NEW YORK - The similarities may not be all that obvious, but Alexi Minko says there’s more in common than you might think when it comes to serving drinks and working as a human rights lawyer.
"I may not be giving them legal advice anymore, but I give them drinking advice," Minko says with a laugh, slightly muffled by his mask. "And they’re happy."
Originally from the African nation of Gabon, Minko worked as an international civil rights attorney at the United Nations. But five years ago he changed course, opening up Alibi Lounge— an LGBTQ establishment, complete with rainbow flags proudly flying outside the bar’s entrance along Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard.
Alibi is the first gay and black-owned business in Harlem.
"I think it’s become important for Harlem," Minko says. "We get people that come through these doors and let us know that it’s vital for us to know that we are here. Sometimes they can escape things at home, things on the streets, and come here and know that it’s safe, that they are welcome."
The front doors of Alibi have always remained open—even through tough times in the past. A year ago Minko was attacked by intruders inside the bar, and back in 2019 the rainbow flags out front were burned—twice in one month.
"I have no words," Minko told FOX 5 NY in 2019.
Nothing ever made him think twice about showing up the very next day, but COVID-19 has presented a new challenge.
"Well, like the kids say, ‘the struggle is real,’ Minko said.
Minko has kept a remarkably upbeat attitude considering the significant financial blow the pandemic has dealt. He's had to let go 5 of his 8 employees
"The only way you generate revenues is by having traffic, by having people come into your bar, walk in through the doors, ordering drinks. And the fact that for a minute we couldn’t have anyone [inside or outside]," Minko said.
Because Alibi was not a restaurant, they had to add food to the menu and pivot to carry out and to-go cocktails. But that was nowhere near enough.
"Literally between the months of about April to June it was impossible-- it was a nightmare," Minko said.
Minko now needs to come up with $15,000 in order to renew his five-year lease, which is up at the end of the month.
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However, this is not a story about the stereotypical evil landlord.
"Everyone loves black and white: good tenant, bad landlord, [but] that’s not how life is," says Mordy Getz, Minko’s landlord.
Minko will be the first to compliment Getz for his flexibility over the past year. Getz forgave several months of payments and discounted rent by 30%, but he too has had a tough year.
"A landlord doesn't want to be harsh on his tenants, but he has obligations in terms of the bank, and in terms of utilities and taxes, [and] if those don’t get paid the land’s going to end up in foreclosure," Getz said.
As the grandson of a holocaust survivor, Getz says he wants to see Alibi succeed because everyone needs a place they can feel safe, especially those who are sometimes treated like outsiders in their own communities.
Getz adds that it’s been hard to accommodate his tenants over the past year "but I think it was the right thing to do."
"And I believe that in life everything goes full circle, and if you’re fair and kind to your tenant during a pandemic, I believe you will be made whole," Getz said.
The two men are hopeful that the combination of nicer weather, indoor capacity increasing, and a GoFundme page for donations, they will come up with the funds they need.
"When we work together," Getz added, "everyone succeeds."
"This is why I keep smiling," says Minko, "because I know that somehow we are impacting peoples’ lives one way or the other and for the better."