In Harlem, African Biz Grow, Not ‘Little Senegal’

Serengeti Teas and Spices has opened in Central Harlem, the neighborhood's first tea shop. (Photo by U-Jin Lee via Northattan)

Serengeti Teas and Spices has opened in Central Harlem, the neighborhood’s first tea shop. (Photo by U-Jin Lee via Northattan)

In the backdrop of the hoopla surrounding the opening of Red Lobster in the heart of Harlem, one Harlemite – by way of Liberia – is also bringing something new to the Manhattan neighborhood.

Northattan reporter U-Jin Lee profiles Caranda Martin, the owner of Serengeti Teas and Spices, which opened last month giving Harlem its first tea shop. Not only does the store sell organic tea leaves imported from Africa and South Asia, it ships its products every day to 16 five-star restaurants across Manhattan.

Martin is in direct contact with the African farmers who supply his store’s goods, giving that personal touch.

“I opened up this shop because I wanted to expose to the community of Harlem that Africa is a tea producing region,” storeowner Martin said. “Our purpose is to provide something different, something that is foreign to your pallet.”

To obtain various types of tea leaves or coffee beans, Martin travels to the farms in Africa, more specifically to villages in Liberia where he eats dinner with the farmers, converses with them and then finally walks along the farm. There, he observes the leaves and scrutinizes the coffee beans to make sure that quality standards are met.

“Everything is direct,” Martin said. “I do direct trade with the farmers in Africa. That way, I know what you’re drinking, I know who made it, and I know where it came from. The lesson I learned from my grandmother is that quality is not based on the measure of a handshake. It’s based on a relationship built based over a period of time between the farmer and the buyer and that relationship allows you to build intimate understanding of what each person’s needs are.”

The Serengeti owner has lived in the U.S. for two decades and he brought his family’s experience with agriculture with him, including how to whip tea, as taught to him by his grandmother.

When a tea is whipped, tea leaves are dried and powdered, according to barista Rashard Johnson. Then, after adding boiling water, a long, wooden spoon is spun in the beverage numerous times, allowing it to produce oxygen. The more the brew moves, the more the flavors are seeped. This process creates a stronger extraction.

Martin has some company on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. According to Lee, local businesses continue to open up along the avenue, many of which are owned by African immigrants as their population grows in the area.

However, another article in Northattan, this one one by Portia Crowe, finds that not all immigrant business owners from the African continent see a rosy future.

What's left of Codou Gueye’s beauty salon, closed since January 2012. (Photo by Portia Crowe via Northattan)

What’s left of Codou Gueye’s beauty salon, closed since January 2012. (Photo by Portia Crowe via Northattan)

Just to the south on West 116th Street, the two-block wide “Little Senegal” is sprinkled with shuttered stores and businesses. While immigrant-owned stores continue cropping up in Central Harlem, in South Harlem real estate companies are kicking businesses out with rising rents.

Crowe heads to West 116th Street, where she finds 14 businesses have been vacated, with steel shutters left in their wake.

At 141 W. 116th, a metal gate marked with graffiti blocks the entrance to what used to be Codou Gueye’s beauty salon. When her landlord sent her an unexpected $6,000 water bill last January, she closed the salon and returned to Senegal, according to a former employee. No one has replaced her.

Across the street from Gueye’s salon, Souleyeman Ba shut his restaurant when the landlord charged him for repairs to a leaky roof that was never fixed; now his storefront gate remains firmly padlocked. One block down, at 243 W. 116th, Touba Boutique closed three months ago and Daouda Sarr, the manager, moved uptown. He opened his own shop on 148th Street and Eighth Avenue, where many Senegalese have begun to relocate.

Crowe speaks to store owners who describe the hostile situation all too familiar to the community.

“They are trying to kick us away here,” said Bakh Yaye, a record shop owner who said his rent has doubled in the last year. “Everybody knows that.”

Mariam Diop owns a grocery store on 116th Street near Seventh Avenue. She signed a five-year lease that prohibits rent increases of more than $150 per year, but the real problem, she said, is when that term ends. Last time she renewed it, her landlord boosted rent by nearly a third.

“When my lease is finished, she added almost a thousand dollars,” said Diop. “They just want to tell you: take it or leave it.”

Another Senegalese local tells of a way real estate companies get businesses to leave.

“At the time, they tell them the building will be shut down,” said Dame Babou, a Senegalese radio host who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years. “But as soon as they get out, you see the signs now, where they say ‘for lease.’

These are particularly frustrating circumstances for a community that says it cleaned up the dangerous neighborhood they were met with when they first arrived 30 years ago.

“The Senegalese settled and drove out the drug dealers,” said Souleyeman Diagne, a Senegalese professor at Columbia University.  “The gentrification we’re talking about – they were part of it.”

Amsterdam News also has a profile on Caranda Martin and Serengeti Teas and Spices, published at the end of September.