Where Are The Mom and Pop Stores?

On the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Lincoln Road a small battle has been brewing regarding the opening of a new storefront café called Café Pomidor.  Some store owners already in the area are arguing that it will take away from their already suffering businesses; others claim it’s just a sign of much needed change in the neighborhood.

For the past 10 years an influx of people who had called Manhattan their home has been moving into the Flatbush neighborhood. Some local storeowners recognized the new demand and adjusted their inventories.  “Five years ago, if I wanted some arugula or prosciutto, I had to either get it at Whole Foods, Trader Joes or some supermarket in Manhattan” said Juliana Harrison, a resident of Beverly Road off of Flatbush Avenue.  “Now, I can just walk to the MET around the corner.”

There are other stores in the area that are not able to change their inventories to meet demand. Khan Gupta, a worker at Coffee Shop and Daily, says that his business is suffering. The rents have increased and he is losing money. “Before a lot of people would come in here and business was good. Now, they don’t come. And those that do come just browse and leave” said Khan.  Gupta, whose business sells  an array of snacks and newspapers,  says attracting business is hard when more competitive stores with wider array of  selections move into the neighborhood, competition for business is fierce.

Two doors down at Gavriel Shoe Repair, Roma Gavriel the nephew of owner Alexi Gavriel says that he has no problem with the café. He does agree that business is slow and his rent has increased by a solid 5% every year but he stressed that whether a business survives or fails is based on practical business experience and business savvy.  Gavriel says that his store has been around for 25 years and with the influx of new people to the neighborhood, he expects business to increase. According to Gavriel, “the economy is to blame and not individual businesses. Before there were lots of shoe repair shops and now I am the only one. It’s still hard even though it’s only me but with these new people, business will get better.”

The location of the café was previously known as the Phoenix Gift Shop. The store sold bags, school supplies, human hair and toys. “I guess the people just didn’t want that stuff anymore,” said Roma as he recollected that customers now have the option of shopping at the bigger chains which offer competitive prices and sales.

The Café Pomidor Group responsible for the plans to open this new café and over 200 new cafes in the next five years with the Flatbush location as their first opening. The café, which will serve healthy fast food including gluten free foods, is in direct competition with other fast food restaurants in the area; one of which is Golden Krust Bakery, a fast food Caribbean restaurant across the street from Café Pomidor and another is and is the New Golden Chinese food restaurant.

A few doors down from the café, there is a closed Mexican and pizza store and across the street from that there is a flower store with a “going out business, everything must go” sign in the window.  Yugi Baptiste, the owner of the closing flower shop said that business has been very slow and she was unable to keep up with the rising rent.

Robert Salivieri, co-owner of Trixie’s pet food and supply store 3 doors down from the proposed café said that business has been good since he opened the store last year October. Trixie’s sells a wide array of healthy pet foods and according to Salivieri, his store feeds a necessary niche that had been growing in the neighborhood for some time.  He views the café opening as responding to a need.

As indicated by the New York City Department of Small Business Services, the opening of some stores in the neighborhood such as Target not only adds to the aesthetic of the neighborhood but it also helps bring revenue to the area. Baptiste said that while she is saddened she has had to close her store, she says she has no gripe with the café opening. She does wonder however how little stores like hers are expected to survive in a neighborhood that once embraced them but now has little demand for them.

A T-Shirt Here, A Sweater There

Concealed in apartment buildings and townhouses along Flatbush Avenue are little alcoves of in-home clothing design studios and stores.  They boast t-shirts and sweaters of many sizes and colors  laced with inspirational quotes or declarations of loyalty to Brooklyn. These alcoves are created, owned and operated by entrepreneurial 20 year olds who are infatuated with fashion but loyal to their urban roots.

One of these in-home boutiques is the dwelling place of a line of t-shirts called Cotton Carrie, started by Lilas Folkes.  It started in 2009 as a way for Folkes to get positive messages to young women and girls.  Through her passion of fashion, Folkes created her line by inscribing motivational statements and quotes onto t-shirts.

“Because I love t-shirts I thought to myself, why should I keep spending money on other people’s brands? I just wanted to be more in control of my income and more attached to my work, I wanted to love it, not just know it made good money,” says Folkes.  “My goal is to get people outside of the box, or at least change the shape of it.”

Folkes’ in-home shop is one of a growing number to offer hip-hop high fashion at low prices to people in Flatbush with more fashion sense catered to their own hip hop culture.

“I’m a t-shirt and jeans girl” said Jessica Albright who was looking through a small stack of t-shirts. She continued,  “I do like the highfalutin dresses and high fashion scene but I also like my jeans, cotton tees and sneakers.”  Albright added that the high prices that goes along with high fashion is something that most young people, including herself can not afford.   She continued to say that while the term high fashion is synonymous with luxury,  most luxury stores do not have the urban hip hop flare that Albright and her friends are looking for.

Places and brands like Cotton Carrie provide a great alternative.

Brooklyn Sky is another boutique clothing line operating out of a tiny alcove in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn.  The line, which has a cult-like following–with the bulk of its pieces catering to men and young boys–was started by Michael Nicholas and Matthew Jones in 2005 in a dorm room in Florida.  The brand was created in honor of the Brooklyn born rapper Biggie Smalls. Its hip hop roots are made clear with logos that pay homage to language commonly used in rap and hip hop music such as “Paper Chaser”, “Lords of Flatbush” and “Hustlers Ambition.”

