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  • The Target in East Harlem is closing on October 21. 
  • It’s been a staple for people in the local community to shop and hang out.
  • I visited the store to observe the shopping scene. 

For East Harlem locals, Target is more than a store. It’s been a safe haven and a place to hang with friends, classmates, and family.

Much to their disappointment, the store is one of nine locations Target will close effective October 21. The company has been struggling with theft, and it said retail crime at these locations threatened the safety of its staff and customers and contributed to “unsustainable business performance.”

The East Harlem store was the first in Manhattan and opened in 2010 to much fanfare. Now, customers and employees prepare for its doors to close once and for all. Once it’s gone, the nearest Target locations will be on 86th Street in the Upper East Side or by Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

I visited the store, located in the East River Plaza, to observe the shopping scene.

outside the East Harlem Target inside the East River Plaza shopping center

Target is located on the second floor of the shopping center, parallel to a large parking garage.

Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

After passing Costco on the first floor of the outdoor shopping center, I ascended the escalator to the second floor, where a mall security guard kept watch. Inside Target, a police officer and an employee in a yellow jacket were posted at the entrance.

The store was adequately stocked. The few shelves that were empty seemed gutted of seasonal merchandise. The baby formula was locked up, but most other products in apparel and home were unsecured.

In personal care and beauty, most products were locked behind glass cases. Employees walked back and forth between the aisles helping shoppers grab deodorant and body wash.

a view down an aisle of locked up beauty products inside Target

Beauty and personal care products were locked up behind glass cases.

Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

Naturally, customers like Michelle Rodriguez were stocking up on their cleaning and beauty supplies in preparation for the store’s closure.

“We need Target,” she said. “We complain that we don’t have anything in our community, but it’s the same people in our community that’s kind of stealing.”

She said an employee told her that he had a choice to take three months of unemployment — though I think she meant severance — or apply to transfer to another Target location. “It’s like college applications,” I heard him say.

“It’s just sad that it’s closing, but it’s not only affecting us, but it’s also affecting the people that work here,” Rodriguez said.

candles and notebooks on the shelves of Target

Some shelves were stocked with products that celebrated Black and Hispanic heritage.

Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

Employees were tight-lipped. But their faces spoke of distress and uncertainty. They murmured to one another about job-searching. Only one employee spoke to me briefly. She said she’s always felt safe at her job and that the staff is like a family.

As I perused the shower curtains and bath towels, I overheard snippets of an employee team meeting that began with rounds of applause. One employee mentioned there would be some upcoming events with HR, including thirsty Thursdays.

“I just want a Friday off,” one employee said.

“Not yet,” the team lead said. “Let’s just continue doing what we’re doing.”

Another employee asked if there would be markdowns. “Eventually,” he replied. “Not everything.” Then he explained that some items would be transferred to other stores and that they needed to focus on getting everything out onto the floor.

gold and white skeleton decorations hang on racks in Target

Halloween decorations and costumes filled multiple aisles.

Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

Parents like Krystle Rogers carted their children through the toy section. With Starbucks in hand, she told me she shops at this Target every other week.

“Oh, it’s so sad,” she said. “I wish they weren’t leaving.” She’s lived in the neighborhood all her life and said she’ll have to travel to the Walmart in New Jersey. “It’s just cheaper here.”

Students from the nearby middle and high schools walked the aisles after school, playing with the Halloween costumes and checking out the newest soft drinks. It’s the closest thing they have to a mall.

a view of the grocery area of Target

The grocery aisles didn’t seem to have as much foot traffic as the rest of the store.

Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

Djeneba Kone used to be one of those kids. “I always used to come here when I was in middle school, every day after school,” she said. “This was my safe spot. Every day we’d go to the electronics, play on the phones, walk around.”

Now that she works, she doesn’t come every day, but it’s still “too often” she told me. Recently, she’s noticed the store has taken more security measures, like having cops around and locking up more products.

“I’ve never really felt unsafe,” she said. “This was my safe spot.”

I talked to one high schooler who said she was there to buy a gift, but typically she and her friends go to this Target to get snacks or buy in bulk for school events.

a view of grocery aisles in Target

Some aisles in the grocery section had brighter lighting than others.

Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

While most of the kids I saw were respectful, that’s not to say they don’t cause some trouble. At one point, I heard a loud smack and an employee rushed over to find a plastic bottle of seltzer in a puddle on the floor.

She directed customers around it while she asked someone over her walkie-talkie to come help clean it up. “Someone threw it,” one shopper told her. “It was a kid with a backpack.”

the freezer section at Target and a red shopping cart

Some of the freezer shelves were out of stock.

Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

The grocery section wasn’t as well-lit as the rest of the store and didn’t seem to get as much foot traffic. Most people shopped the produce and freezer aisles.

Among the aisles of Halloween candy and beer, there were two red fire exit doors that appeared to get a lot of action. The alarms went off twice in the three hours I was in the store.

Just before the first time, I noticed two men lugging large boxes headed in that direction. I caught a glimpse of the last one slipping through the door before it closed. As the alarm sounded, everyone carried on as if they didn’t hear it. It wasn’t a very intimidating noise, after all. After about three minutes, the alarm silenced.

As I left the store, I checked on the cop’s positioning. He was further from the doors this time, looking down at his phone.

According to Target’s website, a new location is slated to open in central Harlem on 125th Street. An opening date has not been announced.

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