CROWN HEIGHTS IS, the New York Times assures us, having a moment. The corridor between Eastern Parkway and Atlantic Avenue, on the eastern side of Washington Avenue, has become a hotspot for real estate brokers and young professionals alike. Fully half the places that major media outlets like to cite as evidence of the neighborhood’s changing face—a cute coffee shop here, a tiny bookstore there, a new cheese shop in the space of an old hairdressing salon—are the work of Michael de Zayas, a gregarious, stay-at-home Brooklyn dad with a shock of gray-black hair.
De Zayas, originally from Miami, has an MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence and a background penning travel guides for Fodor’s. His business acumen came from launching Neighborhoodies, a series of stores that sell clothing with logos selected and designed by their customers. In 2010, he sold the business, which had grown into a successful national operation, and settled into Crown Heights with his wife. When their first daughter, Zelda, was only a few months old, de Zayas began work on a tiny café inside a 250-square-foot-space among the apartments on Franklin Avenue. The shop, Little Zelda, sells breakfast sandwiches, pastries, and high-end coffee. It was an instant success. “I’m willing to bet that we are the busiest coffee shop per square foot in Brooklyn,” de Zayas told me.
At Little Zelda, de Zayas began talking to customers about what they wanted in the neighborhood. He had also kept in touch with many other parents thanks to a group he started called It Takes a Village, a nonprofit organization meant to eventually create a playspace for neighborhood children. Soon after the café took off and the storefront next door became vacant, he opened Wedge, a cheese shop. Then he opened Hullabaloo, a tucked-away bookstore that hosts frequent readings. This year, his reach spread to Nostrand Avenue, where he partnered with a young, local hairdresser to open Deck Salon. In October, he plans to open another café, Two Saints, next door. “It’s going to be an all-day place,” de Zayas said. “Where you can have the same selection of coffee and sandwiches as at Little Zelda, and a full bar at night.”
De Zayas believes in the importance of cafes as New York’s public living rooms, community spaces where neighbors interact and exchange ideas; urban planning activist Jane Jacobs serves as part of his inspiration. Crown Heights, de Zayas explains, is not just a marketing opportunity. It’s his home, and he hopes that he’s making it a better place for people to live: “We have this rare opportunity to shape a changing neighborhood that I want to be a part of.”