Mar 22, 2016
The Rise and Fall of Smith Street
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.
“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.”
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.”
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
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.”
“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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