The Hub’s most vocal advocate sees hope on the horizon
It’s the end of an era for businesses in the Hub, whose most relentless booster is stepping down after 22 years on the job.
Vincent Valentino, director of the Third Avenue Business Improvement District (BID) since 1993, is calling it quits on June 30, making way for the organization’s third director in nearly three decades. Valentino has become synonymous with the nonprofit that provides sanitation and security for over 100 local businesses—so much so that many of the elected officials and local merchants he has worked with over the years call him “Vinny BID.” The former president of the group’s board, Steven Fish, takes over on July 1.
Valentino, 68, grew up in Pelham Bay, but it’s Mott Haven that’s in his blood. He was a cop at one of four precincts that patrolled the Hub and surrounding areas during the 1970s, the 42nd, before he moved to a Manhattan narcotics unit and made detective, then worked as an undercover on drug buys in Alphabet City.
“This is one of the areas where all the crime was,” he said during his final weeks on the job, in the BID’s modest fourth-floor office, a half-block from the 2/5 subway. The office walls were covered with plaques and tributes to the organization and its longtime director.
After a brief stint as head of security at St. Barnabas Hospital, Valentino, who served as a navy gunner during the Vietnam war, returned to Mott Haven to run the BID in 1993.
“Since I was a kid, the South Bronx was always considered a dumping ground,” for both stolen cars and the city’s unwanted, he said. But that was hardly a deterrent. He returned, in part to work with the small, family-run businesses he had grown fond of when he’d walked a beat.
“I love dealing with my mom-and-pops because you get an answer right there and then,” he said. “If I go to a chain store, I’ve got to send them a notification four months in advance.”
The affection is mutual. As Valentino walked through the hub, he was met with broad smiles and enthusiastic greetings by everyone from jewelry store merchants to hot dog vendors. After exchanging greetings with a woman selling food from a cart on 150th Street, he mused, “I’ve known her since I was a cop.”
But despite his affection for the little people, it is simple economic reality that the Hub needs a high-profile anchor store to boost profits, he said. Walking into a tiny store a block from the 149th Street/Third Avenue epicenter of activity, he asked the owner, “how’s business?” The reply was unambiguous: “It sucks.”
“The property owners need help,” Valentino said. His successor agrees, it will take more than the colorful mom-and-pops to help make the area more appealing for shoppers.
“We need the Hub to be a very inviting destination and to bring in nationally known, reputable retailers and an affordable, quality dining option,” said Steven Fish, 48, who came to know the neighborhood while working for his father’s furniture company, Kay Rose, in the 1990s.
But despite the benefits of two subway lines and proximity to Manhattan, businesses and residents continue to face a challenge now that is similar to one that dogged the area decades ago, Valentino lamented.
“I hate to say it, but we have a big problem because of the methadone clinics,” he said. The “Methadonians”—-heroin addicts who are brought to the neighborhood for treatment at one of the dozen-or-so methadone clinics, and rarely leave—-remain a drag on any kind of push toward prosperity in Mott Haven, he said, pointing out that the construction site for the long-anticipated Roberto Clemente Plaza just outside the Hub has become a magnet for the rehabbing crowd.
“They take commercial cardboard and they make condos,” he said. Walking on the site recently resulted in his having to wash his sneakers four times in one day to wash off the stench of urine.
Still, despite Methadonians and slow sales, the future is looking brighter for the Hub than it has for as far back as he could remember.
“Back then, every time a developer would come we’d take bets how long before they’d go belly up,” he recalled.
“Now, it’s popping back,” he said, but added that privately owned land in the rest of Mott Haven faces fewer obstacles to development than the city-owned lots inside the Hub. “It’s not changing that fast, but it’s changing.”