Smith Street, the storied, well-to-do shopping strip largely referred to as Brooklyn’s original Restaurant Row has been on a noticeable decline in recent months. Extending from the far reaches of Carroll Gardens all the way to Boerum Hill, where it turns into Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn, the thoroughfare wends its way through some of Brooklyn’s priciest neighborhoods, yet its sidewalks are currently lined with vacant storefronts. Not that it’s a ghost town in any obvious sort of way; you’d be hard-pressed to spot tumbleweeds, for instance, blowing past the lone Starbucks. Yet, if there were a single symbol of the perils of over-gentrification, the corporatized caffeine temple (located just a stone’s throw from a Dunkin’ Donuts) would be it, currently standing sentinel amidst a sea of terminally struggling mom-and-pops. Of course, the very notion of a Starbucks residency—never the mind the thought of it actively shaping the direction of the commercial corridor—would have been inconceivable to neighborhood restaurant pioneer, Alan Harding, when Smith Street was in a more traditional state of disrepair a couple decades ago.

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“It was a work site, one that neither the city nor the residents seemed in any hurry to fix,” remembers the owner of such trailblazing spots as Patois, Uncle Pho, Zombie Hut, Gowanus Yacht Club and Pacifico. “There was literally a big trench down the middle, hastily covered over by metal plates. There was a lot of scaffolding, and of the few retail businesses, many were fronted by full-on bulletproof glass. Because of a lack of interest, the remainder of the ground floor storefronts had been converted into apartments. Seriously, if you peeked behind the privacy plywood that had been put up on the windows, you could see hot plates and shower stalls.”

“An area code suddenly gains cachet and the
‘fuck you’ money comes in and the ecosystem gets totally thrown out of whack.”

In short, it was the ugly stepchild to nearby Court Street, which, although reasonably populated and pricier and more refined than Smith Street, still lacked any semblance of actual restaurant culture, particularly as we know it today. (“Mom cooked and everyone gathered around in those days, like a real nuclear family,” Harding laughed.) So, inspired by the low overhead and steady business of the one chef he knew in Brooklyn—Neil Ganic, of Atlantic Avenue’s seminal La Bouillabaisse—Harding took a chance that the swells of Court would make a pilgrimage down to 255 Smith, where a lowball offer of $900 had nabbed him a cozy home for Patois, a popular French bistro which would enjoy an 11-year run, before ceding way to Battersby, a rising new Brooklyn star.

“Shortly after opening Patois, the street became a state-funded business incubator. It was the mandate of Betty Stoltz, from the South Brooklyn Development Corp, to convince landlords to convert their spaces from apartments back into stores, and attract businesses to the neighborhood,” Harding said. “She became a major conduit for securing real estate, so we ended up buying out a big, bulletproof glass-covered Chinese restaurant through her, in order to open Uncle Pho. We spent a lot more money than we had initially, because we knew the neighborhood was ripe for the picking and people were going out to eat. As long as the food was good and the price point wasn’t too usurious, you were all but ensured a packed house every night.”

Smith Street

So it was that a mere handful of years after skeptical, Manhattan-based comrades like Mario Batali and Bobby Flay advised Harding to bring a gun with him to Brooklyn, that he became a pied piper of sorts, paving the way for generations of influential eateries to follow; these places included Saul, which earned Brooklyn its very first Michelin star, to The Grocery, which helped the borough get hip to the farm-to-table movement, to Chestnut, which did much to popularize the concept of “New American” cuisine, before relinquishing its lease to Dassara—Smith Street’s first dedicated ramen spot—near the tail-end of the boom.

“Prior to opening in 2012, we were considering two different models; either paying high rent for what we believed was a high volume space in an affluent neighborhood like Carroll Gardens, or heading to a low rent, slow growing area like Bushwick. But when a restaurant is still just an idea, it’s easy to convince yourself that as long as you’re successful, rent is just an arbitrary number,” said Dassara owner, Josh Kaplan. “When we first moved in, there were a bunch of takeout places and older, established restaurants living off of ten-year-old leases, and we were just beginning to see where the rent escalation was going. Now there are national designer clothing brands with loss-leader spaces paying rents a small business like ours could never consider. An area code suddenly gains cachet and the ‘fuck you’ money comes in and the ecosystem gets totally thrown out of whack. The idea of establishing a sustainable business becomes beside the point.”

