Shaken Bronx Shopkeepers Battle Back from Looting Amid Stalled Promises of City Help

Planet Pharmacy on Grand Concourse in The Bronx was looted in early June.
 Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Shaken Bronx Shopkeepers Battle Back from Looting Amid Stalled Promises of City Help

Greg B. Smith, THE CITY

Jun 21, 3:54pm EDT

This story was originally published on June 21, 2020 by THE CITY.

On the warm spring night of June 1, an eruption of looting left the owners of more than 100 Bronx businesses shattered.

Three weeks later, the fallout from that night lingers over the city’s poorest borough like a curse. Livelihoods are in danger, neighborhood services like pharmacies are reeling and initiators of the chaos appear to have mostly escaped unscathed.

The working law enforcement theory is that organized crews of thieves took what they wanted and fled before locals entered already-looted stores and got caught by cops.

And unlike luxury goods outlets such as Coach and Bergdorf Goodman hit by looters that same night in Manhattan, the stores set upon in The Bronx were almost all mom-and-pop operations.

Now those shopkeepers find themselves lost in a bureaucratic maze, struggling to get back on their feet as Phase 2 of the city’s reopening kicks in Monday.

Emergency grants announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio for Bronx small businesses hit by looters that night remain mostly just a promise. As of Friday, only five of the 125 operations identified as victims had been approved to receive funds, said Samatha Keitt, spokesperson for the city Department of Small Business Services.

“We understand the frustration that they’re feeling because their businesses have been hugely impacted. Setting up a program in two weeks is a huge feat,” Keitt said.

She suggested that business owners who are having problems applying should call an emergency hotline SBS set up (888-727-4692). “We’re actively acting to make sure these businesses are taken care of,” Keitt added.

‘They Gambled on The Bronx’

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. is furious that local shopkeepers — many of them Black or Hispanic — aren’t getting the help they were promised while corporations and airlines have already received millions in federal pandemic aid funding.

“This is why people protest,” fumed Diaz, who has been trying to help businesses targeted by looters June 1. “When you talk about systemic racism — these are minority owners. These are hardworking people who put everything into this. 

“They gambled,” he added. “Of all places, they gambled on The Bronx. They helped us with the narrative of the comeback-kid story, and here we are weeks later and we don’t even see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

Diaz sees many victims in the looting.

The night of June 1 and into the pre-dawn hours of the next day, looters descended on several Midtown stores selling luxury items after similar sprees in SoHo that followed largely peaceful protests. At the same time in The Bronx, highly organized groups of thieves targeted dozens of small businesses on Fordham Road, Burnside Avenue and in between.

The looters appeared to target specific items such as sneakers, electronic devices, lottery tickets and store ATM machines. It was hit-and-run, with the perpetrators jumping into waiting cars and escaping long before cops arrived.

“They had cars. They compromised the gate. They go in and loot whatever they’re going to loot. And then they’d scream to the locals, ‘Hey, over here!’” Diaz Jr. said. 

“The initial planners are not from the neighborhood,” he added. “Then people from the neighborhood took advantage and entered the stores.”

‘Our Door is Open’

That’s when the cops arrived, nabbing 58 people — mostly teenagers and 20-somethings from the neighborhood. According to complaints filed by Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, many of those arrested were caught inside already-looted stores without having taken anything.

A 19-year-old and a 20-year-old were found hiding in the ceiling of First Aid Pharmacy on E. Tremont Ave. A 22-year-old was seen exiting Paradise Pawn & Music on Grand Concourse with a white guitar in hand. A 24-year-old who was caught inside Jimmy Jazz on E. Burnside Avenue told cops, “I just want some sneaks.”

All of these young men now face third-degree burglary charges that could net them a stint in prison if they’re convicted.

One 22-year-old man faces a stiffer punishment, if convicted, because he was also charged with possession of a gun after allegedly taking medication from Planet Pharmacy on the Grand Concourse. His lawyer, Troy Smith, said the weapon belonged to someone who escaped, and that his client was “in the wrong place.”

“Young people sometimes make silly decisions,” Smith said. “They don’t have the wisdom that people of age have. That was certainly the case with my client.” 

For the owners of Planet Pharmacy, the devastation hit on multiple levels.

Beatrice and Foster Akuoko, who are from Ghana, opened Planet Pharmacy six years ago. They serve the nearby Ghanian community, and senior citizens from the neighborhood are regular customers.

“Our door is open to everybody,” Beatrice Akuoko said. “We’re doing our best to help the community. We try to appear as one of them.”

“It’s very sad people would do something like this,” she said. “It’s sad because we are always here for them.”

Foster and Beatrice Akuoko outside their Bronx pharmacy

As of last week, Akuoko said, her business was able to handle only about half of its prior customer base because her computer was trashed and she has to track orders by hand. 

Some regulars have transferred to other pharmacies, but most of the local seniors are staying with the Grand Concourse store.

“We’re planning to come back as much as possible for our community,” Akuoko said.

She is struggling, though, to gather all the information her insurer requires. 

‘They Need Grants’

That is a common theme among many of the owners still trying to figure out how to obtain government aid, hobbled by bureaucratic obstacles and confusing layers of paperwork.

Besides de Blasio’s emergency $10,000 grants, the state Department of Financial Services promised to pressure insurance companies to expedite claims, and the federal Small Business Administration offered low-interest loans of up to $250,000.

Diaz notes that many of the owners didn’t have insurance for theft, and the SBA requires an immaculate credit history — a tough sell for owners who’d already run up credit card debt while struggling to stay afloat during the COVID-19 lockdown.

The borough president had been promoting taxpayer-subsidized low-interest loans to small businesses before the looting and had 60 applications pending. So far, only a handful of businesses hurt by the looters have signed up.

“Obviously, they need grants,” he said.

Diaz cited the case of Bronx Optical Center, which lost more than $170,000 to looters.

‘Don’t Know Where to Begin’

On June 1, Bronx Optical’s owner, Jessica Betancourt, 38, got a call around 11 p.m. from one of her employees who lives in the neighborhood letting her know there was looting going on along Fordham Road, a few blocks north of her store. 

From her home in New Jersey, Betancourt began monitoring security cameras running inside the store.

When she observed people trying to smash through the store’s metal gate, Betancourt and her husband drove into the city. 

There, they say, they encountered cops from the 46th Precinct. They asked police to stay while they retrieved what they could from the store, but officers said they had to go to respond to looting elsewhere.

Betancourt and her husband, left alone on the street, decided it was too dangerous to stay and returned home. At 3:14 a.m. on June 2, she watched the security camera as five men broke through the metal gate, smashed glass cases and overturned display boxes of eyeglass frames.

The aftermath of looting at the Bronx Optical Center in early June.

The thieves were fast and organized, fleeing before police arrived. Later that morning, Betancourt returned to find her shop trashed. The thieves had used a crowbar to pry open a safe and removed $13,000. Her losses totaled $171,843.

De Blasio arrived later that day at her demolished store with a gaggle of TV cameras in tow.

“He said to me, ‘I’m going to help you,’” Betancourt recalled. “Two days later he announced grants of up to $10,000. I got really mad. It’s an offense to me.”

Betancourt, who just got the application for the grant Thursday, two weeks after de Blasio announced the “emergency” program, said, “This is b.s..”

Bronx Optical Center owner Jessica Betancourt

“I’ve put my life at risk. I’ve done this to serve my community and this is how we get treated. Like I say, The Bronx is a forgotten place. We’re not Macy’s. We’re hardworking individuals.”

“Mentally, I’m not okay,” she added. “I’m sitting here, I don’t know where to begin.”

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