When Eva Daniels locked up her real estate office for the last time, in January 2009, she was closing the door on more than two decades of business. Daniels was one of the few agents then working in Fort Greene, so most of the people moving in or out of the neighborhood came through her small storefront on Fulton Street. “Everyone knew Eva Daniels,” she said. “I was that shop on the corner.”
When Daniels opened the office in 1986, most of her clients were African-American and the homes she sold were generally under market value; many outsiders considered Fort Greene a precarious neighborhood. But in 1999, when she sold a house for more than half a million dollars to a white buyer, she knew things were changing.
So in 2009, when the lease for her store came up for negotiation and her landlord informed her that someone was offering to pay double her rent, Daniels wasn’t surprised. Unable to afford the steep rise in rent, Daniels moved out, and began working as a realtor out of her home. Her old storefront now houses an office for Prudential Douglas Elliman real estate, a firm that previous specialized in upscale Manhattan properties.
Daniels’ real estate office is only one of the dozens of black-owned businesses that have closed in the past decade in Fort Greene. Although there are no official numbers, Stacy Sutton, an assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University – who has been studying black businesses in Fort Greene for nearly 10 years, says that of the of the approximately 50 businesses she studied from 2001-2004, – more than half have closed by now.
According to the most recent U.S. Census, from 2000 until 2010, Fort Greene, once a racially-mixed neighborhood with a strong black middle class, had the sixth-largest increase of any census tract nationally in its white population. And Fulton Street, Fort Greene’s main commercial strip, reflects that dramatic demographic change. White-owned gastro pubs, bookstores, and boutiques line the bustling tree-lined street, where once a plethora of black-owned businesses stood.
Those same black businesses sustained and stabilized Fort Greene when they opened in the 1980’s, a time when the neighborhood, like much of New York City, was coming out of the steep financial declines of the 1970’s. Stricken with deindustrialization and white flight, once-integrated, working-class neighborhoods like Fort Greene had now become “black and brown ghettos” Sutton said, with high unemployment and high crime. Fulton Street of the 1970’s and early 1980’s “was a place full of hookers and drugs,” remembered Haitian-born Fequiere Joseph, who opened F&S Tire on Fulton Street 27 years ago with his two brothers. “It was a bad place; you wouldn’t want to be out past 6 p.m.”
In the mid-1980’s, black entrepreneurs and artists began reclaiming the area, opening up shops in the abandoned storefronts along Fulton Street. Spike Lee, who was just starting to make a name for himself as a screenwriter and director, opened his film company, 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks, in the heart of the neighborhood in 1986.
“No one would touch it, because it wasn’t a great a neighborhood, but one by one we came,” said Daniels. Black business owners took over the neglected buildings and built up their shops on their own, installing electricity and plumbing and keeping the streets clean and hospitable for business.
Although there was widespread public and private disinvestment from Fort Greene in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, Sutton said that black entrepreneurs saw the potential to change a black ghetto into an enclave of business and culture that would attract customers who wanted to patronize black establishments.
Those businesses– clothing shops, bistros, and art stores– gave Fort Greene its unique character, bolstering real estate values, bringing in tourists and new residents and eventually attracting outside developers and businesses. In 2000, the city announced a multi-million dollar cultural redistricting around the neighboring Brooklyn Academy of Music. Six years later, the Atlantic Yards project – including luxury housing, high-end retail and arena for the Nets basketball team — broke ground.
Since then, rents have risen exponentially. Small storefronts along Fulton Street that were being leased for only $2,000 or $3,000 a few years ago now go for $6,000 to $8,000. And as more young white professionals and families move into the neighborhood, demand is growing and renters are paying. “Landlords feel that they can get more from renters but the challenge is who can afford it,” said Sutton. “Because of income inequality in New York City, often blacks and Latinos can’t afford what’s available in the rental market.”
Joseph, who owns his property, says he and other black business owners receive daily phone calls from people offering large amounts of money to buy them out of their stores. His tire shop recently reopened after being shut down by the city for zoning violations. In response, local shop owners and residents, both black and white, started a petition demanding the city reopen F&S Tire, decrying what they saw as unfair harassment of a shop the city didn’t feel fit in with the aesthetics of Fulton Street’s hip shopping strip. With added pressure by Democratic City Councilmember Letitia James, the city allowed the shop to reopen after making cosmetic changes. Though the tire shop, with help from its neighbors, was able to stay in business, other black business owners in the area still feel vulnerable. “They feel threatened,” Joseph said. “They say, ‘Who’s next?’”
But some former and current black business owners question placing the blame only on changing demographics.
“The issue isn’t black and white,” said Selma Jackson, an African-American local small-business advocate. The 67-year-old Jackson was co-owner of the 4WCircle of Art and Enterprise, an artists’ collective that used to be on Fulton Street. During its 15 years in business — Jackson closed the shop when she retired in 2008 — 4WCircle housed more than a hundred, primarily female, African- American artists, who sold everything from handcrafted jewelry and clothing to skincare products. Jackson explained that while the changing population does play a role, there are other factors pushing black businesses out of Fort Greene. The recession has been hard on many businesses, white and black, and many old-timers like Jackson are closing their businesses because they want to retire.
There are also black-owned businesses that are doing well. NuYu Day Spa, located a few blocks north of Fulton Street, opened nine years ago just as the demographic shifts began. The spa has a loyal customer base of both black and white clients. Dawn Benton, manager of the salon, cited the management’s hard work and involvement in the community as reasons for its success.
“The changing population is definitely difficult for the black-owned businesses, just to keep their name out there,” Benton said. “It’s a lot more work trying to compete with some of the white-owned businesses, but as long as owners are very dedicated to their business it works.”
Brooklyn still has one of the highest numbers of black-owned businesses in the country. Sutton says that while they are undervalued in their importance in the city’s economy and vibrancy, they make a huge contribution in building up neighborhood cohesion and character. “Fulton Street is part of that,” she said. “You can’t just have chic lounges and modern stores – they are redundant. When you lose black businesses, you lose a part of the city.”