The procession moved steadily through the steamy streets of Bushwick on a broiling afternoon, a diverse group of demonstrators waving rainbow flags, its leaders holding a banner that said “our existence is resistance,” with a rag-tag brass band and bass drum providing the soundtrack. Their starting point had been a block party where an understated memorial to transgender activists occupied a tasteful place of honor.
Led by two NYPD vehicles, the march moved under the M train across Myrtle and past the clothing and sneaker stores along Knickerbocker, turned north and then moved east along Irving Avenue, a quiet corridor of bodegas, hairdressers, a hardware store or two and a lot of residential front stoops. And also, on the corner of Himrod Street, a vintage store. There the walk stopped.
A young woman turned to the rest of the march and spoke in short phrases. The crowd echoed her words back. She had spoken to the owner of the store recently, she said. “They said, ‘We’re not here to gentrify. You should get to know us.'”
“But this store doesn’t sell clothing people in this community could afford or even like,” she called. “If you dare to come to Bushwick, you should get to know us. We shouldn’t have to come to get to know you. And what I want to say is: Black lives, they matter here. Gray lives, they matter here. Queer lives, they matter here. Trans lives, they matter here.”
The echoes came. The march moved on. It stopped three bocks later, just east of Bleecker Street. A different speaker claimed center stage, and directed the crowd’s attention to the two bars across Irving from one another, Pizza Party and Boobie Trap. “We don’t want gentrification to rip apart our families’ lives anymore,” the speaker said. He’d spoken with the owners of the Boobie Trap, he said. “They claim by being here, it’s enough to give us justice, to give us freedom. When we asked for support, they said, ‘No.'”
“If they are going to bring gentrification, we’re going to kick them out. So, f–k their gentrification,” the speaker continued. A fellow marcher took the speaker’s spot and added: “If you buy any food or products from these places, you are supporting white supremacy.”
The band struck up a tune. The crowd chanted. A small group of White men on the steps of the Boobie Trap looked on, one of them bobbing theatrically to the music before he went back inside.
With a major rezoning in the offing and construction on what seems like every block this summer, Bushwick feels like it’s changing by the minute, and storefronts that herald demographic change are a point of increasing friction. In the space between hyperbolic activists and entrepreneurs disconcertingly certain they’re not part of the problem are real questions about whether businesses change a neighborhood or vice versa.
“I know what it’s like”
The vintage store, called Brooklyn Vintage Company, was closed at the time of the march but open the following Tuesday, when the heat wave gave way to cooler temps and a light drizzle. Its doors propped wide and its lights on, it looked more inviting than it had during the demo, although still a little out of place in the utilitarian confines of Irving Avenue. Inside, there were kitchsy lampshades, old military caps, pulp novels and 60s-era telephones for sale. Vintage shirts ran for $20 to $30. A solid collection of 70s and 80s vinyl, with a record-player to test them on, was at the back; prices started at $8.
Cat Varga, one of the owners, told City Limits she met the protest organizers the week before the march. They approached her just outside the store asking her to display a poster for the demonstration. “I told them ‘We’re all about being part of the community,'” Varga said. “‘We’re not here to be part of the gentrification,’ I said.” But the lead activist replied, according to Varga, ‘By your very presence, you are part of it.'”
Varga said she wants people to come get to know her because, “I can’t bring the store to you.” She felt, she said, like the protest organizers approached her as an enemy. “Both of us come from working-class families,” she said, gesturing to her business partner, Michael, who declined to give a last name. “We both worked really hard. This is what we could afford.” She’d been operating a pop-up store nearby. The space the store now occupies was once a church, she said.
It cannot have been a surprise to the owners that an East Village-style vintage store on Irving Avenue would offend some people. “We definitely knew there’d be that element: ‘Oh shit, there goes the neighborhood,'” said Michael. “We try to have different price-points. We can’t be everything to everyone. But we want to try. We’re not selling $500 tee-shirts.” He said he’s a Bronx native who has been priced out of apartments in Harlem and Bed-Stuy during his years in the city. “I know what it’s like.”
