Shopping For Change In Crown Heights

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Tony Fisher's parents opened a grocery, then called Fisher's Supermarket, on Franklin Avenue in 1981. Now it's a stylish, renovated anchor of Crown Heights' commercial strip.

Photo by: Patrick Wall

Tony Fisher's parents opened a grocery, then called Fisher's Supermarket, on Franklin Avenue in 1981. Now it's a stylish, renovated anchor of Crown Heights' commercial strip.

On a recent Sunday at Bob and Betty’s Food Market in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a young white couple inspected some organic bananas, while an older black woman picked out a bouquet of roses.

The scene in the stylish, newly renovated grocery on Franklin Avenue, a commercial hub in Crown Heights, would be unimaginable 20 years ago. Back then, the neighborhood was best known for its race riots and drug trade.

But over the past decade, the neighborhood around Franklin Avenue has transformed.

Today crime is down and rents are on the rise – forcing some longtime residents to leave, while new ones arrive. This year’s Census figures show that the area’s black majority declined by about 10 percent over the last decade, while the white population more than doubled.

Inviting to entrepreneurs

As the neighborhood changes, it’s developed a buzz that has attracted another set of newcomers: small business owners.

In recent years, entrepreneurs have launched businesses all along Franklin Avenue. Since 2008, nearly 40 stores have opened or been renovated in the two-mile stretch between Eastern Parkway and Atlantic Avenue, according to the local blog, I Love Franklin Avenue. In the coming weeks, a Mexican restaurant, a wood-oven pizza parlor and an oyster bar are set to open on Franklin.

While some residents tout the development as evidence of a community on the rise, others wonder who will be left behind.

“How do we make sure,” asks Mike Kumitzky, who owns a non-profit arts center on the avenue, “that as the neighborhood continues to change, the longtime residents aren’t literally or culturally pushed out?”

One longtime resident – and an important player in the neighborhood’s recent revival – is Evangeline Porter, who has lived and worked in Crown Heights for the past four decades.

Porter arrived in the area in 1968, just as many of the city’s West Indian immigrants were beginning to move from Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant to Crown Heights. Newcomers then, as today, frequented the shops along Franklin.

“Franklin Avenue used to be the most elegant street in Brooklyn,” Porter says. “You could shop there on any weekend without a problem.”

A community challenged

Along with many other parts of the city, Crown Heights began a steady decline in the late 1970s that lasted well into the 90s. In 1991, hundreds of the area’s blacks and Hasidic Jews clashed during four days of bloody riots that left two dead, scores injured and the words “Crown Heights race riots” seared into the national consciousness.

The 1980s and 90s were an era of empty storefronts, slashed tires and armed drug dealers, says Porter. She was mugged several times – once the thief snatched Porter’s wig along with her purse – as she walked down the old, treeless avenue.

“It was just a hot, ugly, dirty, drug-infested street,” says Porter.

Fed up with the crime, Porter and a few friends – mostly other black women – formed a block association in the mid-80s, which they would later rename the Crow Hill Community Association.

Beginning in 1999, the group set out to revive the local economy centered on Franklin Avenue. They raised money to plant trees, remove graffiti and install news awnings and security gates on businesses along the avenue. They also lobbied – successfully – for a beefed-up police presence on the block.

In recent years, housing prices began to soar in Prospect Heights, a neighborhood adjacent to Crown Heights. Suddenly Crown Heights, with its ever-safer streets and relatively cheap housing, became an attractive alternative for young professionals.

A community changed

While exact numbers are hard to come by, many residents say a flock of new businesses followed the newcomers, many of whom were white.

“When the neighborhood started getting lighter and lighter, that’s when you see all these businesses popping up,” says Bob and Betty’s owner Tony Fisher. Fisher’s parents opened the grocery, then called Fisher’s Supermarket, on Franklin in 1981.

Fisher, 38, who started working at the family grocery when he was in junior high school, says local businesses have a responsibility to cater to the entire neighborhood.

