Whose Downtown is it anyway?

The Brooklyn Paper
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Black facts was the canary in the coalmine. The popular black bookstore — a mainstay in Downtown Brooklyn and a haven for readers put off by all the best-sellers and mass-market fiction at the local chain store nearby — closed last month.

And Diamond Girl on Fulton Street couldn’t keep up with the rent hikes and competition from Zales on the nearby Fulton Mall.

Mom-and-pop businesses — most of them built from nothing — are blinking out of existence faster than Christmas tree lights on the fritz.

In most of America, these store owners would be called “the embodiment of the American Dream.” In Downtown Brooklyn, they’re called “in the way.”

Does anyone doubt that Downtown Brooklyn — where mountainous condominium towers and hotels are going up two and three at a time — will soon be nothing but Middle American chain stores?

There’s no longer any room for anything quirky and different Downtown. We’re trying to force our neighborhoods into a mold of what we think “successful” looks like.

The face of Downtown Brooklyn is changing. It’s overdue, perhaps, but the people who made the area vibrant and lively are being tossed out with the evening’s trash.

Small-business owners in Downtown Brooklyn are terrified by what they’re seeing all around them — big-time developers swooping in, buying the buildings their storefronts are in and kicking them (and their dreams) out.

The City Council unanimously rezoned Downtown Brooklyn in 2004 to bring in high-rise office towers and sleek new residences.

It’s happening already. So congratulations to our esteemed councilmembers. But in a severe case of shortsightedness, the rezoning is killing the small businesses that already existed in the area. Now, the buildings on the side streets — Lawrence, Willoughby, Duffield — are being bought up one by one and torn down to make way for something “better.”

Some betters are more equal than others.

Several buildings on Lawrence Street — housing a wig shop, a nail salon and an art gallery — have already been bought by developer Gregg Wolpert, who plans to demolish them as early as June. He paid an astounding $11 million for the three one-floor buildings. (Then again, not so astounding: Wolpert wasn’t buying the decrepit little buildings; he was buying the scores of floors he could build on top of them.)

Joyce Kiehm’s wig shop has been on Lawrence Street since 1986. She emigrated here from Korea, started her own business and played by all the rules.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me,” said Kiehm, who has two years left on a lease that most experts say will never be renewed, even if she could afford the inevitable rent hike.

And it’s not just Lawrence Street that’s changing.

“This whole neighborhood is changing. [The developers] are focusing more on people with money,” Kiehm said. “I’m too small a fish compared to them.”

“I’m not counted as part of the community anymore,” she added. And that’s probably what hurts most.

Sandy Boodran is also feeling the pain. The owner of Justin’s Island Cuisine across the street from Kiehm, Boodran is rapidly losing business.

As much as change can be good sometimes, Boodran knows that what’s happening to Downtown Brooklyn isn’t good for her.

“Everyday it’s a different story,” she says. “I’m just trying to hang on.”

So Downtown may get a new office tower with an Au Bon Pain in the lobby. But where will real people get their curried goat or their wigs?

The Kitchen Sink

The Toastmasters, an organization that promotes speaking and leadership skills, is now accepting members from Downtown’s Long Island University. So if you need to learn to make toasts, or like to eat toast, give them a call. …

The West African band, Kakande, will be playing on Feb. 10 at 9 pm at 227 Duffield St. — one of the disputed Underground Railroad houses — to raise awareness (and maybe some money). Suggested donations are $8. …

Rep. Ed Towns (D–Brooklyn Heights) is demanding potty parity for women. Towns wants a law to increase the number of women’s bathrooms in public places like sports arenas and theaters so women can drink as much as they want and never miss a big play because of bathroom lines. …

Kevin Powell, who tried to beat Towns last year, had a party for himself at LIU’s Kumble Theater on Monday to celebrate 20 years as a poet, journalist and “hip-hop historian.” We hope more people showed up at the celebration than voted for him.

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Reasonable discourse

mary from bronx says:
I have alopecia areata and I have been going to Lawrence Dress Hats and Wigs for a long time. She is a really big help and provides a service that most others don't. When I went to buy some things from her a couple of weeks ago, To my surprise the store was gone. I don't know where it's moved to, but I hope someone could tell me. She accepts insurance where most places don't. I am having a difficult time finding a place to go to that has both the quality and affordablilty which she offered.
June 19, 2008, 7:16 am

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