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The Transformation of Crown Heights

(Photo: Amy Helbig)

The sea change happens slowly, but there are harbingers. The organic grocery stores, the mod, all-glass apartment buildings, the crowded subway platforms. These are the now familiar portents, the ones that are settling over Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

In general, gentrification in New York moves like a passing winter storm: from west to east. Priced-out artisans from the LES journey over the East River and congregate in Williamsburg and Park Slope. Their inherent relevancy raises the status (and cost) of those neighborhoods and they are forced out again. This eastern-bound migration has found itself in Central Brooklyn, with places such as Bushwick and Bed-Stuy on the cusp of conversion. But Crown Heights is perhaps the most interesting example: by virtue of the neighborhood’s long and narrow shape, rubbing shoulders with bourgeois Park Slope and low-income Brownsville, Crown Heights is a microcosm of gentrification in progress.

Even by New York standards, Crown Heights is home to a wildly diverse population. Among the most prominent are several nationalities of West Indians and the Lubavitcher Sect of Hasidism, the latter of which headquartered at the famous 770 House, the most important of the red brick Jewish prayer houses that dot the tree-lined malls of Eastern Parkway.

A neighborhood mired in crisis and bitter racial tension two decades ago, Crown Heights is slowly becoming a destination location. While it can be attributed to rising costs of living in other neighborhoods forcing the renter’s hand, space in Crown Heights is nonetheless a hot commodity. Local realtor Belinda Gillis has lived and worked in the neighborhood for years. “Five years ago no one wanted to rent [east of] Washington Avenue,” Gillis says. “Now everyone is looking to move there. I have people calling from Williamsburg every day.”

The west end of Crown Heights, from Washington to Franklin Avenue, is speckled with the usual suspects of upscale urban society. Franklin Avenue is the epicenter of the Crown Heights Renaissance, owing to its abundance of express lines to Manhattan, and to the success of early Franklin Avenue adopters like The Pulp & the Bean Coffee Shop and Franklin Park Beer Garden.

“Franklin Park really started it off,” says Gillis. “Everyone met there, saw how the neighborhood was changing.” But Franklin Park is no longer the lone social center of the neighborhood. The entire avenue is a hubbub with new restaurants, almost all of which cater to a trendier, affluent clientele. Among them is Barboncino Pizza (781 Franklin Avenue). Not a place for the standard New York slice, staple pies at Barboncino include arugula and artichoke and smoked pancetta. The multi-level, chic interior belies the blue-collar neighborhood; you might not feel comfortable in a tee-shirt and jeans. Further down the avenue, Chavela’s Mexican Restaurant (736 Franklin Avenue) is one of the most popular haunts in the borough, with half-hour waits the norm even on a Tuesday night. New restaurants open on Franklin seemingly daily; Mayfield Restaurant (688 Franklin Avenue) launched not one month ago and, keeping with recent trends on Franklin, features a varied and refined menu and a hip, urban setting.

But the crawl of gentrification stalls only a block or so east. On nearby Nostrand Avenue, the glimmering veneer of new business on Franklin is replaced by rugged, entrenched establishments. Nostrand is a vestige of the old guard, lined with East-Indian fare like Trinidadian doubles or Jamaican patties, Crown Fried Chickens and endless bodegas. Nostrand is beginning to attract outside attention (and business) for itself - Super Wings (1218 Union Street at Nostrand) recently won a Throwdown with Bobby Flay on The Food Network as well as the third annual “Best Wings In Brooklyn Competition,” but still, the jarring change from Franklin to Nostrand - a five minute walk - offers a reminder that Crown Heights is a neighborhood in flux.

There is opposition to the neighborhood’s alteration, however. Urban revivals often come at the cost of charm and authenticity, and finding the tipping point, when Crown Heights becomes Park Slope, is a guessing game. Gentrification is from a certain perspective a degenerative process; subtraction by addition.

But not every local views the transformation of Crown Heights as a bad thing. “Certain people are always going to feel displaced, but the value of their property is rising,” said Belinda Gillis. “And it’s good for business here. We used to have to go to Manhattan for what we now get down the street.”

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August 4, 2014

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