconnect between me and those who worked in the city or moved there, started to wane.  Business started to boom and I was noted all over downtown as the shop that cut blacks and whites, college kids and halfway house inmates, blue collar and white collar professionals. In my head, “I made it,” or so I thought.  

After Seventy Sixes’ fifth year, we watched as some businesses that were given all the tax breaks and incentives began to die off.  Most of these corporate structured businesses did not even make it to two years and here we were, still standing.                                                                                                                 

In the end, I learned that it all comes in waves. I watched a good three phases of businesses and people, come-and-go before the word on the street informed me that the owners of my building were about to sell.  

As I look back, it all makes sense now. The manager of the property often brought groups of white developers or investors to my shop because Seventy Sixes became a symbol of “good gentrification.” So, as I struggled to keep my shop opened, I realized that I was also on the auction block being shown off to prospects.

The owners of the building, Cuban immigrants, bought the building for $36,000 in the 1980’s. During this time, the height of deindustrialization and the crack era almost took Newark out. Many people left and so did a lot of industries and commercial retail. The Musibay family bought a building in the heart of Newark’s commercial district that was a two-story, and wrapped around Broad Street and Central Avenue.  In their negotiations to sell the building this year, they asked for $5 million and had a couple of offers on the table.  

Like the Musibays, families who left Newark in the 50s and 60s were sitting on buildings that they did nothing to restore. These buildings, like the one I was in on Central Avenue, were falling apart, so the proprietors saw an opportunity to cash out.  

Slumlords, by any other name in the book, were leaving their tenants out to dry.  “It’s not over,” some would say. “you can leave this rundown building and go around the corner for a higher price.” But, how much more? $3,200 to $4,000.  

At the time, I paid $1,800 a month.  I used to think, “If these worker transplants would patronize my business like they should and not walk by with their noses up, I might be able to handle that.” Although, sometimes, I’d have some Prudential clients come in, it was still nowhere near enough to make it.

Plus, the local clientele were decreasing because they too stopped frequenting the area due to all of the construction that made it hard for them to walk or park. That was another problem, parking. Parking enforcement officers and motorcycle cops would ticket clients on our side, but never bother people who would triple-and-double park on the other side of the tracks in Ironbound where the last enclave of the descendants of European immigrants lived. You do the math on that one.

As a result, I had to think about an exit strategy. Maybe, I could sell before it happens.  Problem with that was that I needed a lease to sell to a buyer and the owners would not renew my lease because they were making plans to liquidate the building.  All of my years of being in that shop. Six-and-seven-day weeks. All that work, lost to what we call gentrification.  

I can’t blame it all on that of course. The whole issue of gentrification is that we, as a community, do not own any land.  This experience taught me that you don’t truly own anything and without that deed to argue otherwise in court, we are destined to complain about being pushed out of just about anything. 

Is it right? No. 

Are those who come in and do what they want are to blame? No. 

Is it our fault? No. 

Is it the politician that oversees the process? No. 

Are all of the above guilty? Yes.  

Seventy Sixes is still standing with a new owner of the building with every storefront on a month-to-month until the owner of the building is ready to do a gut job.  So much to write, contemplate and discuss; however one thing is for sure, until our community owns up to our faults, we are doomed. Hey a snake is going to be a snake, but what’s your excuse? Peace

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1 Comment

  1. That’s crazy hearing about Million Dollar Kutz. The accomplishments of gentrification is like the backlash our community receive due to lack of economical unity. Duane and Kaia. Keep up the great work making knowledge born. Ptah. Peace

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