Holding Her Ground

Holding Her Ground

The chill of fall swept through New Brunswick, New Jersey, and Edith Younger-Huff quickly scuttled into her downtown corner shop. She was feeling good about her 10-year-old hair salon, A Cut Above. Business was booming, and she had just finished an expensive remodeling. But that day, a reporter followed her inside and ruined her mood. “Guess what?” the reporter asked. “The city is going to knock down this building and gentrify the neighborhood. What are you going to do?”

Younger-Huff was stunned. “I was preparing to sit there on that corner for the long haul,” she says. But that was before the city decided that the block, which housed her salon and several other businesses, was a good candidate for redevelopment because of its prime location in the retail corridor.

When a city secures a developer to revitalize a neighborhood, widen a street, or build a park, there’s often not much renters or landowners can do. They can take a buyout package and get out of the way of the bulldozers, or wait for the city to condemn their property and force them out. But 59-year-old Younger-Huff wasn’t going to give up easily. She had invested too much—sweat, tears, and money—to grow A Cut Above into a $240,000-a-year salon. She wasn’t simply going to walk away from it. So the entrepreneur and former public affairs executive launched a marketing campaign to save her business. She relied heavily on networking and local publicity. And she held her ground.

Only six months earlier, she had spent nearly $50,000 to completely remodel her salon. “Hair salons are not real high-profit businesses and I had just gone into debt to refurnish my place, improve electrical wiring, and make other upgrades,” explains Younger-Huff. According to Terri Winston, publisher of Salon Sense magazine, a beauty trade publication, the average salon generates $250,000 a year and makes about a 7% profit.

“The worst part was not knowing what was going to happen, or where we were going to move to, or what was even available to us in terms of resources the developers had to offer,” recounts Younger-Huff. “That was the year my daughter was coming out of high school and I had to plan for her to go to college. I couldn’t be out of work.”

Along with all the responsibilities and pressures that come with running a business, Younger-Huff now had to contend with another challenge: developers. Starting in the 1970s, many urban areas nationwide began redevelopment projects, also called revitalization or gentrification (depending on which side of the debate you fall). Working-class neighborhoods were transformed into meccas for young urban professionals, and small businesses and low-income residents either left or were driven out by high rents and property taxes. New Brunswick city records show that since 1970, 50% of all businesses entitled to relocation assistance because of redevelopment have opted for a “going-out-of-business” payment. Younger-Huff had been renting the prime corner space—329 George Street—in downtown New Brunswick since 1986.

Because Younger-Huff rented, rather than owned, she had