After three years on Franklin and several menu overhauls, Bristen's Eatery is closing shop for good this month. While their departure isn't a complete surprise (as posters below have noted), it is, in some ways, emblematic of how rapidly the Avenue is changing. Laurel from Nostrand Park put it best in response to Friday's rah-rah-new-businesses post:
"However, with the rapid changes, I think it is also important to also step back and look at the macro perspective on this, and consider whether the retail mix as a whole is reflects the needs of the broader community . . . while the wants, needs, and spending power of the newer residents are and should be a very real factor in determining the success of Franklin Avenue as a commercial district, it is just as important to factor in the wants, needs, and the collective economic potential of residents of lower-incomes."
Laurel also pointed out that the retail environment on Franklin has gotten increasingly competitive, a factor which drives development but which can also produce a here-today-gone-tomorrow business environment, one that damages communities by damaging continuity. Mike F commented that "the city is changing. To try to stop it is futile; the goal is to try and keep up," but I'd argue that the real challenge is to harness, direct, and channel change in ways that benefit and strengthen neighborhoods. This doesn't mean standing athwart history yelling "stop," but rather thinking about strategies for engaging local residents, retailers, and landlords in conversations to address the questions Laurel is raising (on Franklin, the CHCA and the Franklin Avenue Merchants Association are brainstorming about these issues). To add my own concerns to the mix, I think a retail mix that serves our heterogeneous community is important, but I also think businesses have the potential to act as public spaces where members of these diverse groups come together and actually build community.
This brings me back to Bristen's, which, for all its faults as a restaurant, was a civic-minded business and node of community interaction. The owners went out of their way to play this role, organizing the Franklin Flea two summers ago, drawing attention to Franklin when they were one of the few sit-down places on the Avenue, and acting as a meeting space for everything from MLK Day volunteer groups to Halloween parades. We're lucky to have quite a few of these businesses on Franklin, but in an atmosphere of heightened competition, we can't take them for granted. Supporting local merchants that make these efforts, whether through constant patronage, Yelp reviews, or expressions of gratitude, is an essential part of making the area livable for everyone. (As an aside, I'm a big believer that this includes constructive criticism - if a business is doing something wrong, LET THEM KNOW. Nobody wants to the guy sending his soup back five times, but a discreet piece of advice or information is helpful, and improves both your experience and their business model. You can't tell McDonald's to put more pickles on a Big Mac, but you can, hopefully, get that kind of responsiveness from your local spots.)
Ultimately, Bristen's didn't have the goods to match their do-gooding. So where to from here? From what I understand, the Bristen's space will be replaced by a Caribbean place called "Island Thyme." Some posters worried about "another Caribbean joint," but I think this place, in this space, would/will be great. When ILFA got started two and a half years ago, there were three Caribbean places on Franklin between Eastern and Park (The Spice is Right, 3D's, and the space now occupied by J's Wong), and a fourth, JamRock Kitchen, opened shortly thereafter. Today, only JamRock remains (though supposedly 3D's is not gone for good). In a month or so, Franklin will have more coffee houses, Mexican places (Chavella's opens next month), and Thai places (once Sweet Basil opens) than West Indian joints, a change that gets to the heart of Laurel's concerns. In a historically West Indian community that remains majority Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean (according to the most recent census), having a nice new Caribbean restaurant in a cozy space does two important things - it demonstrates that gentrification/revitalization/neighborhood change doesn't just have to be about nice things for newcomers, and it provides a place for social and cultural exchange that benefits all parties involved.
I realize this is a lot of aspirational language to pin on a new merchant who's likely more concerned about his/her bottom line than being part of a blogger's Kumbaya project. Still, returning to Mike's point, communities in this town are inherently transient things, and their fates can swing on tiny hinges. Maybe Island Thyme won't have us all holding hands around a bowl of stew peas, but it can, I think, provide the opportunity for interaction. What we make of these interactions is up to us.