Sunday, January 27, 2008

The closing of Fort Greene's 4W, the demise of Bogolan, and the AY effect

The story of the closing of 4W Circle of Arts and Enterprise at 704 Fulton Street, a unique incubator for artists and craftspersons from the African Diaspora is an "end of an era" in Fort Greene, and I told a good piece of the story in an article a few weeks back the Brooklyn Downtown Star. (Today from 4-9 pm 4W is holding "The Circle is Unbroken Celebration, Celebrate 17 years of Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Pride, Ujimma (Collective Work and Responsibility) and the continuation of People Power.")

It's too simplistic, as I reported, to consider the closing simply a casualty of gentrification, and as Selma Jackson, a co-founder of 4W and its sole proprietor now, explained in an email yesterday via the Fort Greene Association. It wasn't that 4W's rent was rising precipitously, it was that the artists and craftspersons were less willing to pay a fee for space and services at 4W, preferring to work on consignment.

Jackson also cited a desire to spend more time with her grandchildren and to expand the work she's doing internationally, currently coaching women business owners in Rwanda. She aims to write a book about 4W and will have " special events periodically."

Changing times

Still, the closing of 4W does show how quickly (and, to some, painfully) Fort Greene has changed, and raises questions about ways to encourage retail stability and the effects of large projects like Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Center mall and Atlantic Yards.

Before the merchants arrived, Fulton Street had drug dealers and prostitutes at night; by the second half of the 1990s, revived Fulton Street was Bogolan, Brooklyn, a testament to the Afrocentric nature of many of the businesses in the Bogolan Merchants Association. Now there's a Fulton Area Business Association sponsored, in part, by condo developers.

In an anguished response to the news of 4W's closing, which first came in a New York Daily News article blaming rising rents, Laurie Cumbo, director of MoCADA, Museum of the Contemporary African Diaspora), stated:
The closing of 4W circle marks a fatal wound to the community and the cultural diversity that made Fort Greene what it is today. Unless we recognize how important it is to make a conscious decision to support "our" businesses, the domino effect that has been planned for us will progress with rapid fire.

Keeping community

While Jackson did not echo Cumbo's rhetoric, she echoed some of the sentiments. In her farewell letter, Jackson wrote:
In closing, I want you to think of the importance of special places in our community and what our role and responsibility is in ensuring that they remain. We must actively support our services, we must actively ensure that change does not affect the places that we hold near and dear to our hearts, and we need to be concerned about community wealth building: passing on our history and ownership of community spaces.


Indeed, 4W in 2006 was designated by City Lore and the Municipal Art Society as a Place that Matters, an inventory of historically and culturally significant spaces.

Lesson: own your own

So how to manage change, and to protect "community spaces" that are businesses? One lesson from Fort Greene, as former Bogolan executive director (and now Daily News columnist) Errol Louis pointed out last December, is that, to steer their destiny, merchants must own their own buildings or have a long lease.

Jackson, a former bank manager, knows that well; she tried more than once to buy her building, but that never worked out, even though in 1999-2000, Bogolan attracted funds from a local bank to assist merchants in buying their buildings.She even considered moving to slower-to-change Myrtle Avenue, but fellow merchants on Fulton Street were dismayed at the prospect.

Indeed, the urbanist Jane Jacobs, in a 2001 speech in Washington, DC, suggested that increased rents in improving neighborhoods can diminish retail diversity and bring a "monoculture" of "whatever happens to be most profitable on that street at that time." She suggested that, just as the government subsidizes home ownership through tax deductions, so much businesses get a boost, since "ownership is the surest protection against being priced out of a place of work."

The sense that small business were disappearing in New York at large was the topic of the first panel last October tied to the Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York exhibition, Is New York Losing its Soul? Among the topics that have surfaced since are commercial rent control, encouraging nonprofits as landlords, and legislation limiting chain stores.

Bogolan & AY

In a 7/5/05 Daily News column headlined CRUSADER DREW NABE BLUEPRINT FOR SUCCESS, Louis saluted the recent signing of the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement and reflected on the recent passing of Bogolan founder Bilal Muhammad, "[o]ne of Brooklyn's unsung civic heroes," who did as much as anyone to help turn "Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and Prospect Heights from troubled areas into three of the city's hottest neighborhoods."

Louis concluded:
The tiny grants we landed - $5,000 here, $25,000 there - helped make the neighborhood the kind of place where a developer like Ratner can now line up $2 billion in investments and persuade banks and national retail stores to set up shop. And a great many of the black restaurants, cafes, bakeries and fashion shops managed to stay put.

A lot of people have theories about the best way to attack inner-city deterioration. Here's my suggestion: persuade bankers, real estate developers and city planners to spend time and money finding and funding community leaders like Muhammad, who so often remain unseen and unrecognized. They hold the key to turning ailing inner-city areas into prosperous, family-friendly neighborhoods.


It's not clear to me how that translates into supporting megaprojects as the next step in the solution.

How many stayed?

Another question is how many of those black businesses have managed to stay put. The picture was already mixed by the time Louis wrote the column; see the 3/31/03 article by a NYU journalism student describing the demise of Bogolan. Several merchants that were members of Bogolan remain, such as the clothing designer Moshood and Cake Man Raven, while others have left, such as Nigerian Fabrics and Fashion and (last year) the Senegalese restaurant Keur N'Deye.

An 8/4/04 article in the Amsterdam News headlined Rebellion in the heart of Brooklyn described "the triple forces of Brooklyn Academy of Music, MetroTech and the Atlantic Center Mall," noting that BAM audience were not drawn into the adjacent neighborhoods. Bilal Muhammad's t-shirt shop tried, for a time, to establish an outpost in the mall, but "the environment was not conducive to the sale of custom-made items."

