Past and Present Clash in Gentrifying South Slope

M.D. Mollah, owner of “Park Slope Grocery and Convenient,” in South Slope, waits for customers that don’t arrive. (Photo by Skyler Reid)

Outside, the sign reads “Park Slope Grocery and Convenient,” but there are not many groceries inside the store. Large patches of tiles are missing from the floor and the shelves are sparsely stocked with bagged and canned foods. Once in awhile, a customer walks in.

“I don’t sell Chapstick,” M.D. Mollah, the owner of the bodega, tells a customer who asks for the popular lip balm. “It goes bad too fast, only Blistex,” he says. Mollah’s business has never been as slow as in the past couple of years.

The corner of 17th Street and Fourth Avenue is a microcosm of the rapidly gentrifying South Slope area in Brooklyn, where long-time residents are being priced out. In the past decade, there has been a 51 percent increase in the white population in the South Slope, accompanied by a 33 percent drop in the number of Hispanics, according to the U.S. Census.

Earth’s Basket across the street is doing brisk business with the area’s new residents. (Photo by Skyler Reid)

Across the street from Mollah’s store, Earth’s Basket, an organic- and whole-food store that opened its doors in 2010, is doing brisk business. The aisles have been freshly mopped and workers diligently restock merchandise and fresh produce.

“We’re doing well now,” says worker Sufwatt Darwish. “We’re doing a lot better than when we started.”

M.D. Mollah has taken a loan to renovate his bodega on the corner of 17th Street and Fourth Ave. (Photo by Skyler Reid)

Darwish, who also lives in the neighborhood, says that Earth’s Basket is often referred to as the “expensive store.”

Which may explain why South Slope old-timers cannot afford to shop there. “It’s too expensive,” says Maria Perez, as she walks out of Mollah’s bodega with lottery tickets, and Mentos for her granddaughter, past Earth’s Basket to her apartment on Prospect Avenue.

Perez takes public transportation to cheaper grocery stores that are farther away.

Neighboring Windsor Terrace, between Prospect Park and Greenwood Cemetery, has long been gentrified, but the changes on the South Slope sped up after the city passed new zoning laws in 2005, attracting developers and significantly raising the prices of rent.

Many lower-income families are being forced to leave. “I’ll move out if I find a less expensive place,” says Perez.

Mollah has owned the bodega for 12 years and has witnessed the changing demographics of the area. Mollah’s customers over the years were mostly Latinos and Arabs who had long called this stretch of Fourth Avenue home.

“All the Hispanic people are moving out, so no one’s going to buy from me,” he says. “White people don’t want to buy anything from here.”

But Mollah says he’s not giving up. He is making some updates to his store to keep up with the changes. He has taken out a loan and plans on refurbishing the store and re-organizing the shelves.

M.D. Mollah’s customers have long been Latinos but they are being priced out of the area. (Photo by Skyler Reid)

“When I’m done, people will want to come in here,” he says, hopeful.

He stands at the front counter rolling up his sleeve and vigorously rubbing his arm, waiting for customers to walk in.

When, after about 15 minutes, a middle-aged Hispanic woman enters, he greets her enthusiastically, part of his friendly new approach to the customers, even if she does not speak enough English to converse past a salutatory greeting.

Mollah’s is hoping the upcoming repairs to update the bodega will make customers “love this store.” (Photo by Skyler Reid)

“People want to be friendly, they want to talk, and that is part of the changes,” he says.  “I have to make it work, I have to feed my kids.”

Mollah moved to the United States from Bangladesh 14 years ago, and since purchasing the bodega in 2000, he and his wife have spent most of their time here.

“After I am done with these changes,” he says, “you will see people will love this store.”

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