“You get the white chicks that want low-fat milk. You get the hipsters with flannel shirts and beards who want Yuengling beer. You get the West Indian women who want a certain type of hot sauce,” says Fisher. “And you have to get it.”

He doubts whether some of the latest businesses on the block share this sense of obligation.

“They’re just mooching off the new people,” says Fisher. “They’re not accommodating the people that have been in the neighborhood.”

Progress, at a price

Some locals see Franklin Park, a popular bar inside what was once a mechanic’s garage, as the leader of the pack of new businesses on the avenue. Many credit – or condemn – Franklin Park for the uptick in newcomers to the area since the bar opened in 2007.

The bar’s co-owner, Anatoly Dubinsky, views the recent development along Franklin as progress.

“If gentrification is going to bring different life to the neighborhood, besides the shooting and the drug dealing,” Dubinsky says, “that’s a good thing.”

Dubinsky hopes the bar will draw a mix of old-timers and newcomers. But, he adds, “I don’t know what you can do to determine who comes into your business.”

A couple blocks away, inside Lily and Fig Bakery and Tea Shop, owner Lily Johnson-Dibia has worked hard to appeal to old-timers and newcomers alike.

Johnson-Dibia, who moved the store to Franklin in 2009, sets her prices with the range of local incomes in mind. Coffee goes for $1.75, while fresh-baked cookies are just 50 cents. She also introduces customers from disparate backgrounds to one another using a book of business cards she keeps behind the counter.

“I like the fact that it’s a diverse neighborhood,” says Johnson-Dibia. “If there’s anything I can do to foster that, I try to do it.”

Many locals say that as new businesses move into the neighborhood – despite their best intentions – they increase demand for the local housing stock, which raises prices.

Kevin Phillip owns About Time, a boutique clothing store on Franklin. He also owns a building across the street, where he’s run one business or another for the past 10 years.

Lately, he says, other businesses have joined him on the block, and rents have gone up.

“Landlords are getting hip to the whole gentrification going on in the neighborhood,” says Phillip. “They renovate apartments, then raise the prices.”

Kumitzky, owner of the art center on Franklin called LaunchPad, says he watched this happen in the building across from his storefront, at 724 Franklin. The building is owned by the proprietors of Myspace Realty, which moved to Franklin Avenue in 2008.

Kumitzky says that soon after the Myspace owners bought the seven-unit apartment and retail building, they offered to pay the current tenants to leave. When all of them finally agreed to vacate, the owners renovated the building and increased the rent.

A broker at Myspace, Jonathan Boe, says he wasn’t directly involved with 724 Franklin, but that the renovation scenario sounds familiar. (One of the owners of Myspace, Guy Hockman, did not return several calls to his office.)

Boe says that realtors everywhere welcome new residents with higher incomes.

“They love gentrification,” he says. “It’s getting tenants who are willing to pay higher rent.”

A new mix

Despite the drawbacks of new development along the avenue, many long-time residents have embraced the changes. A bustling commercial strip, they say, creates jobs, combats crime and enhances the quality of life in the neighborhood.

The women of the Crow Hill Community Association had exactly those improvements in mind when they formed the group more than two decades ago, long before the most recent wave of residents arrived.

“I’ve been president for 25 years and it’s been a constant goal,” says Porter. “It isn’t just because the newcomers that we started doing this.”

One of the group’s latest accomplishments is the conversion of a trash-filled lot on Franklin into a community garden. On a recent afternoon at the garden, Esther Smigel, who moved to the neighborhood six months ago, hammered some plywood together to form a plot.

Rudolph Hall, a Jamaican immigrant who settled in Crown Heights more than 30 years ago, stood nearby and watched. He mentioned another upshot of Franklin Avenue’s revival: new diversity in the neighborhood.

“It’s a beautiful change to see integration,” Hall said, “something that we haven’t had here for a long time.”

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