Monday, August 03, 2009

Nam's and Gentrification

I may regret this post, but I have to come to the defense of Nam's. After I posted about their renovations last week, I received a pair of anonymous comments with gripes about Nam's, both of which warrant frank discussion. However, there are some questions of fact that need to be addressed first.

1. Nam's is not dropping food stamps. I repeat, Nam's will continue to honor food stamps. The signs are confusing because whoever made them isn't a native speaker of English, but the issue at hand is that their food stamp machine broke and they had to mail it in to get a replacement, which ships within two weeks. I too was concerned when I saw the sign, so I asked them, and they explained that they have every intention of accepting food stamps as soon as they get their new machine.

2. "I hate Nams - they are one of a handful of local Franklin Ave establishments charging Manhattan prices." This is misleading. It would be more accurate to say that they stock some "Manhattan" goods (organic items) and charge market rates for them. They also stock fresh produce (most of which is not organic, though some packaged items, such as the pre-washed spinach, are), and with the exception of the rather meager produce racks at Fisher's and some lone items at various bodegas, they are the ONLY place that stocks fresh produce between Eastern Parkway and Atlantic Avenue on Franklin. Yoon's Market, on the other side of Eastern Parkway, is a similar business that stocks a similar amount of produce, and their prices for this produce are very similar, if not identical (this is based on prices per pound for onions, bell peppers, peaches, and plums, and prices per item for avocados, limes, and habaneros). Nam's isnt' gouging anyone with higher prices. They're just selling some expensive items.

Facts are the easy part. The hard part is assessing the situation, both at Nam's and on an avenue in flux. On one hand, it's certainly fair to say that Nam's conversion to all-organic bodega is a harbinger of gentrification. These goods are aimed at a clientele that is new to the neighborhood (more on this crowd, of which I am a part, in a moment), and they cost more than their non-organic counterparts. Most of the heated exchanges I've seen at Nam's (and I've seen a few, as has the individual who made the second comment) have taken the same general form: a customer selects an organic item and is shocked by the price, often nearly double the cost of a non-organic item. The person working the register doesn't do a great job of explaining this (their English isn't great--see above), the customer, typically someone who is not new to the neighborhood or to Nam's, becomes incensed, and storms out. I am completely willing to concur that these instances, when they happen, are not good for neighborhood harmony, particularly given that the frustrated customer, whirling to stalk out, is often greeted by the faces of a handful of newbies who look a combination of confused and irked. It's hard not to draw lines in this situation, and in drawing them, to paint Nam's into the gentrifiers' corner.

But that isn't the whole story, as any devotee of Nam's will tell you. Their patrons remain a genuinely mixed lot, most likely because Nam's is the sole provider of fresh produce to much of the neighborhood. The atmosphere is, overall, a friendly one, and while the bulk of what's on their shelves inside the store is organic stuff aimed at newbies, they still stalk a number of items from local Caribbean bakeries and their coolers contain plenty of "normal" drinks at "normal" bodega prices ($1.50 for a Gatorade when I got one two months ago). If the portrait painted above is the pessimist's picture, allow me to paint the optimist's: this is a place that keeps Franklin between Eastern and Atlantic from being a food desert, that brings the neighborhood together in all its diverse glory, and that introduces locals and newbies alike to new foods. I am now a proud patron of 3D's Bakery for my Hard Dough Bread, but I first picked it up at Nam's, and I know longtime residents who had never tried whole wheat pasta until they bought it at Nam's, and are now big fans. It's also locally owned and generally blends into the neighborhood, or did until they added the somewhat heinous white siding pictured above. Would it be better if Nam's was just another bodega? If you wanted (or had) to shop locally, you'd have to trek down to Yoon's or to the Associated further down for fresh produce, and most likely, the newbies would just order Fresh Direct or lug stuff from Whole Foods (where the produce is considerably more expensive than Nam's) when they visited better-off friends in Manhattan. Would near-total separation be a preferable alternative to the occasional tension Nam's unintentionally produces?

Now, I know that this is a false dichotomy. My point is merely to demonstrate that Nam's isn't all bad, and that gentrification/revitalization/neighborhood change is a very complicated phenomenon in Crown Heights. This isn't Williamsburg--the residential and commercial stock are totally different, as are the location and the type of individuals moving in and moving out. I don't mean to suggest there aren't hard questions to be answered, and real losses to be incurred in any amount of neighborhood change, but I don't think Nam's is the enemy. If anything, I think a locally-owned produce shop where the business owners are savvy enough to make an adjustment that makes them unique to the neighborhood and brings a wide swath of residents through their doors is the kind of institution that suggests neighborhoods can control and participate in change, rather than just being drowned by a deluge of newcomers who build separate institutions. On the flip side, if Nam's doesn't work, or is a bad thing, what's good?


  1. the white siding is more than heinous -- it's inexcusable, and needs to go. soon.

    other than that (and the fact that between them and the police tower there's nary a sidewalk left), I see no problem with nam's. they're consistently friendly and seem do be doing well enough...

  2. I'm a fan of Nam's and shop there nearly every day. There really is no other place for produce on this side of Eastern Pkwy. On the south side, there's Yoon's and Pioneer, though neither is much cheaper (nor are they nearly as friendly as the staff at Nam's).

    I do agree the white siding is hideous! And those poor souls who hang out constantly on that stoop next to Nam's on Franklin now get to suck on hot A/C exhaust all day. Fun!

  3. Great posting... I frequent Nam's often enough and am happy to have it in the neighborhood. They seem to stock certain things that Fishers doesn't and its really nice having the convenience of it being open all the time.

    Gentrification or otherwise, Nam's wouldn't be in business if it weren't for people shopping there. Hooray Nams!

  4. Oh yeah and aprizant is right, sucks for those people on the stoop next to the AC... boo Nams.

  5. Agreed--I'm glad they're doing well enough to support the expansion, but it could have been executed better, particularly the new sheds that extend further than their awnings.

  6. I think Nam's is a good thing. Its like Starbucks - when those started popping up in traditionally black neighborhoods, some people saw it as a sign that the yuppies were taking over, but before long it became obvious that there are some things that almost everybody likes, like strong coffee and fresh produce, which had traditionally be hard to find in majority-black neighborhoods. Organic produce is more expensive than regular produce, but still, like a Starbucks' coffee, a relatively cheap luxury in the big scheme of things, and people who work for a living deserve to treat themselves from time to time. I'm glad that someone had the balls to open an organic bodega - that would have been hard to imagine even a few years ago.

  7. Interested to read this post as I just moved in on the other side of Eastern Parkway. I imagine I'll probably go to Yoon's for a lot of stuff, but I am also one of those people that likes to shop around to find exactly the right ingredients. I suppose I am also a sign of gentrification as a white girl, but I was actually attracted to the diversity of the neighborhood and I am definitely one of those folks that prefers to shop locally for everything I could possibly want. Here's hoping that helps in the neighborhood's assessment of me as a resident. :)

    Also your blog has given me a lot of great info about this neighborhood and made me that much more excited about living here. So thanks for that!