Jan Rosenberg, who has lived here [ditmas park] since 1986, says that the neighborhood was drastically different when she moved in. “The houses were more deteriorated and in need of repairs,” she said. “The main difference was that it was much more dangerous.” Rosenberg was a sociology professor at Long Island University in downtown Brooklyn before she ventured in to the real estate business. She is currently a partner at Brooklyn Hearth Realty. In 2001, Rosenberg founded Friends of Cortelyou- a group that sought to attract business to Cortelyou Road. [theQ's ed. note - the acronym would therefore have been FoC, with a hard consonant "c," but somehow it never became common parlance in polite company. ]
There were no new businesses drawn to the area. Friends of Cortelyou tried to attract merchants, convinced that this could redefine the neighborhood. “Our commercial strip is so short. I strongly felt, after looking at other neighborhoods, that three or four new businesses would make an impact, ” said Rosenberg. “We had nice houses and nice apartments but no businesses.” Rosenberg clarified that while useful stores existed, like the delis and dollar stores, nothing was in place that neighborhood residents were drawn to. Rosenberg went on to say that her work developing Cortelyou Road, and her current job as a realtor was never a far departure from sociology. “I got into real estate as a function of what I was doing with Friends of Cortelyou- trying to change Cortelyou Road,” Rosenberg said. “It was kind of applied sociology.”
So yes, an economic development group is often a catalyst to get folks thinking about attraction, and it leads to things that lead to things that lead to things. Then, there's further, and ultimately odd, chunk of the story:
Susan Siegel, the creator of the farmer’s market at Cortelyou, and later the executive director of the Flatbush Development Corporation said the changes to Cortelyou Road were absolutely necessary, because the area was experiencing ‘economic leakage.’ Nobody was investing or spending in the neighborhood. “We liked that it’s not Park Slope, but at the same time there was so much missing. We spent more money outside the neighborhood than in it,” Siegel said. “If I needed to cook something with broccoli or arugula I had to leave the neighborhood.” [emphasis theQ's]
Siegel says that the farmer’s market is at the core of the neighborhood. “The farmer’s market is like the town square,” Siegel said. “It was a way that all diverse neighbors could come together for the first time ever. It was a real community builder.”
The challenges Siegel faced involved getting people to come to the market, and proving to existing businesses that the market wasn’t going to take away their business: something that was easily achieved since the market provided goods that resident had to leave Flatbush to find. Business owners faced different challenges. One of the current owners of Picket Fence, one of the first restaurants to open during Cortelyou Road’s renaissance, said that it was a huge risk for the original owner of the place. “He took the gamble and didn’t know if there would be a payoff,” said Roma Agarwal a joint owner since 2007. “But he saw the incentive, he saw the market here.”So Siegel took the "friends of" group one step further to become a "corporation," which by all accounts is a major player down there. But here's the irony to the foodie bit...there was always good raw food in the neighborhood - the Flatbush Food Coop has been around on Cortelyou since 1985, albeit in a smaller storefront than the minor behemoth of today. Heck I remember wandering into that Coop in the early 90's, a bit grunged-around-the-collar, and laughing at the ridiculously named vegetables, fresh herbs and hippie leaning brands. I find it odd that the Coop isn't even mentioned by Siegel, who claims she had to leave the neighborhood for coop staples as arugula or broccoli. And by the way, you don't have to WORK at this Coop to enjoy the food...though it can be a bit pricey by Park Slope Food Coop standards. Curious. Personally, I think the farmer's market is cute, but there ain't much to it, and I can't imagine it trumped the bourgie places like Picket Fence and Farm on Adderly as catalysts. Still, some enterprising fool could start a farmer's market at the mall of the Q at Parkside, and I suspect it'd be a sleeper hit. There was talk recently of a group coming in to do an "artisan" market as well. Me, I'm still thinking fountain, but I just so love a good water feature!
So to the question at hand I pose this: yes, it takes the neighborhood cleaning up its act. Yes it helps to have a couple of strong civic groups pushing the agenda, even a B.I.D., or at the very least an actually functioning merchant's association. And most importantly it takes even just one or two intrepid entrepreneurs (Play Kids?) to start a landslide.
But here's the real difference: Cortelyou was a no man's land, hurting even for foot traffic. Flatbush is a thriving, if salon-heavy, avenue with tons and tons and tons of traffic, foot and otherwise. What we have here is no Franklin, or Cortelyou, or even Dekalb or Smith. We have the tri-state epicenter for wigs, styling, braiding and weaves and nails, with a massive contingent of West Indian cuisine and curios. (editor's note: I changed the next sentence to better reflect what I wanted to say, since I got wacked for my last sentence!) This is why so many come from all over to spend money here, and we should work WITH that powerful starting place rather than clean slate approach elsewhere. I favor a cleanup approach - drugs, gangs, garbage - that needless hold back the positive existing businesses and keep others from starting. Each block could and should deliver services to a wide range of folks, and then our main street could become the envy of diversity and local ingenuity.
I'm still annoyed by that arugula and broccoli quote though.