My and Kelly Anderson's recent documentary, My Brooklyn, follows the gentrification of Downtown Brooklyn and Fulton Mall, which was spurred by a big rezoning effort there in 2004. As part of that story, we covered the demise of the Albee Square Mall, a hip-hop mecca that was razed to make way for City Point. For years after Albee was gone, a large plot of land lay vacant while City Point's developers struggled to get financing in the wake of the economic crisis. As an interim measure, the developer invited Urban Space Management to install DeKalb Market, a cluster of small shops housed in recycled shipping containers selling unique food and wares.
The DeKalb Market is gentrification, to be sure, but an arguably more benign form of it than the luxury condos and chain stores that are redefining Downtown Brooklyn. And it has many positive attributes that much of the new mega-development lacks. It hosts several black- and women-owned local businesses, for instance. It also eschews generic development (e.g. Panera Bread and Starbucks, both of which recently opened Downtown) in favor of a "uniquely Brooklyn" theme, which the Pratt Center for Community Development proposed years ago. A good example is the market's BBOX Radio, which, according to its Kickstarter page, is a "freeform internet radio station that is owned, operated, and run by the Brooklyn community." The market also embraces sustainability, dedicating space for non-profit groups to cultivate garden plots for community education purposes. And it's visually interesting and encourages social interaction, not unlike the pre-gentrification Fulton Mall.
But recently it was announced that the DeKalb Market will be moving to another as-yet-undecided location. The developers of City Point entered a lease agreement with department store Century 21, and say they will be proceeding with construction on the site sooner than expected. Tenants always knew the situation was temporary, but leases were reportedly not up until the end of 2012. Urban Space Director Eldon Scott said the market was designed to be mobile, and in theory, this could be a good thing for small business owners in a city where land use policies tend to displace them.
But the market's next location has implications for the future of Downtown Brooklyn, too. If it is able to remain Downtown, it could present an important opportunity to counter some of the damage done by the 2004 rezoning. Since then, over a hundred small businesses have been displaced. DeKalb Market helps reverse this trend by being a small business incubator. It also includes at least one business, Cuzin's Duzin's, that was displaced from the Albee Square Mall. Non-profit groups like FUREE and Good Jobs New York argued for years that City Point, which sits on city-owned land and which has received millions in public subsidies, should have been required to include affordable space for displaced small businesses, not to mention more affordable housing. They also argued that its retail tenants should have to pay living wages and hire locally.
Activists are still pushing for greater community benefits in City Point, and they should. But DeKalb market could also answer the call for more equitable development Downtown if it is allowed to continue to nurture small, local businesses over the long term. Activists could build on the market's existing strengths by organizing to ensure that it serves lower-income people of color as well as new, more affluent residents. This would mean making sure market organizers are serious not just about race, but about class diversity as well. Urban Space Director Scott says the company did reach out to all the businesses displaced from the Albee Square Mall, but Maisha Morales, whose 23-year-old religious supply store was displaced, said she was never contacted. After pursuing space in the market herself, she said she was told that she could submit a business plan and that she would be considered, but that she could not sell religious supplies, despite the success of her former business.
Obviously not everyone can participate in the market, and avoiding redundancy (like too many jewelry sellers, for instance) is reasonable. But Urban Space's NYC's Web page for prospective vendors explicitly states that they are looking for "upscale" products, a label that excludes many items that have proven value to the Downtown community. Consultation with a more diverse range of community stakeholders in curating the market could lead to more equity. Organizers could also push to ensure that longtime residents -- people who live in nearby public housing, for instance -- who want to start businesses are also offered opportunities for space.
Clearly a diverse range of constituencies Downtown care about supporting small, local businesses, and about retaining Brooklyn's unique character. These points of commonality could at least be used to start a productive conversation. As a spot that embodies these values, DeKalb Market is potentially good ground for organizing that could lead to healing political alliances in Downtown Brooklyn, across lines of race and class. and class.
Here's a clip featuring the DeKalb Market in Downtown Brooklyn from Kelly Anderson and Allison Lirish Dean's documentary, My Brooklyn.