Everyone who lives or works in North by Northeast Flatbush has an opinion about what the neighborhood needs, means and exemplifies. Depending on your block, or your lifestyle, or your background and interests...there are as many ways to slice, dice and define a neighborhood as their are people living in it. This isn't a place for nifty slogans (PLG is for Lovers!) and it simply can't be defined by demographics, architecture or history. A Brooklyn neighborhood is a shifting and sometimes surreal projection of its inhabitants, a place of invention, reinvention, decay and renewal. I'm struck by the irrelevance of history in some ways; new shops, people, buildings and ideas get embraced quickly and then come to define a place that even yesterday meant something else. Certain ethnicities or immigrant groups might define an area for awhile - maybe even a long while, even as forces at play might work to undermine the stability of the enclave. Economically and developmentally, protest groups crop up to try to stem the tide of "progress," but generally speaking money follows money and trends follow trends and there's not much the average Jose can do to contend with change. Twas a time that renters could count on help from the City, but even Section 8 and rent regulation are disappearing, and unfettered capitalism is really the creed these days. Some decry Ratner or Markowitz as development dictators, but ultimately it's the talk of jobs, construction, arts and commerce that wins out every time - even when such promise is just mirage. That's on the macro level, but on the micro, most people do some awkward version of the real estate shuffle til they find a comfortable home somewhere and then once comfortable turn inward, focusing on the stuff of life, emerging only for bagels and to remark on the transformation of their streets and shops. Who has time to get "involved" locally? And many are "involved" in other less local ways, so it's certainly no stain on one's rep to avoid civic entanglements. Some DO get involved though, and clearly, some are quite good at it.
Walking down wide and sane-seeming Rogers Avenue the other day, we could finally see what a lovely opportunity awaits business owners. Sure the "foot traffic" is less, but so are the rents, and a good "destination" business could do very well here. About it's grittier cousin Flatbush, one could say "it is what it is." I was shocked to learn from a reliable source that Envy Nails pays $6K a month for that not very large space on the Bush near Clarkson, so don't be deceived; landlords are doing just fine with the current state of affairs here, and have little incentive to change their business models or go "upscale." Curiously though, with such dangerous and spastic traffic and active street action, one doesn't so much stroll Flatbush as endure it. (thus "Enduro?"). The Flabenue is essentially what happens when NO ONE takes an active interest; when NO ONE has a plan or vision; when the City and authorities take little notice; and when the good people of a neighborhood throw up their hands and say "ain't MY Main Street!" I've never known anyone, ANYONE, who is completely happy with the state of the Flabenue, and yet no one, no entity, no official has taken on the role of agent for change. The good news is that forces from without aren't trying to foist their vision of PLG onto us; the sad news is that so few seem interested in helping Flatbush be calmer, safer and more business friendly. I'm planning on walking the street with the fellows from the re-emerging FEPMA merchant's association - Mr. Delroy Wright and Mr. Wilfrid Compere, and perhaps this will help illuminate to me the State of the Flabenue. Till then, some food for thought...
Anyone who's followed my rants and raves knows that I sincerely love the Flabenue for all its kookiness and do not wish it to go the way of other Brownstoner neighborhoods. It's the sheer DETERMINATION of Flatbush Avenue to remain insane that strikes me, and now, as yet another poorly-conceived clothing store and a rarely-patronized wig store and a non-coffee serving internet cafe go out of business on my Sneaker King/Cupid's Corner/Globe Electronics/Jamaican Pride slice of the Ave...I started to get downright curious not just about how it works here, but how it's worked elsewhere in the borough.
I used to live just off Smith Street in the 90s. Back then, Smith was not without charm, but it certainly wasn't drawing the crowds of night-crawlers that flocked there just a few years on. Was it magic? Of course not. While many business owners and civic groups played a part, the story of Smith street is largely the story of one woman's determination to improve the commercial heart of Carrol Gardens. Bette Stoltz is her name, and her decades of business and community involvement should earn her a statue at some point. And if you're saying to yourself "yeah but it was that restaurant Patois that got the whole thing going" check the bit about how she made that joint happen through grit and determination. Her story, and that of Smith Street, is well told here: Bette Stoltz
Perhaps you've wondered how Franklin Avenue north of Eastern Parkway become the hip new strip? Again, a plan, an organization, a lot of sweat equity...and no it wasn't the boostering blog I Love Franklin Ave that made it happen (alone anyway - it did help - a lot). It was the methodical and proactive Crow Hill Community Association and its Franklin Avenue Commercial Revitalization Project. Yes, sometimes meetings, agendas and volunteer boards actually accomplish things.
Ditmas Park? Friends of Cortelyou and Flatbush Development Corporation
Myrtle Avenue? Check out the work of the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership (MARP) and the groundwork laid by the Pratt Area Community Council.
How about Vanderbilt Avenue, another of my long left homestreets? Besides having an active and progressive merchant's organization - and of course a sea change in demographics - Vanderbilt Avenue (GAP to Atlantic) underwent a major traffic transformation because of the work of a neighborhood group called Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, an organization with similar goals to PLGNA but with a very active board and heady agenda. You can read the story of the improved Vanderbilt Ave traffic flow here. That kind of infrastructure upgrade seems to be a consistent story when it comes to commercial revitalization, and is a part of the narrative in every one of the above examples.
There's tons more where that came from. But there is no such civic commitment happening in PLG. PLGNA remains in incubation stage, though in able hands. The Flatbush BID is doing a lot of work, but that starts at Parkside on down. You can see the difference - cleaner streets, the holiday lights and music. Flatbush avenue is still a traffic mess down there, but there are at least committed leaders meeting and agitating to address concerns. Perhaps that's in the card if Wright/Compere get their org up and running.
If you still think that having an active civic group or leader doesn't make much difference, I'll leave you with one small but meaningful example of how it works. A certain beloved local business startup was recently approached by people from the Myrtle Avenue group. Our intrepid entrepreneur is not actively considering a move, but you can bet it felt good to be wanted! Here's what the email said:
---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Fri, Dec 2, 2011 at 1:16 PM
Subject: XXXX on Myrtle Avenue in Clinton Hill or Fort Greene?
Hi, just wondering if you might be looking to expand. I work with the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership. We would love to have a store like XXXX here on Myrtle Avenue in Fort Greene/Clinton Hill. Let me know if you might be interested, and I’d love to take you on the tour of the area and/or send you info about vacant commercial spaces.
Know what I mean?