Downtown Brooklyn–When the city approved an ambitious rezoning of downtown Brooklyn in 2004, Yaakov “Jack” Fuzailov didn’t think it would negatively affect his barbershop on the corner of Bridge Street and Willoughby Avenue. After all, he figured, he had a five-year lease and a verbal promise from his landlord of a five-year renewal. Even when construction for a new subway underpass tore up the streets in front of his shop, he struggled through, waiting for the day when his customers could return. “I was working for free, because I thought I could build a future,” he says. “Thinking that it will be better tomorrow.”
Instead, he says, his landlord, Albert Laboz, handed him an eviction notice instead — along with all the other commercial tenants in his building, which was set to be demolished to make way for a mixed-use high-rise that would ultimately never be built. Undeterred, Fuzailov found a new space around the corner on Willoughby Street and reopened his store — only to again be forced out when his new landlord put the property on the market for double what he’d been paying. “He thought that since the neighborhood is changing, he thought he’ll get rid of us. But since we left, it was a for-rent sign for three months.”
Fuzailov’s former store was ultimately rented to a braiding salon whose nearby location had been gutted in a fire. The rent, Fuzailov was surprised to learn, was $1,000 a month less than what he had been paying. “We went through three-and-a-half to four years of struggling there, and now we’re gone.”
Maisha Morales tells a similar story of slow displacement. The owner of a religious supply store at the Albee Square Mall, Morales was forced to find new space after developer Joe Sitt razed the building and sold the site once it had been upzoned to allow for a high-rise (which, like Alboz’s Willoughby West tower, remains unbuilt four years later). She found a new storefront on Willoughby Street, and like Fuzailov, waited out the MTA reconstruction.
But also like Fuzailov, she says that she too was soon done in by rising rents: “With the Albee Square Mall being shut down, landlords took advantage of that,” she says. “They knew business owners were desperate, and so they raised their rents.”
Morales’ rent, originally $6,000 a month, hit $10,000 by 2010, recession be damned. She closed up shop, and set out to find a new job. Since as a sole proprietor she wasn’t required to pay into unemployment insurance for herself — “I was able to opt to do that, but I couldn’t afford it” — she ended up applying for food stamps. A member of the low-income group Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, which has organized extensively among downtown Brooklyn shopkeepers, she now has landed a job as an organizer with the Manhattan neighborhood preservation group Good Old Lower East Side, albeit at a fraction of her old salary; meanwhile, her long spell of unemployment has left her $7,000 in arrears on her rent on her Fort Greene apartment.
Morales says her old storefront also remained vacant, in her case for a year. It’s now slated to be a deli, something her former landlord had insisted he wouldn’t allow when she asked about expanding her business to include a cafe.
Despite stories like these, Fuzailov brushes off the possibility that, now that they’ve seen the limits on what they can charge, building owners will lower rents and allow longtime shopkeepers to stay. “Their egos are too high,” he insists. “It’s not going to happen. They’d rather leave it empty.”
Morales recalls, “My landlady told me, ‘I regret the day I rented to you people’. They’re looking to rent to big box stores” — Walmart was briefly rumored to be interested in occupying Laboz’ Willoughby Street site — “but big box stores are struggling too. Apparently landlords haven’t gotten that memo yet.”
Earlier this year, Fuzailov decided he’d had enough, and picked up his family and moved to Miami. But when his wife discovered that there were no jobs in Florida for a newly graduated registered nurse, the family returned to Brooklyn, where Fuzailov settled in as an employee of a surviving barber shop across Willoughby Street.
Fuzailov says he still dreams of opening his own shop again. “From having ten workers to being a worker myself now, it hurts a little,” he says. His ten former workers, he adds, are largely unemployed; some have left for the South. “‘They all call me, say, hey, Jack, open up. Let’s do it again.'” But he says he’s hesitant to trust any landlords after being twice burned. “Opening up another shop, I want to, badly. But again, I got a fear.”