Chase Bank says it’s closing, community fights back

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A simple trip to the bank might not seem like much — a quick withdrawl from the ATM or cashing a check is a day-to-day-occurrence, and many customers do a lot of that without ever seeing a bank teller.

But visiting the bank in-person can be a rite of passage for a young person opening their first checking account or dumping their jar of pennies into the coin-counter. It is even more important for those without access to online banking, especially people who are older and not so technologically savvy.

Customers at the Knolls Crescent Chase Bank received an unpleasant notice last week. The location — not only the only Chase Bank in the neighborhood, but the only bank, period — would close at the end of the year.

The Knolls Crescent Cooperative — described as a naturally occurring retirement community with a large number of residents older than 60 — is just a few minutes’ walk from the bank. Some say making that short trek to the branch is an easy way for those who might not be quite comfortable with online banking to do it the way they’ve always done: with a live human being.

“I’m just concerned for them,” said Stephanie Coggins, a local activist who most recently fought against the demolition of nearby Villa Rosa Bonheur. “I mean, everybody makes it sound like it’s so easy (to go online) until there’s a problem and you have to fix it. And then you’re an old lady with failing eyes, with limited understanding of computers, you’re getting robo-messages that are telling you to do this. 

“People get confused. It’s not so easy if you do it online, or if you do it on the phone. Sometimes people just need to go into the bank.”

While Coggins herself isn’t a Chase customer, she says she knows how important easy-to-access services are. During the height of the pandemic, most of her grocery shopping was done at Ben’s Market, just a few doors down from the bank. The shop had the basic necessities she needed, and was a short walk from her apartment.

Public transportation, or a lack of it, provides another obstacle for senior citizens in need of banking services. While there are other Chase locations just outside the immediate neighborhood, they’re not within easy walking distance, especially given the neighborhood’s myriad hills.

Small businesses like Ben’s have become all the more important during the pandemic, and they might also face trouble if the branch closes down — especially if they depend on making nightly cash deposits.

“We are in the midst of one of the greatest innovations that I’ve ever seen, because a lot of these businesses are adjusting all these nuances to survive,” said Nick Fazio, chair of Community Board 8’s economic development committee. “This impact would create another curveball, another obstacle for them to overcome. And the timing of this couldn’t be any worse for these businesses.”

Some businesses can manage finances online, Fazio said, but many — like dry cleaners, barber shops and nail salons — are cash-focused businesses. And cash, especially in large amounts, can’t be handled online.

“They don’t have that option,” he said.

Fazio, together with Eric Dinowitz — a city council candidate and chair of CB8’s aging committee — penned a letter to the corporate heads of JPMorgan Chase detailing the impact closing the branch could have on the community.

Chase spokeswoman Carolyn Evert told The Riverdale Press that branches can be closed if there is another branch nearby or foot traffic is low, especially as online banking becomes more popular. She would not say if these were factors considered in the decision to close the Knolls Crescent branch.

Seniors and small businesses may be the largest focus of attention in a bank closing, but a lack of access to banks also can cause a drop in financial literacy among young people in the neighborhood, said Poonam Arora, a professor of management and marketing at Manhattan College.

“The difference between a child raised in a home where they have access to banks, and their first account is opened when they’re 13 or whatever age when they’re teenagers, they start at a young age thinking about money, and managing it, and understanding it,” she said. “Versus when you have children raised in social structures where there isn’t that conversation about finances, or financial understanding. And this is for the very, very, very affluent and the very, very, very lacking.”

Days after customers learned of the impending closure, elected officials hosted a rally outside the bank, calling for Chase to reverse its plans and keep the branch open. Like his son, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz said he sent a letter to Chase officials, asking them to reconsider their decision. 

Another city council candidate, Abigail Martin, said she reached out to Demetris Giannoulias, chief executive of Bronx-based Spring Bank, asking if he would consider opening a branch in Chase’s place. Giannoulias, she said, agreed to explore the possibility.

A small business owner himself, Fazio said Spring Bank — with locations in the South Bronx and Harlem — has done well working with small businesses in those neighborhoods.

“If Chase decides to leave, eventually, which we hope that they don’t, then we have to pursue Spring Bank, and Bank of America, and any organization that would be able to provide services for our residents there,” Fazio said. “Because we need a financial institution in that neighborhood. Period.”

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