The city’s decade-long effort to transform a Harlem vendors’ market into a cultural center is being revived with plans to house a renowned documentary film production nonprofit in the space.
The city’s Economic Development Corp. has approved $1.3 million for design and engineering work for the former Mart 125, across from the Apollo Theater, according to minutes of the agency’s executive board meeting last month.
Firelight Media — founded by MacArthur Genius award recipient Stanley Nelson Jr. and his partner Marcia Smith — will have a “home base” at the two-story, 125th Street building, according to an EDC project description.
In addition to space for Firelight, the nonprofit Spaceworks will bring coworking space for cultural organizations and “dedicated spaces for artistic development” to the building, according to the record of the May meeting. The city has allocated a total $13.5 million in capital funding for the project, an EDC spokesperson said.
“The community all want something to happen,” said Barbara Askins, president of the 125th Street Business Improvement District. “They don’t like it in the state that it’s in.”
But the specifics of the plan are key, she said.
“Is it going to include food? Is it going to include dance? How does that break out? Is it just a coworking space? Can you come rent some rehearsal space? I don’t know what it means,” she said.
Those details have yet to be worked out. The city said it is still gathering community input on the project and has no construction timeline. Firelight did not respond to a request for comment.
A Neighborhood Landmark
The city-owned property, known as “The Mart,” has a long and fraught history in the neighborhood.
The market got its name in the 1980s and 1990s when it was home to dozens of Harlem street vendors as part of an effort to encourage them to do business indoors.
Askins remembers Mart 125 as a hot spot where you could get great, home-cooked soul and Caribbean food, hear music — and catch a glimpse of celebrities like Wesley Snipes.
“It was very exciting,” she said. “There were unique items that you couldn’t get anywhere else that people made. It was during the time when Kente cloth was having a big explosion.”
The market operated through the 1990s, but closed in the early 2000s following a long eviction fight with the Giuliani administration.
Since then, the property on a prime stretch of West 125th Street has sat empty.
To Clinton Shabazz — a former Mart 125 vendor who started Harlem Pie Man there in 1996 — that’s “a waste,” particularly with so many small businesses in the area struggling to find affordable places to rent.
“You’re looking at a big, empty space now that could have been utilized. Something could have been done,” he told THE CITY.
In 2014, the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, then a partner in the project, announced that two nonprofit media groups would make the building their home.
During that time, the city had considered Futuro Media Group, founded by NPR host Maria Hinojosa, to anchor the space, according to Empowerment board minutes from 2014. But that plan and Empowerment Zone’s role in the project fell apart by 2016, an Empowerment Zone official said.
Today, the building appears as it has for two decades: with shuttered gates, empty windows and rust encroaching on its “MART 125” sign.
“It is an eyesore,” Askins said.
‘More Questions Than Answers’
To gather input on the project, the city and Spaceworks held a town hall last summer where locals grilled those involved with the redevelopment, according to an account published by Ken Miles, a Harlem community board member.
“There were many more questions than answers,” he wrote.
A city spokesperson did not indicate what has held up the project in the five years since the Empowerment Zone’s announcement, saying only that the EDC and Cultural Affairs Department have received helpful feedback from the community and are working “to determine next steps.”
According to its website, Firelight Media’s mission is to promote filmmaking by and about underrepresented people. Since its founding in 2000, Firelight has produced documentaries for PBS, the Smithsonian and BET about civil rights activists, Miles Davis, the history of America’s black colleges and other subjects.
The outline of the city’s plan sounds good to Ausar Ptah, a 33-year-old street vendor who sells soaps, incense and sage on a table outside the Mart 125 building.
The Harlem resident can barely remember a time when the Mart wasn’t empty. To have it open again “would be everything,” he said.
But, he added, “I would want vendors in there because we’ve all got something different to offer.”
Is there an iconic building, storefront, lot, or another type of space that’s sat vacant for years in your neighborhood? Curious about its status or fate? Let us know. Email tips at firstname.lastname@example.org or call, text, Signal, WhatsApp (718) 866-8674.
(Oh, and if you have any vintage pictures of Mart 125, send them over.)
Sign up for “THE CITY Scoop,” our daily newsletter where we send you stories like this first thing in the morning.
Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.