Neighborhoods

Sconey Island

A Brooklyn bakery struggles with being the unintended face of gentrification

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On a crisp fall morning, the cracked sidewalk along Brooklyn’s Bushwick Avenue is lively with parents and children on their way to P.S. 274 elementary school. Near the school, two crossing guards in long black braids and immaculate lipstick greet families by name, cracking jokes over the sounds of honking traffic. Most of their banter is in Spanish — P.S. 274 is over 80 percent Hispanic, and the surrounding neighborhood is a solid 65 percent Hispanic, according to the 2010 census.

I lean against a tree, out of the way as a parade of tiny humans in zipped sweaters and sagging superhero backpacks pass by, orbiting the axis of their adult caregivers like small solar systems. I’m eying the mustard-yellow walls of a small café, Brooklyn Whiskers, with mounting impatience. The café’s website, alongside a promise that “good food and fine coffee are at the heart of each day,” lists an opening time of 8 a.m. At 8:15 a.m., the shop is still shuttered, so I follow the flow of families toward the bodega next door. Inside, the familiar smells of frying grease, drip coffee, and scrambled eggs mingle with the ruckus of a dozen-plus schoolchildren clamoring to spend their pocket change on Coca-Colas and Cheetos. As they wait on line, their conversations mingle Spanish, English, and patois. I buy a dollar coffee to warm my hands and return to my stakeout spot.

My wait ends a few minutes shy of nine o’clock. By then, I’ve watched the school traffic give way to the daily flock of manual laborers, headed to work at one of the scaffolding-encrusted construction sites from which new, high-end apartment complexes seem to sprout with each passing month. The doors to the café are finally thrust open by co-owner Michael Minahan, a slender, youngish man in batik pants, a loose three-quarters-sleeve top, and pointed beanie.

Stepping into the café leaves me instantly disoriented. The tiny shop is a medley of warm wood, wrought iron, and cat-themed kitsch, like some combination of grandmother’s parlor and the Yukon frontier. A small window behind the counter offers a glimpse of a much larger kitchen beyond, where several women are hard at work wrangling pastries from piles of dough.

In the year and a half since Brooklyn Whiskers opened around the corner from me, I’ve been puzzled by its existence. It seems so audaciously out of sync with its surroundings: The café is self-described “artisanal” and 100 percent vegan, meaning its prices run two or three times higher than a similar bite at the bodega next door. In this predominantly working-class, heavily Latino neighborhood, I can hardly imagine the demand for $6 vegan croissants or $8 tofu scrambles would be high. “It’s just so weird that they’d open a vegan place here,” commented my Dominican American neighbor, Mateo, about the café, “because meat is such a big part of our [Latino] diet.” None of the families I chatted with during my 45-minute wait this morning had ever set foot inside.

Yet there is another population in the vicinity, a far more likely target for Whiskers’ marketing: the new (mostly white) kids in town. It’s a group to which, I must admit, I technically belong, though I am proud to say that I still look upon an $8 piece of avocado-cashew toast with a sense of moral outrage. Today, after eyeing the $6 brownies, pecan-studded scones, and a gleaming, gluten-free pumpkin bundt cake, I opt for a small lemon poppyseed muffin (a steal at $3!) and take a seat to observe. In the end, I’ll manage only two bites of the muffin, which most closely resembles the taste and texture of unflavored mochi. (Later, noticing my nearly untouched treat, Minahan will offer me a replacement pastry. I’ll choose a croissant, which, butterless and dense, will be only slightly easier to get down my dairy-loving gullet.)

The customers enter in a slow trickle, many of them yawning, hair still shower-wet at 10:30 a.m. The majority look to be fresh off the set of Broad City — twenty- and thirtysomethings in clothes that seem intentionally ill-fitting. A girl in a crop top and layers of liquid eyeliner steps into the café and breaks into a kind of dance: “Yo, the motherfucking Gorillaz are playing in here!” she yells out the door to her companion, a blue-haired young woman in flannel. “Yeah, cool — don’t forget I want the gluten-free toast,” her friend replies. “I got you, beeyotch!” is the confirmation. The woman orders two breakfast sandwiches and two cold brews for a grand total of $26. At least half a dozen customers snap pictures of their food for Instagram. In my three hours at Whiskers, I see no one who looks over 35 or who seems likely to be a Bushwick “native.”

Of course, Whiskers is far from the first purveyor of specialty food to appear as a portent, or confirmation, of gentrification. And while the price points and fare are painfully mismatched with Bushwick’s longer-standing demographics, at least Whiskers’ management has never been guilty of the egregious appropriation of “local color” that’s made some of its gentrifying counterparts notorious. Yet I still wondered how much Minahan and his team thought about Whiskers’ impact — or lack thereof — on the neighborhood where he’d chosen to operate his niche business.