Smith Street

Which is why in the current climate, when monthly rent on supposedly prime properties regularly exceeds $10,000 (a far cry from Harding’s $900), it’s resulted in a strip positively littered with abandoned storefronts—an eerie echo of Smith Street’s early days. For a byway credited with being the birthplace of Brooklyn food culture and ushering in an expanded consciousness concerning how, what, and even why we eat, a stroll down Smith now can feel akin to meandering past the boardwalks of a depressed Atlantic City, shadowed by the spectral shells of foreclosed casinos. So while contemporary tenants may have arrived in droves, with rose-colored remembrances of the street back in its heyday, independently owned spots have steadily evacuated just as quickly. Take Shelsky’s of Brooklyn, for instance, which, instead of dying a slow death on Smith Street, recently elected to try its luck—ironically enough—on the more commercially viable Court.

“It quickly became clear that Smith Street not only sucks, but it is way overpriced for the density and foot traffic. And until there is a significant correction on pricing, it will continue its decline,” owner Peter Shelsky portended. “Business owners won’t take the risk at these prices, and more boarded up stores means even less foot traffic. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Companies like Thor Equities, the owner of numerous corner spots with notoriously high turnover rates are asking exorbitant rents and they don’t give a crap. They’ll just sit on a vacancy for years at a time. It’s a tax write off for them. What do they care?”

“There’s no question that we’ll eventually get washed away by Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks unless landlords refrain from getting too greedy, and Brooklyn residents commit to supporting small businesses with
their money.”

Having helped Shelsky’s negotiate its move, Alex Turboff—the Director of Real Estate at Branded Concept Development—has additional insight on the issue. “After Trader Joe’s and a number of other strong retailers opened on Court Street, much of the commercial energy shifted over there. The closure of the Met grocery store [on Smith] was another major blow, and resulted in much less regular foot traffic,” she said. “Despite that, local landlords have continued to increase rents to unsustainable numbers, that in no way reflect actual traffic in the area. Most buildings top out at three or four stories, so density is much lower than areas like Downtown Brooklyn, which have much taller buildings with much bigger residential populations. Accordingly, Smith Street rents need to be reflective of that density. Sure it’s still busy on weekends, and in the early evenings on weeknights, but daytime traffic is spotty. So while landlords have managed to convince themselves that the sky’s the limit in terms of rent, it’s obviously not the case.”

“Everyone eschews the box store and the chain, but whenever I walk by Starbucks, there’s a line out the door. So what’s the evil empire?”

That being said, there are a few dogs left in the fight against national retailers like Lucky Brand and Lululemon; most notably, there’s Rob Newton and Kerry Diamond, owners of consistently packed restaurants like Nightingale Nine and Wilma Jean, not to mention Counter Culture coffee-dispensing cafe, Smith Canteen, which more than holds its own against you-know-who. “It helped that we opened on lower Smith Street, where there were simply no food options at the time,” Diamond theorizes about their enduring success. “And Rob has always had a philosophy about ‘local’ that’s served us well. Offering locally grown and sourced produce isn’t enough; you have to extend the idea to the community. So we hire local people, we hold fundraisers for the park and the public school. We try to do our part to stay relevant.”

Smith Street

“But there’s no question that we’ll eventually get washed away by Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks unless landlords refrain from getting too greedy, and Brooklyn residents commit to supporting small businesses with their money,” she warned. “At the moment, Smith Street remains vibrant, but the story of New York City is change, of businesses coming and going. And Smith Street, unfortunately isn’t immune to that.”

When it comes to a potential corporate takeover of the district he helped build, however, it’s interesting to note that Harding himself remains far from sentimental. “I can’t say I’d chalk it all up to greed since I’m not a socialist; it’s business, which denotes price. Everyone eschews the box store and the chain, but whenever I walk by Starbucks, there’s a line out the door. So what’s the evil empire?” he asked.

“There’s a finite number of people who want to open up fancy little restaurants where dad’s going to cook and mom’s going to do the pastry, and if there’s a vacancy, you have to rent it to someone. Believe it or not, there’s a store on Smith Street that sells the shit people buy before they get on airplanes. And that place has been there longer than everyone else. So really, what the fuck do I know?” 

Photos by Dana DeCoursey

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29 COMMENTS

  1. I live right off of Smith Street by the old Met food. I’ve heard that people are moving from Park Slope to Cobble and Boerum Hill. Curious to hear how that will impact the neighborhood.

  2. To be fair, that store referenced at the end (I assume Flight 001) sells some great traveling bags that makes packing, repacking, and unpacking pretty convenient.

  3. Boohoo! Things are leaving an over-priced white neighborhood, so the world needs to stop spinning. How about dealing with the inequality of Smith St to what streets look like in East New York. I’m sure the vast majority of those crying over Starbucks closing on Smith St haven’t even ever been, nor care about East New York and the people who live there.

