Jamaica biz improve group celebrates 25th anniversary

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Take Jamaica Furniture, which opened in 1929 before the stock market crash and managed to survive the Great Depression on through to today. Or Empire State Clothier, where two brothers-in-law took over the business for their father-in-law. Kulka's Bakery was the start of a family business, but now it is almost a secondary operation as the Kulka family tackles the real estate market.

"Each one has a little story and they're really fabulous," Barkan said.

Jamaica Center Improvement Association, a non-profit business group covering Jamaica Avenue from Sutphin Boulevard to 169th Street, celebrated its 25th anniversary at its annual meeting last month. The organization provides sanitation, security and aesthetic services to its merchants and property owners, who pay a voluntary assessment to cover the costs.

The group was created by the state in 1979 as a special assessment district, a forerunner of the more commonly known business improvement district, a designation bestowed by the city.

"The city considers us the same as a BID," Barkan said. "We're the oldest mechanism of this type in the city to provide supplemental services to merchants."

The Jamaica Center Improvement Association is responsible for keeping Jamaica Avenue and a stretch of Union Hall Street clean, which is no easy task, Barkan said. A seven-person crew works seven days a week to bag the three tons of trash and litter that is disposed of each day on the mile-long strip.

"That's just the incidental trash from the streets, not from the businesses," Barkan said.

And to clear away the pieces of sticky, black dirt that were once gum from the sidewalks, the crew gets a steam-cleaning machine and hits every single spot, she said.

"We only do that once a year because it's a lot of work - usually after the school year ends when we figure all the deposits for the year have been made," Barkan said.

The association also paints over graffiti in the area, maintains the phone booths and bus shelters, clears snow from the crosswalks in the winter, cares for the trees and hangs decorative banners on the light poles, she said.

Barkan and her board of directors also try to draw more people to the Jamaica Avenue stores through marketing campaigns, including radio giveaways, and activities such as the "Heart and Sole of Jamaica" walking tours. Each tour covers a different topic, ranging from the area's overall history to churches, from Jamaica's culinary offerings to its jazz roots, Barkan said.

"Each one has a different theme," she said. "We're trying to draw people from outside the immediate area."

The area also gets a tremendous amount of business from bus tours that ferry shoppers to the downtown area from out of town. One bus company based in Rochester, N.Y. fills a caravan of 15 to 18 buses for the trips, particularly around the winter holidays, Barkan said.

And while some are trying to fight the reputation of Jamaica as a crime-ridden area, Barkan said she only finds that stereotype among people who are from the New York area.

"The image of Jamaica is something that New Yorkers know," she said. "People from out of town only know that the city's crime has dropped. They see a clean, busy commercial center."

But Barkan is fighting to get more stores to stay open later, she said. Many close in the early evening and foot traffic slows, she said. The Jamaica Multiplex, opened two years ago, has helped, but if more stores were to remain open later, it might be easier to attract a sit-down restaurant, one of the things the area still lacks, Barkan said.

"It's a work in progress, but this is a truly urban downtown," she said. "If you took this place and put it anywhere else, it would be a capital."

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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