Shooping and Eating on Brooklyn's Smith Street
Published: May 2009
By Jessica Dineen
Chic boutiques and top-flight restaurants are rescuing Smith Street. Could this be the hottest spot in the outer boroughs?
It's noon on Smith Street, a rapidly gentrifying strip in Brooklyn that has become a shopping, eating, and drinking destination for tourists from Australia, Germany, Japan—even Manhattan. At Halcyon, a coffeehouse among the 19th-century storefronts that line the street, the day's first cup of espresso is just now being served. One of Halcyon's owners is asked about the establishment's untraditional business hours. There's no question that Shawn Schwartz and his partners are running a sharp operation: Halcyon attracts a hip, energetic crowd, as do the almost three dozen restaurants, bars, and boutiques that have opened in the past couple of years along this 13-block stretch. Still, what kind of coffee shop opens at noon?
Schwartz starts explaining why he and his partners created Halcyon way back in 1999, when the street was only a fraction as gentrified as it is now. "The idea came out of parties I was having on Saturday afternoons with DJ friends, playing dance and electronic music, eating snacks," he says. "We wanted to create an inviting space: eye candy, music, coffee, food. Like a giant public living room, with as much intimacy as a public space can have." The living-room substitute that resulted is outfitted with a DJ station, couches from the 1950's, 60's, and 70's, and vintage household objects such as red plastic TV's, polka-dot PowR Vacs, and a plaster lamp (all classified as eye candy, and all for sale). Ah, those halcyon days.
SINCE THE LATE 19TH CENTURY, the two Brooklyn neighborhoods intersected by Smith Street—Carroll Gardens and Boerum Hill—have been dominated by immigrants from Italy, Puerto Rico, and, more recently, the Middle East. The counterpoint to the new breed of Smith Streeter—indeed, a counterpoint to Schwartz's idea of what a living room should look like—is never far from one's mind here. Just peek into the red-velvet and gold den of an elderly, housedress-clad Italian woman who recently answered the door at a brownstone just around the corner from Halcyon. It was 3:30 a.m., and her son, a first-generation Italian-American on a weekend furlough from the army, had been found passed out drunk on a Smith Street curb. "Well, drag him in!" the old woman squawked, even after being informed that it wasn't immediately clear if the ashen-faced man was alive. Then, shuffling around a knee-high ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary and vases overflowing with silk flowers, she ushered her visitors in for tea. (Fortunately, her son was indeed still breathing.) This woman is part of a community that believes there are two types of people in the neighborhood: Italians and liberals.
Yet it's hard to find an old-timer who's bitter about the district's evolution. Just seven years ago, treeless Smith Street was a poster child for urban decay: Crumbling sidewalks had sunken alongside the dimly lit street, which itself was caving in because of poor maintenance and the improperly backfilled subway underneath. Business vacancies persisted, after having peaked at about 30 percent in the eighties, and many of the shops that weren't shuttered or converted into cheap, dark apartments were occupied by members-only Hispanic social clubs. Drugs and prostitution were a problem. The landscape was as flat and bleak as a ghost town.
"You could have shot a cannon from one end of Smith Street to the other, and you wouldn't have hit a car or a person," says 59-year-old John Verrangia, who was raised above his store, Johnnie's Bootery. He worked for years to fix up this street—in much the same way that urban pioneers on Beale Street in Memphis, High Street in Columbus, Ohio, and Main Street in the Over-the-Rhine section of Cincinnati revitalized their neighborhoods.
In the area surrounding Smith Street, a fledgling urban revival had taken hold in the late sixties, led primarily by hippies who were lured from Manhattan by the low cost of renting or buying three- and four-story brick town houses and Greek Revival and Italianate brownstones. But things really started moving in 1994, when the South Brooklyn Local Development Corp.—headed by Verrangia—finally got city funding to shore up the street and install Victorian-style streetlights. The group also organized the purchase of potted greenery to place in front of stores.
By the end of 1997, Smith Street's first boutiques had opened: Astro-Turf, with its mid-20th-century furnishings, and Refinery, selling handbags and furniture designed by the owners. Other new businesses—a French restaurant, a pair of cutting-edge clothing stores—followed. And followed. The latest shops offer everything from evening gowns to southern African bowls made of recycled telephone wire. The food ranges from American to Vietnamese to tapas to sushi.
SMITH STREET'S NEW SHOPS mix contemporary style with turn-of-the-century classicism and a fifties vibe. Original wooden lintels meet spare window displays and understated signs; restored tin ceilings meet cool and spare, or warm and eclectic, interiors. The old-world elements that endure—the remaining social clubs that spill flamenco music out their doors, the Latino men flipping dominoes at card tables, the Italians playing boccie in Carroll Park, the Yemeni kids tossing pebbles on game boards spray-painted onto the sidewalk—are respected by the newcomers.
For a while last year, there was fearful talk among store owners that what had happened in Manhattan's Nolita neighborhood—a thorough transformation from ethnic to cool chic, with a prevailing competitive attitude—might happen here. But in general a surprising camaraderie exists among the merchants. Still, some regret that the street has become gentrified so quickly that entrepreneurs such as young designers are already priced out. Spaces that once rented for $500 a month, now go for as much as $4,000.
"The fixed-up stores look like the ones in Brooklyn Heights," an older Italian resident said recently. "I always wished I could live in a beautiful place like the Heights." But now that the Heights have come to him, does he worry about getting squeezed out?"Oh, no. My friend owns this building. He's not going to raise my rent." Most longtime building owners—nearly all Italian or Puerto Rican immigrants—can live nicely on the rent of one unit while they and their families and friends occupy the rest. Even better, the owners can rent or sell the whole building to expats from Manhattan and live like kings on Staten Island.