    • Thanks Dez for not missing an opportunity to nobly remind everyone of gentrification issues in impoverished neighborhoods. You are a liberal hero, buy yourself a Kombucha and raise it high to celebrate your noble political awareness.

  4. The rot had already begun to set in when I first moved to the neighborhood ten years ago, a victim of its own popularity. It has been a very slow crawl to the death knell. I think this skirts the real issue: the changing demographics of the neighborhood. As more and more of the UES white collar class discovered they could buy a whole brownstone in hip, cool, trendy Brooklyn for the same price as a house and school taxes in Scarsdale, the retail sector began to chase this new money. In the end, Starbucks and Lucky Jeans will be all that is left standing precisely because that is what these people want – the familiarity, comfort and safety of the chain store and cookie cutter New York experience.

    • On any given Saturday afternoon, the neighborhood now looks a J Crew ad. At least Bar Great Harry still plays metal to keep the strollers and hedge funders out…

    • I lived on Degraw Street from 2006 to 2008 before moving to the West Coast and still miss it fiercely. My apartment was right near Provence en Boite. I also lived near a rather pricey eyeglass store. I miss Cobble Hill Cinema and their cheesy 80s laser graphics before each movie. I’ve eaten at Patois and Saul and the Grocery. Bought shoes at Soula, etc. There was a cafe I loved going to on my way home from the Atlantic Avenue YMCA for my morning cup. They had a funky round table. The manager went to college in South Carolina, I remember that much. Plus getting cones from Blue Marble in the summer (I interestingly moved out to the West Coast for law school and learned that the owner was the sister of one of my law school classmates.)

      Smith Street was pricey when I lived there. If anything the Lucky Brand was one of the more affordable clothing shops in the area especially when compared to the indie boutiques that sold 300 dollar shirts and jeans. Was there ever a time when Smith Street had non-chain but relatively to very affordable clothing store? I seem to think that Smith Street gentrified relatively early on because of the Brownstones like late 1980s early on when I was a kid on Long Island.

      The rent crisis for indie businesses and residents but it seems odd to think of the Smith Street as being filled with affordable options before the chains moved in. If anything the chains offered more affordable clothing than the indie boutiques. How many people can afford a 300 dollar pair of jeans or a 400 dollar shirt?

    • If you actually read the article the issue isn’t the tastes of the residents it’s the greed of developers like Thor that price out any business other than those with deep pockets like banks, national chains, etc. This is a citywide issue not one specific to Carroll Gardens/ B Hill.

  5. If a landlord can afford to make $0 in rent for a years while waiting for a 10K/month tenant, why can’t they afford $5K/month tenant?
    If they are leaving it empty because of the tax breaks from having it empty, then we need to change the tax rules to make it more financially sound to rent the space out.

    • What tax breaks for an empty store? The LL still must pay the real estate taxes to the City of New York. The real estate tax liability is hefty–not a break. The LL continues to pay insurance which btw escalates when you have an empty building.

      • And those empty buildings mean less foot traffic and slower business for those that are open. The result may well be to drive down those property values. Do understand why building owners don’t keep that balance in mind as they keep jacking up rents.

    • Commercial Leases, unlike residential rental leases, are usually done for long periods of time and involve a lot more negotiations. So a landlord could be locked into a more unfavorable deal if they lower their rent. It perversely makes more sense for them to wait until a 10K tenant comes along. Plus switching commercial properties is trickier than switching residential properties. Renting out an apartment might require a fresh paint job and good scrubbing. Maybe changing the appliances. A commercial switch could involve a lot more work and time.

      So it makes sense for them unfortunately to take on the corporate tenant who is a guarantee at 10K for 10 years. Over the small business that can do 5K but might be closed out in a few months for a variety of reasons.

      The tax idea is intriguing though.

  6. So happy I sold my house and cashed out in 2013, back in the old days when you could still buy groceries in the neighborhood.

  7. Well, the New Yorker wrote this article, except about the West Village, in May 2015 http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/why-are-there-so-many-shuttered-storefronts-in-the-west-village

    As a happy oldster who remembers 1980s Smith Street, when it was crack vials, knifepoint robberies, and a few dying neighborhood social clubs, I just have to say that it was NEVER a high-value neighborhood real estate-wise. This article is correct that the kind of buildings and density just isn’t built in there. Sometimes you can’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, even if your name IS Thor.

  8. “a stroll down Smith now can feel akin to meandering past the boardwalks of a depressed Atlantic City”

    Oh, come on. I lived in the area from 2001-2014, and am still in the area several times a week. Have you seen pictures of AC in the 80s, if that’s what you’re referring to?

