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The number of Black-owned businesses is increasing, driven by women

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the entire economy hard, but not all Americans were affected in the same way. The number of businesses owned by African Americans plummeted in 2020. But there's good news, according to the University of California Santa Cruz. The number of Black-owned businesses is currently at more than 30% above pre-pandemic levels, and that's being driven largely by Black women. NPR's Jasmine Garsd spent time in a commercial area of New York that's come to be known as Black Girl Magic Street and has this report.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Even on a recent day when it's pouring icy cold rain, Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn is beautiful, especially Tompkins Avenue. Under a canopy of bare trees, lined by gorgeous old brownstones, the smell of incense wafts from one of the local clothing stores. Khadija Tudor grew up around here in the '80s. She says she has a lot of fond memories...

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW EDITION SONG, "CANDY GIRL")

GARSD: ...Like listening to music with friends - lots of New Edition.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW EDITION SONG, "CANDY GIRL")

KHADIJA TUDOR: I am a card-carrying lifetime member of the New Edition fanclub, so...

GARSD: But it was also a difficult time. This neighborhood was hard-hit by drugs and violence.

TUDOR: I remember I had a really good friend. We were like maybe 12 or 13 years old. And we would walk around in our neighborhood, but we would look down. We would never really look up because we were like, we didn't really want to see what was around us, but we would talk about what we wanted it to look like.

GARSD: And this is a lot more like what she wanted it to look like. The streets are fairly well-kept, bustling with quaint coffee shops, locally sourced designer shops, an independent bookstore. It's an area that has been heavily gentrified, and yet commerce on Tompkins Avenue remains significantly Black-owned. Tudor herself is a massage therapist, and she co-owns the Life Wellness Center with her partner. She's especially proud of serving women.

TUDOR: When I started doing this work, I saw the meaning (ph) that it didn't matter what the socioeconomic background was. Women specifically - we neglect ourselves like champions. Like (laughter), I mean, it's, like, gold-medal status.

GARSD: Her business offers massage, acupuncture and sells medicinal herbs. Many of her customers depend on her for their well-being, and she depends on them to stay in business. But in early 2020, as COVID-19 swept through the city and a lockdown went into effect, that symbiotic relationship was tested. Even her regulars stopped coming in, people like Goldwyn Lewis-Wilkinson, a retired nurse. She says she was too scared to go out.

GOLDWYN LEWIS-WILKINSON: I remember a particular moment where I knelt to the side of my bed, when I said, I'm scared, I'm scared.

GARSD: COVID-19 killed four people in Wilkinson's family, including her daughter.

LEWIS-WILKINSON: She was 39, just married two months. She got married in February, and she died in April.

GARSD: The pandemic battered this community. It also battered its economy, not just in Bed-Stuy. Nationwide, by April 2020, Black-owned businesses dropped by over 40%. Isha Joseph owns Make Manifest, a variety store which also functions as a workshop space for the community. Business was good, and then the pandemic started.

ISHA JOSEPH: I just was like, this can't be it.

GARSD: She says she watched as the always-vibrant Tompkins Avenue came to a halt.

JOSEPH: It was just more like a ghost town around. It was just more the despair, the people just feeling very uncertain, not knowing what's going on, not knowing what's happening.

GARSD: Tompkins Avenue merchants braced themselves for the worst. Tiecha Merritt is the president of the Tompkins Avenue Merchants Association, or TAMA. She also owns a juice bar, The Bush Doctor.

TIECHA MERRITT: When I shut down, I said, if I'm going through this issue, so are the merchants.

GARSD: She said she immediately called the stores in the association and helped them apply for loans and grants.

MERRITT: All the businesses that are part of TAMA receive grants, which was a No. 1 plus for us to keep their business afloat.

GARSD: The association also helped owners move their businesses outside. They closed down the avenue and had sidewalk sales. And owners checked in on each other every day. Here's Khadija Tudor again.

TUDOR: We have a WhatsApp group that we would - well, what are you doing? And how are you getting this PPP and this - what are you doing with this loan? And so much information coming at you - you're a small business owner, and you're just trying to figure out how to open up and sell online.

JOSEPH: It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times, truly.

GARSD: Isha Joseph says help came from even unexpected places.

JOSEPH: The landlord was very supportive. I mean, we had to pay the rent eventually, but, you know, he wasn't on top of us. He understood that he was in the same situation. And he believed in us, too.

GARSD: These women's efforts earned Tompkins Avenue the nickname Black Girl Magic Street. Joseph smiles when she hears the nickname.

JOSEPH: Black women have been able to really rise up in time that it's like, you just have to get it done. It's like a magical thing. Like, you could turn, you know, chitlins into a gourmet dish. Black Girl Magic is all about how Black women can really literally turn dust into gold.

GARSD: It's been hard for this community to recover. So much has been lost. Goldwin Lewis-Wilkinson says after her daughter passed, she couldn't bring herself to go anywhere. She'd spent years going to Tompkins Avenue, but this time Tompkins Avenue reached out to her. Khadija Tudor and her partner called her and offered to bring her in on a day when no one else came so she'd feel safer. After a conversation about what that would look like, she finally made her way back to Tompkins Avenue and got her massage. And she says as she lay there, she felt...

LEWIS-WILKINSON: A sense of calm and relief. I was telling the person who was massaging me that she's here, you know? She's watching us. She's smiling at us. And she said, who are you talking about? I said, my daughter. She's right here. She's happy that I'm taking care of myself.

GARSD: She says afterwards, she sat in silence for a while and held on to that feeling, that magic that helped get her through. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTINE AND THE QUEENS SONG, "CHRISTINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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