Fordham Road is the Bronx’s busiest shopping district, home to more than 300 stores and vendors, and often overflowing with foot traffic and various food stands and side hustles. But staying on the Fordham Road has become a risky investment for some business owners of longtime establishments and big box retailers who have cited a rise in retail theft and public safety incidents over the past year.
“Every minute someone is trying to take something. Somebody gets arrested and a couple hours later, they’re back on the street,” said Frank Bagatta, owner of North End Wine & Liquors on Webster Avenue, who said he gets hit about 3-4 times a week with thefts.
“We fear for our lives everyday. We go to work and don’t know if we’re going to come back home,” Bagatta added.
In 2021, Fordham Road’s Business Improvement District (BID) solicited vendors, merchants and stakeholders of the heavily-trafficked commercial corridor on their biggest needs.
Not surprisingly, public safety was the top priority.
Fordham Road is home to big brand name stores like Best Buy, a newly opened Target and TJ Maxx. However, a few representatives from those retailers suggested to the Bronx Times last year that without increased security in the area, continued operations on Fordham Road could lead to huge losses in merchandise and profits.
In response, the Fordham Road BID has installed five patrol ambassadors — each licensed New York state security guards — to patrol and engage the neighborhood during peak shopping times Wednesdays through Saturdays from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
The program, which officially began on Jan. 12, assigns a patrol ambassador to a neighborhood district along Fordham Road from Jerome to Washington avenues, and their functions are more supplementary to NYPD patrolling, acting as a liaison or a buffer between business owners, vendors, shoppers and the police.
“We want to be a friendly face. A face that people can talk to, ask directions for, and ultimately feel a comfort and safety,” said patrol ambassador Rahiem Clark. “But we also have pride in this area. I’m sure we all have some great memories of shopping on Fordham Road, so if I can do my part to make that experience better for all involved, I’m here to do it.”
Albert Dalipi, director of communications and outreach for the Fordham Road BID, hopes the program can be a permanent fixture for the shopping district. Dalipi said that increasing communication between area businesses is also in the works, with the belief that strings of larcenies are connected to organized crime in the area.
“We want to create a network of communication between the stores, especially if they have had numerous incidents or if they are stores selling similar goods,” said Dalipi. “There is a component of organized crime here, and the more we can build communication among our patrol ambassadors and stores, it can help us drive down the volume of theft.”
The program, if made permanent and also expanded, could come with local workforce benefits. Four of the five patrol ambassadors were previously out of work before the program kicked off, with patrol ambassadors making $18 an hour.
And small anecdotes of success for the pilot program — which is funded by the BID and only runs through the end February — are already being seen, according to Clark, one of the patrol ambassadors.
“Not everything has to be done by force, you know? Not everything has to be done by violence,” said Dalipi. “You know, things can be done in a different way, and I think that that’s what we’re training them to do.”
On his first day, Clark saw a familiar Fordham Road side hustle three-card monte, where a pedestrian had been scammed of her money. Hours later, Clark was spotted near the hustler, who then fled the area.
Deterrence, more than anything, is a major goal of the patrol ambassadors.
“If we can get someone to think twice before they think about robbing a store, or if our presence can provide a barrier before any bad happens, I think that alone means this is working,” said Clark.
The neighborhoods of Fordham and University Heights live in poverty —and businesses have told the Bronx Times that theft and high rents make life on Fordham Road a challenge for the commercial district’s smaller businesses. Fordham’s apparel and electronic stores have bore the brunt of shoplifting and theft, with many store owners and managers feeling under-resourced to combat such activity.
“We try to stop them, but sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we call the cops and they ask for any security camera footage,” said Patricio Perez, manager at apparel store VIM located at 324 E. Fordham Road. “We can’t stop them. We just try to get the merchandise back.”
Last week, a coalition of NYC-based grocery store operators petitioned state and city leaders to crack down on shoplifting, and push for more punitive measures such as allowing prosecutors to combine charges to elevate petit larceny to grand larceny.
Fordham Road residents and business owners have also been busy trying to ward off Mayor Eric Adams’ plan to convert segments of Fordham Road to bus and delivery-only lanes — a move that area electeds have said would impact small businesses not only on Fordham Road but also Arthur Avenue.
— ET Rodriguez contributed to this report
Reach Robbie Sequeira at [email protected] or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.