WELCOME BACK and let’s get going. Nostrand Avenue, which gets its name from Gerret Noorstrandt, is a vital artery that flows between Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, and strings together other communities from Sheepshead Bay to Williamsburg. Along the street you will see endless small stores and mom & pop shops, reminiscent of the old New York City when it was a mecca for that type of establishment. Being an avid bike rider, it is a road I like to travel, although the lack of a bike lane draws on my skills as a touring BMX freestyler to not become a statistic, which is also exciting. The evolution of this avenue is an interesting one because the mom and pops still dominate, but one wonders for how long?
Click images to enlarge.
Beginning on Myrtle Ave., two avenues south of Flushing Avenue that is the northern border of Bed-Stuy, we can see it is an industrial region, though that has been rapidly changing over the last 10 years.
The images clearly show the changing of the building stock over the decades. Interestingly, there seems to be far less vacant storefronts on Nostrand than some places in Manhattan, which is currently rethinking its policies toward businesses to keep more non-chain stores in place. Nostrand’s vibrancy is somewhat marred by the clash of the old and the new.
In the early 2000’s, I lived on Gates Avenue, one and a half blocks east of Nostrand. Then, this 341 Nostrand complex was a church lot where they held outdoor gatherings and the building on the left, closer to Quincy Street was a rundown corner bodega. A person looking at the structures being built here would probably not comprehend what the region was like when it was redlined and structurally under-resourced. After the heroin epidemic of the 1960’s, the crack epidemic of the 1980’s, and the absence of employment for nearly 40 years since NYC’s working class jobs were eviscerated, the tenacity and spirit of the long-time residents cannot be exaggerated.
When I see banks transformed into basic storefronts, it always makes me think of the architects and what they would think of the current usage of their grand design. Once one of Brooklyn’s largest banks, it is clear that the economics of the region are on full display if one merely looks up at its facade.
As we cross Atlantic Avenue into Crown Heights, the changing of the storefront stock becomes immediately evident. As I rode taking my pictures and jotting down notes, the people in front of Garvey’s Hardware, established in 1969, looked at me as if I was one of the “clipboard mafia” that are seen as the handmaidens of gentrification. After talking to Lester, the nephew of the founder, in the words of WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, an “uncommon economic indicator” was exposed. Though the region is still overwhelmingly people of African descent, their customer base has changed because of the loss of Black-owned dwellings and businesses. Renters, from his point of view, do not make the larger purchases required for venue maintenance, which directly impacts their customer base.
Click images to enlarge.
While talking with Danny Simmons, the man behind RUSH Philanthropic and Def Comedy Jam, he reminisced about the very stores Lester was talking about. To Danny’s point, the cultural shops that defined the area typically are the only ones left. This was one of the many points made at Shortaz Unisex Salon, but that is for later in our journey.
At 710 Nostrand, you can see a facade of more grand times, yet, it houses a new business serving a higher economic demographic while its 708 neighbor serves a different clientele. In the image below, you can see that the businesses on that block are there to facilitate the working class of the community. The point here is not to say which is better; it’s a visual example of the businesses and their clientele. As a working class person myself, I wonder if there will become a time when the long-time residents will no longer be able to afford to shop or go to a restaurant in their own community. Many I talked to have seen their friends and neighbors move away, especially Vivian, an elderly woman known as “V.” She now stays inside and stays to herself. This is the often untold plight of the elderly in regions where there is an influx of monied people that drive out those who lack resources.
This is one of the other interesting things I see when looking at buildings that have new businesses, yet retain their signage from another era.
The liquor store sign speaks volumes, especially since the owner didn’t bother to take it down. I’ll leave it to your imaginations to determine what it says to you. Something for the comments section? Just a thought. LOL! Moving down the block we see a facade that looks like it is one of Batman’s facilities. Alas, no Bat-vehicles will be coming from here. But, everything connected to our subway system would seem like something out of Batman to the early residents, who were free peoples of African descent, in what is now Crown Heights, originally named “Crow Hill” in the 1800’s.
The 819 Nostrand MTA facility’s stark facade somehow speaks to me, wondering what was there and the lives that were impacted when the building(s) went away. It is those lives that I write for here and try to translate their energy and spirit through my research and observations. As with any project of this type, the research that goes into it brings new understandings of that which I may have taken for granted prior. This is why I love using the images from the Archives because they are a visual record of a time gone by, yet remain as part of the overall narrative of the region spanning from the Lenape to the present. The storefront church at 833 Nostrand has a feel of striving through its diminutive presence on a quickly changing portion of the avenue, clearly exemplified by the 822 Nostrand storefront.
Click images to enlarge.
Near the end of my journey, I was taking pics and looking around, when I came upon a brother standing in front of a barbershop who was interested in what I was doing. Quite naturally, I then was drawn back to my roots. FYI - My uncle used to own a barbershop in Asbury Park, NJ. I got my hair cut there until it became another victim of the fiery rebellions of the late 60’s and early 70’s.
At the Shortaz Unisex Salon, I finally had a number of people who were more than willing to talk, which should be no surprise to anyone knowledgeable about the culture of the Black barbershop. They held court at length about a number of issues including, but not limited to, gentrification, the use of the “n-word,” community ownership, “White fear” in Black neighborhoods, the types of things Black people do and do not support, and being a Black businessman in today’s world. Taj, Howard, True Born, Ellis, Denzel, Noland and crew spoke from the core of their souls about all these issues. When most did not want to talk on tape or give me their names in our other journeys, these brothers were more than willing, for which I am very grateful.
Though it is impossible to express all they did here, to encapsulate their points, I’ll give you a quick briefer. They talked about their common experiences of having women hold tightly to their purses when near them, even when they were in a business suit as professionals. When you can have a suit on and still be treated as if you were the most frightening person ever, it is hard to express how it feels unless one has experienced it. The changing businesses are often testaments to the reality that they, their families and friends feel: as if they are strangers in the communities they are generations deep in. An interesting comparison can be made between Lester’s thoughts as a person who doesn’t know the full history of the region, as most do not, and those at Shortage who are culturally focused and have a base clientele that hasn’t changed as it did in the case of Garvey’s Hardware.
As we have reached the end of our journey, which is always too soon, 913 Nostrand is poised to be a game changer when its high-income tenants move in. It holds all the promises and fears of the peoples we engaged.
In peace...till our next journey,