The Bogolan Merchants Association had already dissolved, and several members had moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant or closed, according to the article. By now, 2008, two of the three "key establishments" cited--the Brooklyn Moon Cafe, 4W Circle, and Keur N'Deye--have closed.

Mall effects

In a 4/24/00 New York City Real Estate Forum at Baruch College, Louis, then at Bogolan, spoke warily, and with echoes of Jane Jacobs, regarding the Atlantic Center mall:
Atlantic Center, that's a very different kind of development and a very different commercial vision for Fort Greene and it doesn't necessarily have to be in conflict, but at times it might be... The mall itself is fundamentally different from the area that we're talking about... And what's going on in Atlantic Center, it's everything that Fort Greene is not. It is not diversity of uses, it's just business. If you're not going to shop, you have no business over there. It shuts down at night with the exception of the 24-hour Pathmark and it's dark and it's sort of dangerous and it's not very pleasant after hours. Now, one block over you get an entirely different commercial vision which is sort of mixed-use residential upstairs, commercial downstairs, it's where people live, it's where people care about. It's a pedestrian sort of place, you don't bring a car down Fulton Street because while there is parking, it's kind of hard to find because there are no meters there yet. And so we're sort of seeing -- we start to nudge a little bit. Sometimes we bump heads a little bit. At one point there was a proposal floated the MetroTech bid to expand across Flatbush Avenue and into our area. And we began to talk with them and it didn't seem like what they had in mind was what we had in mind...., it's in City Limits currently, so I'm not saying anything out of school, but when someone says this is going to be the BAM cultural district and our group says this is and has been an African arts cultural district for 50 years, there can be a whose culture and on what terms do we cooperate or how do we straighten all of this stuff out.


Louis's reference to City Limits was a May 2000 article, headlined DOES IT GIVE A BAM?, that addressed the expansion efforts of the BAM Local Development Corporation. Louis was quoted in the article as saying that “Anything that brings more cultural dollars and tourism and arts and entertainment has got to be a good thing.”

However, some Bogolan members said BAM LDC was too insular; the article stated that Bogolan members were to get two seats on the LDC board. (By the way, Bruce Ratner from 1992-2001 was chairman of BAM.) Now BAM LDC has been subsumed into the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership.

Jackson on AY

It's impossible to assess how all the merchants of Bogolan feel about Atlantic Yards, but not all share Louis's optimism. Jackson (right) commented critically on the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement:
For all the talk about what it will add to the community, including jobs, as a business owner I have seen very little benefit from the Atlantic Center development phase I or II. What it has done is decreased street parking for my customers, increased sanitation ticketing for small businesses—as one sanitation officer said to me “well the neighborhood has changed and we need to keep it clean”. Where was that philosophy when I opened in 1991? Why did it take until 2000 to be concerned about a “cleaner neighborhood? And finally it has given the landlords reason to increase the commercial rents based on the future potential of the neighborhoods, forcing small businesses out of the area now.

2 comments:

  1. As is often the case, Norm Oder’s tunnel-vision mission of cataloging reasons to oppose Atlantic Yards gets in the way of seeing what’s right before his eyes.

    He rhetorically asks “How Many Stayed?” -- perpetuating a myth of failure and rampant displacement of Fort Greene’s black businesses – and throws out generalizations like “it's impossible to assess how all the merchants of Bogolan feel about Atlantic Yards” – but doesn’t bother interviewing the many longtime merchants or business development experts who could have shed light on the subject.

    Had Oder ventured outside his predetermined conclusions, he would have noted that 4W Circle was a smashing success, incubating many storefront businesses still active in Central Brooklyn and a few that have moved on to better things.

    Moshood and Nigerian Fabrics & Fashions started at 4W and remained in the area; so did fashion store Raif, which enjoyed a good long run further down Fulton; Tribal Truths, which is a block away; and Karen's Body Beautiful, a very successful shop on Myrtle.

    Courtney Washington, among the most successful of the 4W alumni, not only opened a Fulton storefront, he set up a showroom and production facility in the Fashion District in Manhattan and now sells items through Nordstrom’s.

    As for other Bogolan members: in addition to Cakeman Raven, local businesses including South Portland Antiques, Brooklyn Moon Café, Night of the Cookers and Nubian Heritage either own their space or negotiated long-term leases 3 to 5 years before AY was announced. The project had nothing to do with their basic business model, but all are now positioned to benefit from the influx of spending dollars and visitor traffic that Atlantic Yards will bring – although Oder, of course, will never, ever say so. It’s easier to look for failure, blame it on “the AY effect” and get to work on tomorrow's anti-project creation.

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  2. Yes, there are successful businesses and, as Louis points out, that often depends on having bought a building or negotiated a lease.

    As I wrote in the Downtown Star article linked from my post, 4W incubated several successful businesses.

    And, yes, some members of Bogolan have closed or left Fulton Street in Fort Greene. I don't have a full list of who stayed and who left.

    At the 2000 discussion at Baruch, Louis described 70 dues-paying members of Bogolan and said:
    "Of our members, I would say probably about a dozen, maybe slightly less, actually own their property. So to the extent that there is gentrification, it's also a concern for our members, meaning they're wondering if the commercial rents are going to up and, if so, how much, and in many cases there are places where the increase can eat the profit margin and make them have to relocate. And so we're trying to sort of deal with that in the right way. Several of the more successful ones, in fact, have purchased property recently and that has been a blessing as well. So we're working on that."

    From the 3/31/03 NYU article:
    "It became too much of a good thing," says Jonathan Adewumi, former chairman of Bogolan, "I did not foresee it." Adewumi owns Nigerian Fabrics and Fashions, a high end African clothing store. He resigned from his post and moved to a far less fashionable Nostrand in May, "The rent went up 200 percent overnight."

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