Barbara Askins doesn’t just run the 125th street Business Improvement District. She invented it.
It was, she recalls, the first such district in an African-American neighborhood and, thirty years, later, she is now one of the longest serving leaders among the 76 BIDS in the City of New York.
“In a community like Harlem everybody wants to be involved,” Askins says. “Everybody loves Harlem. They want to be able to express themselves and be a part of growing what’s here.
I’m just one person, but I try to make that happen.”
For a kid from the banks of the Mississippi in Louisiana, her success in the big city is impressive. Her advice is now sought by everyone from the District Attorney of Manhattan (who wants to stem shoplifting) to the people of Sweden (who are creating their own system of Business Improvement Districts).
“Barbara Askins is an institution in Harlem and a changemaker who has left an indelible mark across our city,” said Kevin D. Kim, who as commissioner of the city’s Department of Small Business Services is the contact between City Hall and the BIDs. “Barbara’s years of service to Harlem has shaped this community for generations to come.”
Askins’ success may look inevitable in retrospect, but it wasn’t exactly overnight. The urban and environmental consulting company she was working for sent her to Harlem to help with astreet rebuilding project along 125th street.
Her conversations with businesses along the street led to the idea of creating a BID, which. were then a relatively new idea (the first in New York was at Union Square). Not everyone in Harlem embraced the idea.
Askins recalls being taken for a walk down 125th street by Noreen Clark-Smith, the legendary community activist and chair of Community Board Ten.
“She took me outside and said: ‘listen at me: read my lips. Under the marquee of the Apollo Theatre. There will be no bid on 125th St.’” Clark-Smith’s concern, shared by others, was that empowering businesses would inevitably detract focus from the communities many social needs.
Askins saw it differently. Businesses could be part of the solution. To win over Clark-Smith and others she joined the community board, with the blessing of her businesses, and eventually became the chair, educating the community about the BID and integrating the business and community interests in one person, herself, as chair of the community board.
She became friends with Clark-Smith, who died in 2019, and the 125th Street BID, which collects revenues from its businesses to improve safety and sanitation, became an integral part of the community conversation.
Listening to that conversation, Askins says, is her secret to success. “Having Input from the people is key,” Askins explains, “because they’re the ones who have to live with whatever you generate, and it helps you create a better project.”
The 125th Street holiday celebration is a good example, Askins says. She had originally copied the festive banners she saw downtown BIDS posting on light poles. But a prominent resident came in to complain.
“Muhammad Ali came to my office, with his cane” and, she recalls, a message: “‘Listen, everybody’s talking about you. But I’m going to say it to your face. Those postage stamps you got up there on them light polls? We don’t like that. This is Harlem. We want lights.”
Ever since, at Askins’ direction, the holiday season shines and glitters on 125th Street. “When you see 125th Street for the holidays, I give them lights,” Askins says.
“I put lights until you can’t see any more of them. So that, again, is another example of ‘listen to the people.’ That didn’t come from me. It came from me listening to what the people say they want. I don’t talk about it a lot. But a lot of my ideas. A lot of things I do. It comes from the people and being open to hearing what they have to say.”
Across most of her thirty years, conditions improved on 125thStreet. But Covid was a blow. Askins organized a broad response to rising crime, homelessness and deterioration during Covid. Other neighborhoods are now looking to 125th Street’s response as a model.
“We are still in a better place” than thirty years ago, Askins explains. “Which is why we responded so quickly when we saw things declining. We can’t go back there, because we know what it was.”
Looking ahead, Askins is excited about a project she is working on with Columbia University to apply new technologies to improving life on 125th Street. A big element will be a survey of residents to gather their ideas, and their hopes.
“I like the model of BIDS because it does allow neighborhood specifics,” Askins says. “I like working in Harlem because of all the richness that exists here that a lot of people can’t see with the naked eye.”
We can’t go back there, because we know what it was.” Barbara Askins, head of the 125th Business Improvement District