Minahan, who has a musical voice and an earnest smile, tells me that Bushwick Avenue was not an obvious choice for a vegan shop. Drop-ins are often shocked by the prices — “to them, coffee is supposed to cost a dollar” — and the concept. “We definitely have people come in here and demand milk for their coffee, they can’t understand why we don’t have it — even though we have five milk alternatives,” he says. (One of these, NotMilk, is delivered fresh for Whiskers each week.) Some mothers drop in to buy a cookie for their kid on the way to school, only to be startled by the prices for the small, vegan treats. “It’s hard to change people’s expectations,” Minahan observes.

Minahan describes his own “long, circuitous journey” to veganism — influenced heavily by his partner, Preesa Bullington, the co-owner and head pastry chef of Whiskers and a longtime vegan. The two met in Seattle, at a graduate program for set design, before moving to New York. The cafe’s cat theme, says Minahan, “is all Preesa. She’s self-described cat-obsessed.” The couple share their Greenpoint home with two felines, “a nine-year-old and a two-year-old,” named Chai and Plum. (In a recent Instagram post, Minhan and Bullington uploaded a picture of two sugar cookies in the shape of their “furry babies.”)

His relationship with Bullington, Minahan says, led him to “commit” eventually to the “world of vegan eating,” but many would-be customers in the area still need convincing. Perhaps most baffling for first-timers is the absence of the New York staple, the bacon, egg, and cheese. For those who come looking for that, Minahan takes the opportunity to “offer something different,” he says. His recommendation? “Smokey maple tofu. Tofu that’s marinated in maple syrup, with a dash of liquid smoke, and then crisped on the grill.” It goes for $8, and, Minahan admits, “not everyone is into it.” Many retreat to the bodega down the street, where an actual BEC can be had for $2.50. But, says Minahan, “sometimes, neighborhood people will come back on the weekends for a special treat, maybe a cupcake. So we’re reaching people. That’s exciting to us.” A few “neighborhood people” have, over time, become regulars at Whiskers, Minahan adds. “They understand what we’re about now, and they are our friends.”

Whiskers’ real bread and butter, though, is the reliable business of fellow vegans along with “newer people in the neighborhood.” (When I ask if he means the “younger white people,” he nods a little sheepishly.) When he and Bullington started Whiskers, they availed themselves of local vegan gatherings to get the word out about their outpost on Bushwick Avenue. “We got a lot of support from other vegans — some of them would come from pretty far to support our business. So that’s helped keep us afloat.” Minahan says that his business is running in the black in its second year, adding that “veganism is trending right now,” drawing in “even some non-vegans” who are curious about animal-free pastries and breakfast sandwiches. “On the weekends, we’re slammed. We’ve kind of become the cool-kids spot, which I wasn’t expecting!” 

After three hours at Whiskers, I leave feeling conflicted, and very hungry. As I pass an active construction site, the picture of a gleaming apartment complex plastered on the temporary wall, I think the usual, fatalistic thoughts about gentrification — it’s going to happen no matter what. And Minahan is no villain, either; at the end of the day, he’s just a hardworking man selling (slightly ridiculous) pastries on cat-themed plates. Yet there is something particularly unnerving about launching a business that shapes itself not to the current neighborhood but to the one that is assumed will soon appear, as new developments — and rents — take off.

And while the choice to “go vegan” can have strong moral or environmental underpinnings, hyper-niche businesses like Whiskers can also be a luxury only accessible to a few. For Angelica, a mother who lives down the street, her food “culture” is pure pragmatism: “I go where they take EBT, and I can get the most for my dollar.”

On the weekends, the vast majority of the surrounding population is still one that prefers family barbeques (meat included) and sidewalk dominoes to waiting in line for brunch at one of Whiskers’ few, stamp-sized tables. Jose, at 65, has lived off Bushwick Avenue for “over forty years,” and says the best way to spend a Saturday is still “a couple of six-packs, cards, a big radio, and family cooking” in the eight-by-ten-foot cement block of his front yard. (None of the local residents interviewed wanted to provide their last names.) Yet this dissonance is fading every day — sharp-dressed, earbudded millennials now weave their way past the P.S. 274 crowd each morning, making an urgent dash for the nearest Manhattan-bound train. New hotels and wood-fired pizza joints are slipping in where dime stores once were.

And Whiskers’ profitability is telling, too. Before Minahan and Bullington, there was Brad Baker, the owner of a vegan diner in Williamsburg, who tried to launch a Bushwick outpost on the same corner in 2014. It went under in less than a year. “I guess the neighborhood wasn’t ready then,” Minahan mused. “But things are changing.”

 

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