Hookah haven smoked out near schools

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Blink, and you probably missed the opening — and closing — of Fantasy Hookah on Riverdale Avenue.

The store kept the lights on for just a week amidst uproar from neighbors. When it opened April 29, Fantasy Hookah owner Juan Luis De Pena offered a storefront complete with carefully arranged smoking vessels. Slender, exotic-looking hookah lined one wall. Accessories — bowls, plates, valves and hoses of every color — hung on the opposite wall. A befuddling collection of lighters in every combination of color and shape were stocked behind the cash registers. A sweet-smelling array of flavored tobaccos for smoking in the tall, curvy hookah was displayed on the back wall.

And locked in the rear case were a variety of shorter, stubbier, simpler pipes typically used for smoking other substances that may not exactly be legal.

De Pena was unaware of the neighborhood outrage brewing before even the first neon light went up on the store’s exterior sign. Its 5923 Riverdale Ave., location was directly across from St. Margaret of Cortona School and around the corner from SAR High School. That didn’t sit well with some parents who felt a store with bongs on display sent kids the wrong message about smoking.

“It’s not something that’s going to hurt anybody by being here because it’s not harming the community,” De Pena said through a translator. “We don’t sell to anyone underage. You’ve got to be 21 and over to even come into the store. We’re not going to sell to minors.”

He owns similar stores elsewhere in the Bronx and in New Jersey. At each location, De Pena claims the community is thankful they have a place to buy smoking equipment without having to trek into the city. Riverdale lacked any kind of smoking accessory store, so he believed the spot that was formerly occupied by a MetroPCS phone store would be an excellent place to expand.

De Pena downplayed concerns the store’s proximity to schools should be a concern to parents. There are plenty of boutiques selling hookahs, bongs and e-cigarettes around the five boroughs, he said. Yet, many are put off by the hookah’s historical association with opium abuse. Today, however, the India-born multi-stemmed smoking instrument is more likely to vaporize tobacco with its charcoal burner than other substances.

The number of such shops has surged in recent years due to the popularity of hookah rising with young people, the popularity of vaping products, and the relaxed laws governing cannabis use.

The city’s health department counted as many as 400 such shops in the five boroughs in 2017, compared to just 100 five years before.

Some stores actually offer on-site smoking, but Fantasy Hookah wasn’t one of them, De Pena said.

“Now there are stores that sell the equipment, but are also hookah bars where people come in, smoke, drink and listen to music,” he said. “In here, we don’t smoke nothing. We don’t smoke hookah, we don’t smoke tobacco, we don’t smoke nothing. We just sell the products. People come in, they buy and leave.”

But his assurances weren’t enough to sway neighborhood critics. Within days of the store’s opening, they brought their concerns to the landlord, which funny enough, is SAR itself, having bought the small strip of storefronts north of West 259th Street in 2002. School officials did not return a request for comment.

And just like that, Fantasy Hookah was shut. Black plastic shrouded the windows that had just displayed De Pena’s wares hours before, and the front door was locked for good.

It was relief to folks in the neighborhood, said Jeremy Jutkowitz, who lives at nearby Skyview-on-the-Hudson.

“You know, I don’t want to seem like we’re running small businesses out,” Jutkowitz said.

“That’s not the intention. But we’re trying to build something that’s beneficial to the whole community. We’re trying to follow this vision for Riverdale Avenue.”

The merchants district has weathered a retail stagnation that has caused more than a few empty storefronts along this part of Riverdale Avenue, he added. But that doesn’t mean neighbors should embrace any businesses willing to locate here if it’s not the right fit.

“We didn’t feel this was appropriate to be located across from an elementary school,” Jutkowitz said. “Given the new information that we found out, we’re extremely pleased and thankful that SAR acted so quickly and decisively.”

What moves into the freshly vacated storefront will hopefully be a business that drives traffic to the street, he said. While banks and real estate offices are vital to the community, Riverdale Avenue needs something special to drive foot traffic to the area.

The merchants nearby have worked hard to give the street character, like adding decorative tree wells on the sidewalk.

“There’s still a lot of work to do,” Jutkowitz said, “but I think Riverdale Avenue has endless potential to become something we can all be proud of.”

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