Fort Greene’s Black Businesses, Victims of Their Own Success

The former site of the black-owned Eva Daniels Realty. (Photo by Shayna Estulin via The Brooklyn Ink)

Changing demographics and the economic revitalization of Fort Greene’s Fulton Street have an unintended victim – the area’s black-owned businesses that once made this ‘black and brown ghetto’ a hub for art and culture, reports The Brooklyn Ink.

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.

The neighborhood, now known for its multimillion-dollar brownstones and the BAM Cultural District, was once a crime-ridden no-man’s land, The Brooklyn Ink reported.

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.”

Among the black entrepreneurs and artists who opened businesses in the area in the mid-1980’s was the film director, producer, screenwriter and actor Spike Lee, whose 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks remains in the neighborhood. Black entrepreneurs rehabilitated abandoned buildings and cleaned up the streets.

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.

Rents, both commercial and residential, have spiked, reducing the area’s diversity.

“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.”

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