Wednesday, September 29, 2010

NoteCurrently a resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant, once known as the Little Harlem of Brooklyn and now undergoing gentrification. Case in point: a hip coffeehouse. To the newcomer, the native, whomever, there is a place.

Sept. 27: On a gray, mordant raining damp chilled day, many would need to recharge. Sometimes this leads to a place to chill, even in a place most would not expect to be the home of a bohemian, people-centric café as quirky and affable as Bread Stuy [photo below, by Michael Agins (NYT)]. In the heart of historic Stuyvesant Heights, the brainchild of San Francisco-born actor Lloyd Porter is said to serve as a caffeinated, confectionary hub for the middle-class strivers and artsy folk of the neighborhood as well as the yuppies and hipsters that continue to stream in.

Three hipster-ish twentysomethings walk in while a serious man dressed in a camo jacket and striped cap checks email. His name is Shawn Peters, who hails from Mt. Vernon. Peters cautioned that his account of the place would be slanted. After all, he is a good friend of the owner. He’s on the phone talking about a script and a budget, and mentions that Porter, the owner, is an actor on the side.

“Nine times out of ten I’ll know someone who comes in personally,” says Peters. “Total strangers that come here, and hang out here, they become best friends.”

Old-school hip hop plays loudly over speakers perched below several board games, with names like Scrabble, Go, and Skillz. Orange-toned décor, with thin fibrous orange curtains surrounds you, with only the neonish orange in the front. The rest is brick with a tile-impressioned floor. A miniature disco ball and bell are atop the first door you see walking up Lewis Avenue from Fulton Avenue.

Lights from white orbs hung in placid suspension, while two fans spaced evenly apart whir silently. Framed large photos of happy children and other locals pepper the walls toward the far end, a space that used to be a barbershop until Porter and his wife Hillary bought the property in July 2004. At the other far wall a sounding board stands with ads for art galleries and community gardens, the provinces of a block that has weathered the storms of the last three decades and is now, fraily and slowly, showing the rest of Bed-Stuy a friendly face.

Yet the whole project almost failed—until the community that Bread Stuy had ginned up rushed in to save it. In February of this year, the Daily News reported that the establishment owed “over $20,000 in back taxes.” A padlock bolted the doors. The neighborhood scraped up the needed funds to keep Bread Stuy alive.

In the midst of the crisis a headline in the Gothamist asked, “Is Bed-Stuy Gentrification Dead?”

Peters does not seem to think so.

“At the end of the day, gentrification in black neighborhoods always starts with class gentrification,” he explains: first the wealth, then the whites. “Most stores here are Black-owned,” he adds—except, of course, for the Italians who own the nearby wood-oven pizza parlor Saraghina. “The races become more comfortable [with each other] because there’s a middle class.”

“In the 1970s,” Peters adds, “the UPS refused to deliver mail to Bed-Stuy,” dropping it at the nearest depot instead. The area around Bread-Stuy, Stuyvesant Heights, was always a middle-class enclave. Yet the recent change of the neighborhood “pushes the poor people out.”

“It changes the complexion of the neighborhood, in more ways than one,” Peters says, tapping away at his laptop.

Lloyd Porter has arrived at last. “My man!” Shawn Peters exclaims to get my attention. Quickly asked if my purpose was to pursue “another gentrification story,” Porter tells me, reclining in the leather couch-cum-bench at the front that journalism students up and down the city come over as often as “twice a year” to write about the place, perhaps attesting to its popularity and novelty.

Hope McGrath owns the local Brooklynite Gallery. Originally from Long Island, she has brought along her four-year-old daughter Ruby, who she lovingly calls her “Bread Stuy baby.” Ruby was just a newborn when the place opened. “It’s not just a café,” McGrath says. “It’s a community environment. It’s where you bump into your neighbors.”

“This is one of the most friendliest neighborhoods I’ve moved to,” she adds.

Amid all the changes, the surrounding area has not become “Disneyland,” Porter says. “It ain’t all peaches and cream, but it ain’t all cigarette butts and glass either.”

About half of his coffee is fairly traded—or “direct trade,” he explains. One, the Tanzanian blend, is produced there at Sweet Unity Farms, which is owned by Jackie Robinson’s son David. I ask about the elephant in the room, stalking all local coffeehouses: Starbucks. “You can’t fight City Hall,” Porter replies. “I don’t want to hate on them.”

Amin Husain, 35, is sitting on the counter where people used to get haircuts, with a shaved-head, yellow T-shirt and thick headphones slung around his neck. He is a newcomer to the ‘hood. “I’ve lived on the Upper East Side for five or six years,” he says, now just “two blocks” away after he moved a few months ago. “This whole block is very artsy,” Husain says approvingly. “There’s probably a cultural pulse, but I don’t know.”

“We’re trying to give a little joy to the people,” Porter says while his friend laughs, nodding. “We’re making our magic.”

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