Micca Gallian, a shopper who had been coming to the store for years, said that his trip to the store is something he always looks forward to.  According to him, there are no real homegrown stores that cater to the rap masses of Brooklyn.  Urban clothing that is readily available and is constantly shoved in your face he says, belong to the conglomerates that have little or no understanding of rap or hip hop culture.

“All these major companies want us to buy their clothing but its all about money to them and we are just another component in their money making scheme. Brooklyn Sky is homegrown and the clothing identifies with us 100%. If I’m going to spend money, I’m going to spend it here.”

Both Folkes and Nicholas plan on expanding their brands. Cotton Carrie will be expanded into non profit Pretty World Inc and Brooklyn Sky will expand to include options for women and girls. For now however, there are many young urban fashion forward shoppers who are excited and happy in visiting unconventional stores to get clothing that fit their personal style.

No Easy Fix For Snow Blizzard Blunder

The Bloomberg administration rejected every measure the City Council offered in the aftermath of December’s massive snowstorm at a council hearing March 9. All 17 bills were either flawed or unnecessary, Liz Weinstein, director of the mayor’s office of operations said.

Council members and members of the public reacted angrily, saying the city’s failure to clear the streets after the Dec. 26 blizzard demonstrated the need for changes.

“It’s ridiculous” said William F. Perry Jr., chief of Bensonhurst volunteer ambulance.  Williams, who had tried to work throughout the storm and who had attended the meeting to find out the outcome of the proposed bill’s said, “The Mayor’s Office should not only take responsibly for the huge blunder but they should not oppose any of the bills.” He went on to say, “Everything was screwed up. The 911 system fell apart. They have to do something to make this better. What’s currently in place is not working.”

Ms. Weinstein, while rejecting the council’s bill proposed the administration’s own 15 point plan. Weinstein said the administration was aware that massive mistakes had been made and a disservice had been done to the people of New York as a result, the 15 point plan would effectively help avoid those mistakes in the future. The council in turn  rejected  the plan saying past rules and regulations were not followed with past procedures so there was no guarantee that the new plan would be followed either. According to Lelita James from the committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management,  this would subsequently leave New Yorkers stranded again.

Council member James Vacca agreed with James and responded directly to Weinstein regarding his bill for a reevaluation of snow plow routes.  Vacca said primary streets get priority cleanup and“most of Manhattan was cleared because the streets in Manhattan are considered primary streets. Some streets in the other boroughs are considered secondary streets and the streets that taxpayers live on are tertiary streets. Almost all the tertiary streets were not cleared.” Vacca asked for the administration to reconsider its opposition to  the proposed bills.  He said that if the council did not pass the bill, then they would be doing a big disservice to the public that elected, and counted on them.

“I agree with the council and my colleague,” said Richard Patti a service member of the Bensonhurst volunteer ambulance. “The city needs to get their priorities straight and serving the people of New York is their priority and they totally failed in that respect.”

An Oasis in Flatbush

Tucked away behind an unassuming hair salon in the Flatbush Area of Brooklyn, sits an oasis of green shrubbery and vegetable plants.  It is a communal place where volunteers and community members come together to hold social events and meetings. The Rogers/Tilden/Veronica Place Garden is located as it namesake suggests, at 2601-2603 Tilden Avenue corner of Veronica Place and Rogers in Brooklyn.

The Garden is a member of the Brooklyn Queens Land Trust, a not- for-profit organization in Brooklyn and Queens. Based in Brooklyn, the organization acquired land for its 34 gardens from vacant lots and it maintains this land for gardening and open space in urban communities.

The land can never be taken away and used for industrial, commercial or residential development thanks to a deal negotiated between then governor Eliot Spitzer and The Trust for Public Land.

The president of Flatbush location is Iola Sims who is also the owner of the hair salon named Iola Unisex.  She splits her time between the garden and her business. “The garden is a beacon in the community,” says Sims. “We have had candle light vigils for 9/11, for AIDS Awareness month and we host fundraisers, barbeques and church events.”

Just a few steps away from Walt Whitman Junior High School, IS 6 and PS 399, the garden provides opportunities for children to get involved in the planting and harvesting. “When we are approached by schools, we try to engage the children as much as possible with many of the aspects of gardening” says Sims.

Demetrius Mills, who is the President of the Trust, shares Ms. Sims views. “Having the children involved not only gets them interested from an earlier age but being around fresh vegetables may give them an even bigger incentive to eat healthier.”

First Lady Michelle Obama’s advocacy of organic gardens and healthy eating makes taking the message to schools easier, Mills says. “We have been doing this for a while, now that the First Lady is advocating it, this agenda has all of a sudden become sexy.”

Mills, who was a member of the board of the organization before being elected its President, believes the involvement of children to be imperative-not only for their own health but also to organization’s future success.“We have to train the younger generation to take over from the older folks and we have to get more youth involved to accomplish this. This can not die with my generation.”

As a whole, the organization boasts a few hundred volunteers with 15 board members and 68 garden representatives. The Flatbush location has about 15 concrete volunteers but that number changes to include more when events take place.

The  Rogers/Tilden/Veronica Place Garden is open most days depending on weather conditions.  High Season, when the garden is open every day, is from May through to September 9-5pm with planting taking place in March-April.