The store opened in June. So far, things are going well, Varga said. The customers seem to come from all backgrounds, she added. Some wander in because Gypsy Housing, a real-estate broker that aims to serve young renters, is just around the block. Varga said she has helped one newcomer to Bushwick find a job by connecting him with an employer she knew was looking.
Of course, that’s just the fear some advocates have—a new business comes in, serves a new clientele, creates a hangout spot, helps people make connections, and suddenly it’s the anchor for a community that starts to transform a neighborhood.
Bars and garbage
Bars can be a particularly sore point in gentrifying neighborhoods because they seem designed to bring in new, more affluent customers—who sometimes treat the area as their playground, carousing around late at night, smoking and chatting on the sidewalk when neighbors are trying to sleep. Bars rarely offer anything to neighboring families except loud music at night and the racket of glass bottles being dragged out to the curb the next day. According to records from the State Liquor Authority, there are 130 active on-premises liquor licenses in ZIP Code 11237, which comprises parts of Williamsburg and the northern half of Bushwick. Nineteen applications are pending in that area.
Nicole de Santis, who runs a volunteer organization called Keep Bushwick Beautiful dedicated to cleaning up litter, says the amount of trash in Bushwick (where she moved 11 years ago as a single mom) has increased as the neighborhood has attracted development, and especially as its bar scene has boomed.
“Tons of people come here at night to go to those places,” she says. “And they just don’t care. It’s gotten much worse.” Not that are all watering holes are bad citizens. One bar has been a major sponsor of her group’s work, offering free drinks in exchange for clean-up labor and handling the bags of trash that projects produce.
The Boobie Trap sprawls out around the corner of Irving and Bleecker, with a few tables on the sidewalk and a few more inside, and a bar with maybe 10 stools. The place has a kitschy feel—there are cheap plastic toys decorating the bar, miniature dinosaurs along the windowsills—and an edgy attitude. A headless plastic female torso encases some of the taps. The bathroom door reads, “Yes, this is the bathroom, idiot,” and on the toilet-top is a jar of hair bands for tying back one’s locks when vomiting, a gesture that is either gross or compassionate or a bit of both. Eighties pop music spills out of the sound system, but the volume permits conversation. There are plenty of board games, but no televisions. That means no one stares blankly at sports highlights. It also means that Mexican or Ecuadoran construction workers who want to catch a soccer game and have a beer after work will have to go somewhere else. Still, on a recent quiet weekday afternoon, the small crowd was relatively diverse: two White women, two Latinas, a Black man.
Paul King, one of the owners of Boobie Trap and Pizza Party, says the pizza store has been operating for 10 years, having been operated previously by a third-generation Bushwick resident. He began operating it as Pizza Party four years ago. Boobie Trap opened five years ago in a space formerly occupied by a bodega. King himself has lived in the neighborhood for 18 years, he says. “Most of our regulars are born and raised in Bushwick,” he contends, and he says his workforce is diverse.
King says he supported the Bushwick LGBTQ march with donations the previous three years but refused this year because protest participants misbehaved at the bar after last year’s march, and that some were underage. “The reason we stopped is because they’re a–holes,” he says. “Using the LGBTQ issue as a mask or a reason kind of proves that.” He thinks the fact that they protested his bar because he didn’t donate was a form of “lightweight extortion.”
“When people target small businesses, that totally misses the point,” King says. “Gentrification starts well before them, with the real-estate people. If anything, small businesses get the short end of the stick.”
But can’t small businesses help to transform a neighborhood, by creating a safe space for newcomers, and other new businesses, who then decide to take root? “Yeah, maybe,” King says. But he feels the many years he lived in the neighborhood before opening his businesses give him a certain standing. Plus, culturally speaking, “This neighborhood has changed hands like 40 times,” he says.
