Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Storefronts and Gentrification

Earlier this week, a friend in graduate school asked me to help him with a project for a spatial anthropology class. The task was essentially to complete a photo-ethnography, 6-10 frames that captured some aspect of the interaction between humans and their environment. Unsurprisingly, I chose Franklin Avenue.

Here's the blurb I wrote him, to serve as an abstract for the overlong post below:

"The shots were inspired by this article ( and the recent attempt at commercial rent control that Bloomberg and the real estate interests squashed ( What I was interested in was what the storefronts in my neighborhood reveal about the community--who the patrons are, what kind of commerce they attract, who the owners are, etc. What you see is a remarkably heterogeneous mix--the stores are black, white, and latino-owned, and while they tend to typify a "rough" or "edgy" area, they include some more upscale spots (including a fashion boutique and coffee shops). A fair number of storefronts are vacant, and some have even been bricked-over and turned into residences, evidence of lackluster retail sales over an extended period of time.

In the bigger picture, the neighborhood is definitely in the midst of gentrification/revitalization, but the process has been slower than in other boom-zones like Williamsburg, and I think the rate has made for a more hodge-podge, diversity-friendly process (I don't think a lot of people have been displaced, yet). Is this an area that needs commercial rent control? I don't think so at the moment, but at the same time, the vacant store you see used to be that great jerk-chicken joint, and I'd put good money down that it won't be replaced with a similar establishment. Especially given NYC's stringent residential rent-controls, I think commercial change, in this case, can be both a driver and reflection of neighborhood change. On the one hand, it seems unlikely that people would start leaving just because a jerk chicken place went caput. On the other hand, it isn't residential pressure that's going to force people out (rent control can stave off much of that), but changes in the neighborhood that make them feel less welcome. A store goes, the community that patronized it loses a node of contact and is weakened, and if this happens enough times, the desire to stay put dissipates as people seek greener pastures or friendlier faces."

I originally planned to pick a more narrow topic--storefront churches, perhaps, or bodegas--but the City Council fight over a proposed commercial rent control plan was fresh in my mind, as was this article on gentrification and "the displacement myth" from New York Magazine. The article cites findings from Lance Freeman's 2004 book There Goes the 'Hood, which looked at gentrification and displacement in Harlem and Clinton Hill. Freeman found that, at least in the short term, "poor residents and those without a college education were actually less likely to move if they resided in gentrifying neighborhoods." An interesting point, though given rent control and the transient nature of the typical gentrifyers--single 20-somethings with high rates of mobility--it's not a terribly surprising finding. The more interesting question (perhaps Freeman answers it, I haven't read the book) is whether these residents are more or less likely to move once a neighborhood starts gentrifying than they were before change arrived.

But the point remains--even as buildings are sold and landlords try their damnedest to get rid of rent-control tenants, a measure of residential stability is written into New York City's laws. However, another finding of Freeman's book, one not cited by NY Mag, was that despite the tangible benefits that gentrification brings (reduced crime, cleaner streets, better local retail), a profound cynicism about change and its agents (city government, private enterprises, and white folks) persists among longtime residents. This cynicism is often attributed to the disenfranchisement that displacement and harassment by landlords and law enforcement produce, but I'd like to offer an addition cause--the disappearance of local commercial institutions which serve as nodes of community interaction. Councilman Jackson's attempt to create a system of commercial rent controls was framed as a way to protect "mom and pop" stores from displacement by rising rents in gentrifying communities, but he could go a step farther and argue that some form of commercial rent control might also be a way to protect and stabilize these communities for their residents.

Consider Franklin as an example. As I wrote about a month ago, the Avenue has added 14 shops, (I only listed 13--forgot Mazon's) a CSA, and a Flea Market since I moved here in August of 2008, many of which are, to some extent, symbols of gentrification/revitalization (enough so that the NY Times came out and wrote an article). That said, retail on Franklin Avenue at this particular moment is, in one sense, about as diverse as any in Brooklyn. There are places you'd find in Park Slope or Cobble Hill (Nairobi's Knapsack, About Time, the coffee shops) as well as bodegas and storefront churches that resemble those in East New York or Brownsville. There are places owned by people of all races serving all sorts of needs, from 24-hour laundromats to boutique clothing and Indian food. There's a significant concentration of businesses, particularly between Eastern and Park, but there are also plenty of vacant storefronts and even those that were bricked up and turned into residential units at some point during the neighborhood's atrophy in the 1980s.

