Black pol’s gentrification claim: ‘White people don’t eat the way we do’

Black pol’s gentrification claim: ‘White people don’t eat the way we do’
Photo by Jason Speakman

An old-school supermarket that will soon close in Clinton Hill needs to be replaced with a similar joint, and not some fancy-schmancy shop for white gentrifiers, a state legislator proclaimed this week.

The Key Food on Lafayette Avenue between Saint James Place and Classon Avenue is set to close within the next two months in order to make way for an eight-story residential building. The landlord said he will try to bring a supermarket back once the project is finished, and state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery (D–Clinton Hill) demanded he make sure he finds an operator that will continue serving neighbors of color, who she claimed have different grocery needs than whites.

“Supermarkets are an important part of the community. It’s an important amenity, especially for black and brown communities,” she said. “When you’re talking about a white community, it can be a little boutique, because white people don’t eat the way we do.”

Montgomery did not offer further information on what she thinks the white diet consists of, and her provocative remark went un-commented on at a heated town-hall meeting in the Ryerson Towers, a Mitchell Lama co-op complex, convened to update neighbors about the store’s closing and its pending redevelopment. Others in the predominately African-American crowd of about 100 saw the loss of the supermarket in racial terms, blaming it on gentrification and saying it is cutting off a lifeline for seniors who, because of their race, developers don’t care about.

“If our skin were any other color, this would not be happening,” Roseanne Lynn said.

Clinton Hill was 51 percent African-American and 41 percent white as of the 2010 Census, a marked shift from 2000, when the figures were 72 percent and 19 percent, respectively. The average rent for a two-bedroom has hovered around $3,000 since the fall of 2013, but the cost of new development in the neighborhood has more than doubled since the end of 2011, according to MNS real estate.

Richard Grobman, who owns the property, told the assembled residents that he hoped to have a supermarket open in the ground floor of the completed development. But he also said he could not guarantee that it would happen.

“We certainly appreciate that a supermarket is important to the neighborhood here. And we are endeavoring to have a supermarket here in the final development,” he said. “We’re not obligated to, but we’re certainly trying. I can’t guarantee it though.”

It is in his interest to give the people what they want, he said.

“I hope that I’m smart enough to choose an operator that can provide the community what it needs,” he said. “Because if I don’t, I’m going to have a big vacant store.”

Ryerson Towers residents said that other grocery stores, including a C-Town two blocks away on Taaffe Place, are too far for seniors to get to.

“Closing that store is just crazy,” said Dennis Williams, who goes shopping at Key Food with his elderly mother. “You haven’t taken us or the seniors into consideration at all.”

Public Advocate Letitia James, who lives nearby and patronizes the Key Food, said the distance to the other grocery stores is too much for oldsters.

Lights out: The days are numbered for the Key Food on Lafayette Avenue, as the owner prepares to build an apartment building in its place.
Photo by Jason Speakman

“I can walk to Myrtle or Dekalb, but the vast majority of these residents cannot,” she said.

Grobman’s family has owned the property for 50 years and used to operate a grocery store at the site called Dan’s Supreme, a chain of supermarkets his family still owns. He is set to retain partial ownership of the property after its development through a joint agreement with Slate Property Group.

The building is supposed to include 110 rental apartments, underground parking, and ground floor retail, according David Schwartz, a principal of Slate.

He said the group will pursue a tax abatement that would set aside a fifth of the units as below-market rate. A small doctor’s office is also planned in the space.

The retail portion is planned to be built in a way conducive to attracting a supermarket, even though building it differently would be more lucrative, Schwartz said.

“We could make a lot more money by dividing it up into smaller stores,” Schwartz said. “But we listened to the community express a demand for a supermarket.”

At the town hall, residents were also angry over the short notice for the store’s shuttering, and asked the pols present why they did not know sooner. The site’s zoning allows for the project to be built without special permission, and does not require public hearings or political input to move forward.

James said she heard about the closing the way everybody did — while shopping for cereal.

Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo (D–Clinton Hill) said the process is broken.

“I’m baffled that you don’t know more about what this project entails,” she said. “We’re working everyday in the Council to transform the legislation that makes a development like this possible.”

James had a different take.

“He owns private property, and he’s saying, ‘I’m going to do whatever I want with it,’ ” she said. “We don’t live in a communist country. This is capitalism.”

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260–8310. E-mail him at mperl[email protected]nglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
Rooted: Alexis Suter got passionate at the meeting, saying, “”This whole neighborhood is changing. I don’t look like I belong here anymore. But I do belong here. I’m a tree here. I have roots here.”
Photo by Jason Speakman