HAMILTON: No Black Ownership on Highland Avenue is Residents Fault

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By: Ken Hamilton

No excuses; if my people, African-Americans, want black businesses to grow and prosper, then instead of worrying about the dilapidated Niagara Community Center, my people, African-Americans, must use whatever resources that they have to support them.

And so I ask, will anything other than a few black-owned vanity businesses of barbershops, beauty parlors and drinking establishments ever be successful in the city’s most densely-populated Black census tract of 202, the Highland Community; or is it the harbinger of what is to become of the rest of the city, including Pine Avenue?  And if so, as the city, in the absence of the Seneca Casino money that it feels it is owed by either the Indians or the state, seemingly vainly tries to reestablish the downtown tourist area, will the bulk of the area west of the 56-Street bridge that leads to the more successful LaSalle community fall into further decay? Who’s doing anything at all about it? 

Buffalonian Alexander Wright is an extraordinarily bright and well-educated man.  He is the founder and general manager of both of the African Heritage Food Cooperatives in Niagara Falls and Buffalo. I spoke to him when he first purchased the building at 2616 Highland Ave, Niagara Falls, built by African-American Fred Brown as a Wilson Farms, and later purchased by the Niagara Falls Housing Authority.  Wright was very optimistic about the project of providing to the community the fresh vegetables and fruits that those area residents said that they wanted. After several months in business, both his parking lots and shelves largely remain empty.  He has not yet returned my telephone call for comment.

Wright’s motto is “Anything Less Than Ownership is Unacceptable.”  But the landlocked Highland Community is bordered by an abandoned railroad switch yard to its south, a rail spur running up to Lafayette Avenue on its western side that includes the east side of McKoon Avenue in DeVeaux, and Hyde Park Boulevard forming its eastern border and separating it from the Town of Niagara’s Beldon Center, where a few black lawn jockeys and some rebel flags are boldly displayed.

The Highland community of approximately 2,600 residents is woefully lacking in home- or business-ownership. It is mainly connected to the rest of the city by a street that is in much need of repair and passes under a viaduct that leads towards the Main Street train station, Highland Avenue’s Huff Bridge, the Lockport Street Bridge and the Hyde Park Boulevard Bridge that arches over the former Lehigh Valley Switchyards.

It is on the Main Street and Hyde Park Boulevard sides where the most successful businesses are, and one of those black-owned businesses was Faith’s Consignment and Boutique shop that sat next to the white-owned Niagara Barber Company, a barbershop, but sadly is seemingly closed. The Gazette said that, “Brad Inzinga, the owner of Niagara Barber Company next door, is happy to have [now had] Edwards in his building. His intent is always to bring more businesses to the northern end of Hyde Park Boulevard.”

 The consignment shop is, or was, owned by single mother Porsha Edwards and, according the an April 14th Niagara Gazette news report, was named Faith in tribute to one of her 1-year old twins that passed away in 2017. In trying to reach Ms. Edwards, the phone’s message simply said that the call did not go through and to try again later. I feel bad because of it all, including the loss of the much wanted discount opportunities that it provided for community members. Wright apparently is trying to provide much needed items as well. 

While the factories that once lined the heavily-traveled Hyde Park Boulevard now look almost desert-like, there are still a couple of blossoming cacti that line it. One is George’s pizza shop that is still a popular spot, though it isn’t black-owned, many of its patrons are. Likewise is Marks Food Market, which is Arab-owned. There are also a few mechanic shops, none to my knowledge are black-owned, and they sell used automobiles. 

But the new business champion of Hyde Park Blvd will be near the intersection of College Avenue and it is the under-construction Dollar General store, with its twin outlet a 3-minute drive away at the corner of Witmer/Saunders Settlement Road and Military Road in the Town of Niagara. Perhaps a Tim Horton’s will follow?

Even more popular with the residents than Mark’s Hyde Park store is what many Highland residents call the “Back Store.”  It is really Main Street’s DeVeaux Mini Mart, and it really isn’t mini at all. Like most such stores in the city, it too is Arab owned and with a wide variety of the things that residents won’t say in surveys that they want, but they do buy in droves.  These are vanity supplies like hair and hair products, clothing, cigarettes, alcohol, wraps and the like. I admit that I often stop by there for ice cream bars and lotto tickets because the staff is so very friendly. I also admit that I rarely, if ever, patronize the businesses that are in the core of the Highland community, like the Elks Club (I don’t drink), Mrs. King’s once black-owned former store, nor Mr. Fields once black-owned store on the corner of Centre and 20th Street across from Stephanie Cowart’s HOPE-VI Center Court project.  These stores are strikingly smaller than the peripheral stores of Mark’s and DeVeaux Mini, and none significantly stock any fresh fruits of vegetables as Wright’s much larger African Heritage Food Cooperative that Wright wants to bring.

But the public’s focus is one the place that was brought to its knees by the  cohort antics of NAACP Chapter President Shirley Hamilton and former Legislator Renae Kimble. There where just eleven people supporting the Niagara Community Center prior to its imminent closing; I was one of them, so I think that I am qualified to say the following: 

And so I reiterate, there’s money even in a community that is filled with subsidized housing and non-homeownership, and where its 2,000 black residents own less than 5% of the total property values within the census tract. If my people, African-Americans, want black businesses to grow and prosper, then instead of worrying about the dilapidated Niagara Community Center that you also didn’t support, my people, African-Americans, must use whatever resources that they have to support black businesses as well. Wright is right, “Anything Less Than Ownership is Unacceptable.” 

This also applies to the tourist district, and to all Niagarans as well. If these businesses fail, then it is our fault.


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