Not so much concerned as bewildered, lifelong residents and shopkeepers point out that there used to be nothing romantic about owning a store in Brooklyn. Parents raised their children to do something loftier, perhaps work for a big corporation, not get stuck behind the counter of a store as they did. They aren't the only ones caught off guard by this new breed of entrepreneur; one out-of-towner couldn't believe that his 30-year-old daughter had settled in Brooklyn: "I always thought Brooklyn was a place you left, not moved to—unless you were going to play for the Dodgers!"
THAT WAS THEN; THIS IS NOW. Three large apartment buildings—some rentals, some condos—are going up on or near the trendiest section of Smith Street. Even at the street's least-developed southern end, change is afoot. Here the subway snakes up from underground, and the street seems to disappear beneath it. The look of this border area is reminiscent of Dickens's Hard Times. But alongside the tracks is an old nine-story factory building where the rent for a two-bedroom flat can be $3,000 a month. Many newer residents are couples or young families—liberals, maybe, but liberals earning a fat salary.
Back at Halcyon, Schwartz eventually arrives at the reason why he opens at noon: "I'm not a morning person." The same could be said of an entire generation of Smith Street shoppers. Most of the boutiques and cafés don't open before noon, and many are closed on Mondays. It's simply not part of the lifestyle here to rush out of bed or spend the day cooped up in an office. "This isn't Manhattan," Schwartz says. "No high-rises here; no packing people into small spaces. There's a heavy emphasis on lounge.
SMIH STREET HIGHLIGHTS
Debbie Fisher No. 233; 718/625-6005. Exquisitely simple jewelry set with semiprecious beads. Felt handbags and ceramic vases.
Hoyt & Bond No. 248; 718/488-8283. The store's own designs for children and women — including dresses and linen pants — are at once simple and luxurious.
Flirt No. 252; 718/858-7931. Romantic shirts and pants handmade from vintage fabric.
Refinery No. 254; 718/643-7861. Suzanne Bagdade's Otis handbags, along with husband Andrew Raible's furniture and Gabe Brown's pillows. The three have a genius for uncluttered contemporary designs.
Stacia New York No. 267; 718/237-0078. Stacy Johnson's collection ranges from underwear to evening wear, each piece fashionable without being predictable. All are sewn in the adjacent studio.
Frida's Closet No. 296; 718/855-0311. Sexy, high-style silk and cotton dresses, skirts, and tops inspired by Frida Kahlo.
Robin des Bois No. 195; 718/596-1609. Marvelous 20th-century furnishings and decorating items collected by a Marseilles-born veteran of Manhattan's 26th Street flea markets.
Mai Mai No. 251; 718/624-4620. Inspired imports from southern Africa — mobiles made of plastic-coated wire, embroidered cotton pajamas — assembled by a former museum curator.
Astro-Turf No. 290; 718/522-6182. Twentieth-century vintage housewares, with an emphasis on chrome and kitsch.
David Allen No. 331; 718/488-5568. Reasonably priced Herman Miller furniture surrounded by inspired artwork, mostly by Brooklyn artists.
Swallow No. 361; 718/222-8201. Glassware galore — plus ceramics, jewelry, and even glass "magic eggs" that glow.
Victory Kitchen No. 116; 718/858-8787; dinner for two $50. Chef Tanya Holland combines French cuisine with multi-ethnic cooking to produce Smith Street's most interesting food, served in a space that casts candlelight on a seventies rec-room aesthetic.
Restaurant Saul No. 140; 718/935-9844; dinner for two $90. The creative American dishes in this dignified dining room are the most sublime (and grown-up) on Smith Street. The chef-owner, who hails from Le Bernardin, is taking over the Boerum Hill Food Co. (No. 134; 718/222-0140), a takeout/all-day-dining spot a few doors down.
Patois No. 255; 718/855-1535; dinner for two $50. Subtle French food in a bistro environment — with a garden out back.
The Grocery No. 288; 718/596-3335; dinner for two $64. Understated American masterpieces—such as pan-roasted stuffed squid—in a cool, gray dining room or under a fig tree in the garden.
Vinny's of Carroll Gardens No. 295; 718/875-5600; dinner for two $20; closed Sundays. Great old-school Italian, served family-style.
Boat No. 175; 718/254-0607. As cool and comely as a bar gets.
Angry Wade's No. 222; 718/488-7253. An American-style pub.
Bar No. 280; 718/246-9050. The polar opposite of pretentious.
Quench No. 282; 718/875-1500. The slickest bar on the strip.
Area Emporium & Treatment Center No. 252; 718/522-1906. Fab massages and foot treatments in a typical Brooklyn apartment house.
A PLACE TO HANG OUT
Halcyon No. 227; 718/260-9299. Great food, beer, and music.
JUST AROUND THE CORNER
The gorgeous housewares shop Bark (369 Atlantic Ave.; 718/625-8997), 11/2 blocks east of Smith Street, is run by Lynda Downey, whose husband, Patrick, owns the Victory Kitchen. It's in the back half of a space shared by the equally stunning design shop Breukelen (718/246-0024).
A block farther east is one of Brooklyn's best clothing boutiques, Butter (407 Atlantic Ave.; 718/260-9033), which opened in 1999. The racks are rich with new designers, including Leslie Parks, wife of a co-owner of Patois.
The art of panini-making has reached perfection at Le Petit Café (502 Court St.; 718/596-7060; lunch for two $12), an elegant café on the quiet southern end of Court Street, a block west of Smith, across from the church where Al Capone was baptized.
Nearby is Sparky's Ale House (481 Court St.; 718/624-5516), which in recent years has been cited by Time Out New York as one of the best beer houses in New York City and made New York magazine's "best of" list. Not bad for a bar in a so-called outer borough.