How to Help Local Stores Survive When Neighborhoods Get "Discovered"

Brownsville boosters: Ionna and Diana Jimenez of Three Black Cats Cafe
Brownsville boosters: Ionna and Diana Jimenez of Three Black Cats Cafe
Sean Pressley

When the Brownsville Community Justice Center won a small city grant to erect an informational kiosk beneath the elevated 3 train tracks last fall, it seemed like a fun project for the group's youth photography club. No one expected it would provoke a firestorm.

"Our young people wanted to challenge the narrative that Brownsville is a bad place," says the center's director, Erica Mateo. The photographers, part of the Brownsville Builders youth group, set out to document their neighborhood's best qualities, with a map highlighting local parks, libraries, and community centers on one side and photos of four local murals on the other, under the heading "Best of Brownsville." The idea, says Mateo, was to promote the idea that "Brownsville has these gems that people aren't paying attention to."

Reaction, though, was decidedly mixed, with some wondering who exactly was behind the kiosk. One resident, Daquon Wallace, posted a photo on Facebook of himself beside the sign, captioned, "We may be expecting company....People open y'all eyes please."

Mateo took advantage of the controversy to jumpstart a local conversation, Saran-wrapping the sign with a notice reading "W.T.F. Where Did This Come From? Gentrification? Find Out More," with a link to her group's Instagram. Still, the kiosk kerfuffle was an indicator of how a neighborhood's "discovery" is increasingly seen as a double-edged sword: In a city where development, gentrification, and displacement seem inseparable, it's a tricky calculus to try to bring attention — and dollars — to a struggling area without risking the destruction of the community that made it attractive in the first place.

If there's a poster child for "be careful what you wish for" development, it's Bushwick. Forty years ago, the Brooklyn neighborhood was a symbol of fiscal-­crisis-era New York devastation, with landlord abandonment and subsequent fires leaving much of the area a wasteland of vacant lots. Bushwick clawed back to livability over the next two decades with the help both of federal housing construction and jobs programs (just before these were eliminated for good by President Reagan) and of block associations formed by those who'd survived the bad times, and it was strengthened by waves of new immigrants, largely from Mexico and Ecuador. Its reward was to be overrun by one of the fastest-moving waves of resettlement the city has yet seen.

Bushwick’s Express Yourself Barista BarEXPAND
Bushwick’s Express Yourself Barista Bar
Sean Pressley

Ismanuel Diaz, co-owner of the Express Yourself Barista Bar on Central Avenue, is the rare new Bushwick shopkeeper who's a longtime local: He grew up in the building, which his parents bought in the 1980s. Eventually, he and his brothers, experienced with the family bodega business and looking for another business opportunity — "we're entrepreneurs, it's what we do" — opened the coffee bar in 2013: "With all the different people coming to the neighborhood, coffee's like a common denominator."

But even Diaz was surprised by the pace of Bushwick's transformation. "I knew the neighborhood was changing, but one thing we didn't anticipate was the speed," he says. "You build relationships with people, and then they're always coming and going." Local artists disappeared almost as soon as they arrived, he notes, driven out by the changes they helped incite: "Before, on a daily basis I would have people coming in here asking me, 'Can I display this? Can I do an art show, a poetry reading, photos I want to display?' Now, not at all — they're somewhere else."

Brownsville’s Three Black Cats CafeEXPAND
Brownsville’s Three Black Cats Cafe
Sean Pressley

Some might consider Diaz's café to be part of the problem — coffee bars being almost as much of a dog whistle for gentrifiers as Thai restaurants. But the actual dynamic is more complicated, notes Hunter College sociologist Mark Owen Benediktsson, who has studied the impacts of gentrification and rezoning on local businesses.

"The doggy daycare places and the bikram yoga studios are seen as signs of gentrification, because we associate those types of business with the stereotyped gentrifier lifestyle," says Benediktsson. "But really what's happening there is that commercial property owners are surveying the landscape and thinking, 'I have this shoe repair place, and I could be making a lot more money if it were something else.' " It's why, he says, many high-income neighborhoods feature vacant storefronts: Property owners would rather take a short-term loss than give up on the imaginary businesses that could drive their values up.

Rising property values can be a boon for business owners, like the Diaz family, who own their own buildings. But for renters, it can be tough to ride the wave of new money. Benediktsson says his research has found that grocery stores, hardware stores, and pharmacies are the possible exceptions: "If newcomers give those places a chance and actually say, 'I'd love to buy milk here, but you guys don't have organic milk,' then often they'll add it and rebrand a bit."

For other business owners, there are few options once rents start to rise. Business improvement districts are tasked to serve the needs of both small-business owners and property holders — and when these conflict, it's often the store owners who get the short end of the stick. (Benediktsson notes this as one reason locales such as Newkirk Plaza and the East Village are increasingly turning to merchants associations instead.)

"I think there can be an equal balance: The residents can remain here and we can still have high-quality things in the community," says Ionna Jimenez, a community organizer who now runs the Three Black Cats Café in Brownsville with sisters Diana and Melissa. The key, she says, is "making sure that the community is involved in the conversation, and that what's brought here is actually needed and wanted by the residents."

For newcomers, Mateo suggests the best place to start is by supporting the residents' keystone businesses: "Follow some of the local businesses on Instagram; get on the mailing list of the Pitkin Avenue Business Improvement District." And consider lending a hand: "Folks here aren't helpless, and they have a voice," she says. "If you want to volunteer time to help businesses renegotiate leases, or help them shop for general liability insurance, that would be great!"

And seeking out businesses with deep neighborhood roots can benefit more than just the local community. "Try to find the old heads that have been around for years and years, and just sit down and pick their mind," advises Diaz, singling out Tony's Pizzeria on DeKalb and Knickerbocker, where he's gone for slices since the Seventies. "There's a lot of interesting stories."


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