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Customers began piling into Sybils West Indian Bakery and Restaurant on Liberty Avenue shortly before noon Saturday. At 10 p.m. people seeking spicy chicken roti or tender curried goat still had to squeeze their way into the shop to place their orders.
That same evening, Sybils owner Cookie Bernard threw his annual Labor Day block party to thank the customers who line up each day and take numbers to be served in his restaurant. More than 300 people gathered to celebrate the end of summer, enjoying the abundance of free chicken, meat, corn and cake while dancing to a mixture of Caribbean and popular American tunes from a live band.
As it is for the 540 other storefronts along the 30-block stretch of Liberty Avenue from the Van Wyck Expressway service road to 102nd Street, business is booming for Bernards restaurant, which, in 1989, was one of the first Indo-Caribbean businesses to open on the avenue.
A similar customer appreciation celebration organized by the 120th Street Liberty Avenue Merchants Association is scheduled for Saturday along Liberty Avenue from 122nd Street to Lefferts Boulevard.
The merchants on the avenue want to give back to the people who make us successful, said Haseeb Mohammed, owner of Camera Corner.
A big part of that prosperity stems from the changing face of Richmond Hill. As Indo-Caribbeans and South Asians replace the Italians, Germans and Irish who immigrated to the area in the early part of the 20th century, Richmond Hill has become one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in the entire city. During the 1990s, census figures show a 17 percent population growth in Richmond Hill, 12th highest in the city, largely due to the arrival of the Guyanese, Trinidadians, and most recently, Sikhs from India.
The presence of these newcomers has revitalized Liberty Avenue. The average household income in the area is $49,000 compared to $44,000 for the rest of the borough, according to a study by Agenda 21, a Richmond Hill, Ozone Park and South Ozone Park community development organization. The study also found the home ownership rate in Richmond Hill at 55 percent is higher than the Queens average.
Storefronts vacant 15 years ago have been replaced by Indo-Caribbean-owned restaurants, West Indian markets, and clothing shops where traditional saris hanging in windows emblazon the avenue.
Everyone wants to get a business to make a living, said Mohammed, who emigrated from Guyana in 1988.
Around 1980-81 a lot of Indo-Caribbeans started coming here, said Raymond Ally, co-chairman of Agenda 21. This area was a ghost town before that. Its not until we came that it was transformed. Then other groups came and the transformation continued.
Ally said the best indicator of the strength of the Liberty Avenue economy is the presence of businesses like Burger King, which opened two years ago, and Dunkin Donuts, which recently moved from a smaller location to a storefront under the elevated tracks near Lefferts Boulevard.
Business people are coming in because the market is strong, he said. Ally noted that even Korean-owned markets have signs advertising themselves as West-Indian grocery establishments.
Ally, who came to Richmond Hill from Guyana in 1993, said despite a 25 percent turnover rate along the strip in the past two years and rents that go as high as $12,000 a month, there are no vacancies in what has come to be known as Little Guyana. His group has recently renamed the avenue the New American Market to include all of Richmond Hills immigrants.
Usually if you have high turnover, there will be vacant spaces, he said. But they have filled up in no time here.
Mohammed said people have seen the increase in business and its somewhere they want to be.
The lack of openings on Liberty Avenue has forced aspiring merchants to come up with alternative locations, such as on side streets where rents are cheaper.
Ally admitted the one downside to the stepped-up business is the preponderance of traffic and litter along Liberty Avenue. Yes its messy, but we have a lot of businesses coming and were not getting city services like they do in Manhattan, he said.
To combat that problem, Agenda 21 wants to establish a Liberty Avenue Business Improvement District to qualify for tax revenues to use for street cleaning and security patrols. In four years, the group has secured more than $1 million in funding from the City Council for renovations to Smokey Oval Park, conducted a market study of the area, and published a New American Market merchant directory. The second edition of the business listings is due out later this year.
Ally thinks the BID will turn Liberty Avenue into an even more desirable location. We eventually want to be a destination shopping center like Austin Street in Forest Hills, he said. Were trying to do something even bigger than before.
Reach Reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.
©2001 Community Newspaper Group
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