  9. Quite depressing, isn’t it? Sounds like that one guy has been doing pretty good over the years: “Patois, Uncle Pho, Zombie Hut, Gowanus Yacht Club and Pacifico”

    In a way kind of hoping Brooklyn does completely go to shit so all the transplants pack up and move back to wherever they came from. Thanks for contributing to the death of my home town.

  10. Calm down would you. It’s different but you’re painting a picture of a dining and retail wasteland. There’s still loads going on. Walked past BGH or Fawkner lately?

  11. I love how the Shelskys guy comes off like the dick that he is! Right or wrong. No one likes that guy. He’s so obnoxious.

    • Out of curiosity, what do you think is so obnoxious about me? I only ask because I work my damn ass off to try to eek out a living and I want nothing more than to make my customers happy…. Yeah, I get testy with customers sometimes, perhaps more than I should, but sometimes they really test my patience. The sense of entitlement is overwhelming these days….. So, you think I’m an obnoxious dick? Why, exactly do you think that?

  12. I can certainly agree with this article. But as the owner of Exit9 Gift Emporium at 127 Smith St, it would have been nice if the author had focused on the independents who are still able to hang on and keep it alive during these times of challenging rent pricing. Long live Smith St and those who are keeping it real: By Brooklyn, Stinky, BGH, Camp, Smith and Vine, Cafe Luluc and many others.

  13. Having worked on Smith Street off and on since 1986, I will first say that the purported “history” of the strip is greatly slanted, and I cannot really figure out to what purpose.
    Smith Street is a thousand percent better in terms of vibrancy, activity, variety, and yes, safety, than it has ever been, and it is going nowhere but up. And of the couple hundred stores on the street, only several are currently unoccupied, and of the occupied ones, fewer than 10% are occupied by the national brands that the writer seems to think are anathema to the neighborhood.
    “The report of Smith Street’s demise is greatly exaggerated”

    • Agreed that the street is immeasurably better than when I arrived in 1994, but to say there are “only several [storefronts] that are currently unoccupied” is far from the truth. From what I am familiar with on my daily walk and commute, from Sackett Street north, the following are vacant – half a store front of the new ravioli/pasta place; the former tex/mex tequila bar that lasted less than a year; juice bar/OMG Taco (just closed), the entire row of stores on the west side opposite By Brooklyn and Battersby, and these have been vacant going on 5 years; the entire west corner of Douglass, a vacant lot of years, the former Char 4 spot; the former Asian Fusion spot; the former Met food, soon to be ?; and on and on.

      The fact is that landlords are holding on to the space for a national retailer who may or may not come. Thor Equities is a prime culprit (see also the former St. Clair at Smith and Atlantic), but plenty of smaller owners are deluded into thinking that another Starbucks or Lucky Jeans, or Paper Source, or Dunkin’ Donuts, is just waiting to sign another lease. Meanwhile, where am I supposed to buy a food?

  14. I grew up on Warren between Hoyt and Smith in the 70’s and 80’s and I remember if you got off at the Warren st. station after dark you would have to run home or get robbed. I saw a lot of things small kids shouldn’t see ever so even if Smith is falling it’s still a thousand times better than it used to be. I only eat there maybe once a year because of the type of people that have moved in. I have never heard so much complaining from young people in my life. I have over heard some ridiculous conversations from these hipster transplants. It’s always starts with ” In my town…” SMH

  15. The quote on Thor Equity seems to be dead on; they are leaving a trail of empty storefronts in the neighborhood that has negatively impacted the quality of life for those of us that live here.

  16. The Artists of Micro Museum have been present on the block since 1986. There were execution murders, arson fires and car carcasses everywhere. At the time our supporters thought it was hilarious that we believed Smith Street was “up and coming” and then it did. New entrepreneurs came into the area after the trolley tracks were removed and the sidewalks fixed. Bette Stoltz with the LDC was an amazing force but so were the businesses. In 2000 I conducted a case study for Micro Museum at Columbia University. The urban planner/economic development experts predicted to a letter what was going to be the trajectory of Smith Street. Regrettably I did not believe them at the time. Micro Museum has always been an under the radar not-for-profit art center and we sustained. 2002- 2014 we occupied the 1st & 2nd floors so I got to watch the street up close. It is not surprising that the large commercial businesses killed the cool vibe of the block. I blame NYC’s rapidly escalating commercial real estate rates and consumer’s taste. If NYC intends to remain a tourist mecca with 55 million visitors a year it will always be at the expense of residents and independent businesses unless we address the uncapped erratic commercial tax laws.

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