Many of these stores serve a wide variety of North Crown Heights residents, but there are also those that serve as hubs for particular communities. Restaurants and bars including Kelso, Liza Sports Club, and Siempre Amigos, anchor New York City's largest Panamanian community, while similar spots (B&B, 3Ds, JamRock Kitchen) cater to migrants from the English-speaking Caribbean. 95 South, right around the corner from Franklin Park, attracts an almost exclusively African-American clientele (this was the topic of some chatter on Brooklynian a while back). There's not a lot of crossover at some of these spots, but that doesn't mean they don't enrich the neighborhood--laments were long and loud when The Spice is Right disappeared a few weeks back. Many longtime locals have expressed their delight at the pace of change (as did Raphael, the co-owner of Nairobi's Knapsack, when he saw me taking photos of his place), but others have expressed their displeasure, often alluding to people "trying to turn this place into Park Slope or Manhattan," as one person put it to me.

I swear there's a point in here somewhere, and this is it: Franklin is in flux. The current commercial diversity on the Avenue, serving several different economic and cultural communities, may or may not hold, and if retail here does take off, it is inevitable that the stores that anchor some communities will be pushed out. Residents may be protected by rent control, but if American Apparel one day replaces Kelso, it wouldn't be surprising to learn that the Panamanian folks followed their restaurant to wherever it re-opened. When I wrote that post about Franklin's retail boom a month ago, I was able to skirt this issue because not a single shop had yet been displaced. I don't know what happened to The Spice is Right, but it's possible that they were victims of a rapid rise in commercial real estate prices on Franklin. The day I stopped to take a photo of their vacant storefront, a realtor had asked if I was looking for property in the area and put a card into my hand before I could put the camera away.

Is commercial rent control a way to stabilize lower-income communities threatened by gentrification, or would it be a dead weight that sinks the kind of creative, entrepreneurial boom that has blossomed on Franklin (in the midst of a recession, no less) in the last 18 months? I don't know, and the loss of one (albeit, one excellent) jerk-chicken joint is not enough evidence to work with (and maybe it will be replaced with something spectacular, who knows?). Almost everyone I talk to, locals and newbies alike, loves the direction the neighborhood is taking, and I'm with them, but we're still at the beginning of what could become a more contentious process as storefronts and apartments fill up. I can't think of a way to conclude this ramble, so I'll cop out, and kick it to the readers--any thoughts?


  1. I'm betting the present gentrification will continue.
    ...despite the present recession.


  2. I think that any person that opens any kind of biz is crazy. If you have a supermarket, the people in the nab go shop at trader joes or whole foods than come to you for cat litter and diet coke. If you have a discount store, people go to target to buy tide. What is at issue here is supporting your local biz. this is not only a problem on franklin but all over country. people love the big box markets. the days of mom and pop stores are over. just count the number of closed store fronts on franklin or bedford.

  3. Great piece, Nick!

    It's so funny that you write this piece, because we have been working on a VERY similar piece for NP, and plan to publish it this upcoming week.

    We are looking at a few of the recent commercial closings in the neighborhood (including Spice is Right, which prompted our piece) and exploring that in connection with the proposed Small Business Survival Act. But we argue that there may be a viable case for (very limited) commercial rent control.

    We're also working on a piece exploring the storefront development along Nostrand to that of Franklin Ave. What makes them different? What makes them the same? What - if anything - makes one more viable than the other?

    In any event. Great work, as usual.

  4. What about the clothing store a block down from the new laundromat. That went out of business too.

    However there's a new chinese joint opening up right near by there too, and then there's that new spanish food place that just opened. I don't think you can draw any real conclusions here. Stuff comes and goes.

    Personally I'd be glad to see most of these half assed businesses go under on Franklin, and get replaced with people who have their act together.

  5. Thanks for your posts on Franklin Ave. I been documenting this stretch for my thesis program as well - addressing vacant properties and light - and enjoy witnessing the street's transformation.

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