Behind the Headlines Helping the Looted Merchants

The majority of small businessmen whose stores were looted and burned during the July 13-14 blackout will be able to resume their operations, but “the city must pay simultaneous attention to beefing up the neighborhoods,” said Haskell Lazere, director of the New York City chapter of the American Jewish Committee. Lazere, on leave from the AJCommittee, is serving as volunteer director of a program that has set up Neighborhood Business Assistance (NBA) teams in 14 locations where looting was the heaviest. In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Lazere said that if nothing is done about “deteriorating neighborhoods, people will be as bad off as they were before.”

In each of the 14 storefronts, lawyers, accountants, bankers, businessmen and other specialists are volunteering their services by providing “technical assistance” to store owners, Lazere said. Having set up a similar operation a decade ago after the Watts riots in Los Angeles, he observed that “most people didn’t know about the Federal Crime Insurance program” when they came to NBA offices. Many need help in processing their insurance claims and in filling out Small Business Administration (SBA) forms, he said.

Lazere noted that one of the many forms which store owners have to complete takes 20-25 minutes to fill out. Businessmen, whose records were destroyed during the looting, work with accountants so they can qualify for an SBA loan which gives them a “second chance,” he said.

In spite of President Carter’s refusal to declare the city a disaster area, Lazere said “a lot of money is coming in.” He stated that he has had “some success with loan extensions” and said he met with credit agencies yesterday in an effort to obtain a moratorium on collection, forbearance on overdue bills, and extension of credit “so that people can get stock and get back” into business.

MOST MERCHANTS APPEAR TRAUMATIZED

But many of the stores looted were “mom and pop” operations and the owners are “afraid” to leave what little merchandise was left behind to go to apply for aid, Lazere said. “When people didn’t come to us, we went out to them,” he said. According to Lazere, one volunteer went to 70 shops.

Most of the store owners seemed “traumatized, some were angry and almost all were frustrated,” Lazere said. After the complicated forms are filled out, it takes a few days to process them, he noted. According to Lazere, one man who owns a TV repair shop in The Bronx complained that he was “waiting for crumbs,” while waiting to fill out a grant application. The man reportedly said, “I don’t know what’s the matter with this city. I have been so upset and my wife has been so upset. This is the first time in 10 years that she kissed me.”

However, most instances involving small businesses damaged during the blackout are devoid of humor. Lazere said a Jewish man who operates a sundries store on Utica Avenue in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, where 40 stores were hit, was selling damaged items for 10 and 15 cents. The man, who has a teenage daughter, told Lazere he had “personal problems” as well. The store owner reportedly had a $3000 personal loan on a Honda due July 16 and has a mortgage payment for a house in New Jersey due yesterday. The rent for the sundries store is $1000 per month. Lazere said this man was “typical.”

Lazere, who is scheduled to return to the AJCommittee next week, said the “outpouring of volunteers has been fantastic and phenomenal. We just have to figure out how to channel the available help.” He pointed out that the City Planning Commission said that some 16,000 businesses were “hit to some degree” during the blackout. Lazere said Utica Avenue in Crown Heights; parts of Harlem; the Grand Concourse and Fordham Road in The Bronx; and the Bushwick area around Broadway in Brooklyn sustained the greatest damage. Of the five boroughs, The Bronx and Brooklyn suffered the most, according to Lazere.

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