Indeed, Bushwick was Italian before it became Puerto Rican and, now, “hipster.” Neighborhood succession has always been part of the New York City saga. The difference about today’s story, which of course generalizes across a lot of complex personal narratives, is that people aren’t moving up the ladder into the suburbs; they’re being pushed out by rising rents. Some of the people who left Bushwick in the 1970s and 1980s felt they, too, were pushed out—by rising crime instead of rising rents. But there was an element of choice then. Those moves were about using economic power; today’s are about losing it.
On the day of the protest, a White man in his late 30s who declined to give him name watched the demonstration from the steps of the Boobie Trap. He said he had lived in the neighborhood for 14 years. I asked if he sympathized at all with people who felt their neighborhood was being transformed into a place they couldn’t recognize or afford. He said he did. He knew that affordable apartments were getting harder to find, that public housing faced problems. He thought the state needed to do more, that zoning was partly to blame. “Rather than attack individual businesses, shouldn’t it be something that’s taken up locally by our government?”
Did he feel like a pioneer when he moved to the area in 2005? “No,” he chortled. “I felt like a person, trying to find an affordable apartment with my bartender girlfriend.”
His friend was simply perplexed by the protest. “It’s cheap to drink,” he said. “Beers are $5.”
Retail and residents
Of course, individual businesses rise and fall all the time in the city. It’s wholesale change that seems jarring—when a whole commercial strip seems to go overnight from serving one income bracket to catering to a higher one.
The most basic impact of new retail, of course, is that it replaces what was there before. And that changes the options facing shoppers. When, say, an organic grocery takes the spot once held by a low-cost hairdresser, incumbent residents might need to travel farther to get your hair done. It might cost more. It could be harder to get seen on time because there are fewer salon chairs in play. As new firms take root, other commercial landlords might detect a reason to hike rents, squeezing low-margin businesses out. The business next to the hairdresser—maybe a Mexican grocery—that depended on foot traffic might suffer when the hair stylists and their customers move. If the grocery store pulls up stakes, too, its customer base can follow it and do its shopping elsewhere, leaving other, older retail establishments in the lurch.
Changes in retail even affect residents insulated from changes in rents. Mark Reyes, who has lived in Bushwick for 20 years, is a homeowner who will never be priced out of the neighborhood, but he’s been affected by the changes in local retail. His supermarket has gotten more expensive. And he’s seen familiar businesses close—he thinks because new residents spend their money elsewhere. “They don’t seem to support a lot of local businesses. I’ve seen bodegas go under because they favor the delis that do salads and stuff,” he says. He doesn’t mind the newcomers, but he wonders why they don’t shop in the bodegas. “A lot of the hipsters that have come here seem just to be interested in coffee, beer and burritos.”
The blocks along Irving Avenue between the vintage store and the Boobie Trap indicate that commercial Bushwick is changing. Most of the storefronts reflect the neighborhood’s present more than its possible future: botanicas, bodegas, an auto-accessories store and a couple beauty salons. But a boxy corner property stands empty but has a “store for rent” banner on it. A hairdresser’s awning remains over a shuttered storefront. There is a “handmade soaperie” and, nearby on the strip, an “urban tiki bar” and a high-end pet store. Down DeKalb Avenue at Knickerbocker is the empty corner once occupied by Happy Days, a children’s clothing store that apparently operated in some form since the 70s, and on that spot since 2009. It closed recently because—another storeowner on the strip says—its customer base had largely moved away.
Stephen Ficala owns the store for rent on the corner of Irving and Himrod. A Bushwick native, he says it’s been in his family for 40 years. It housed a community outreach program supporting teen parents most recently and before that an immunization program. Sometime in the distant past it might have been a butcher shop—in gutting the place, he’s found old meathooks.
A lot of the businesses along Irving Avenue, “those are going to fall to the wayside because they are not turnover businesses,” Ficala says—meaning they can’t shift to meet the needs of the new neighborhood.
Unless the changes in the rent laws in Albany in June, which Ficala believes were wrongheaded because they reduce incentives to property owners to invest in their properties, slow down Bushwick’s residential turnover.
“You’re going to have people sticking around, maybe,” he says. And maybe the businesses that serve them will stick around, too.