By Katerina Valdivieso and Alessia Pirolo
The heart of Bushwick beats between Dekalb Avenue, Myrtle Avenue, and Knickerbocker Avenue. This is the geographical and commercial center of a neighborhood that, for a while, was considered the potential new hot spot in Brooklyn. After a long decline that started in the sixties, hipsters and developers began moving in over the last five years, bringing hope of economic revival to follow. It was a neighborhood with high potential, at the border of Williamsburg and connected to Manhattan by the L-train. But the recession put a stop to all that, reminding everyone that this remains an area in which poverty rate has not dropped under 32 percent. Historical stores that cater to long time residents, as well as newcomer, are struggling. Bushwick has its hopes but at the moment they are tentative at best. The Brooklyn Ink walked the triangle formed by the three Bushwick central streets to take the economic pulse.
Turrbo Fashion Innovators, 369 Knickerbocker Ave., sells trendy men clothes. But this year many of its leather jackets and embroidered shirts have remained unsold. The owner, Albert Palma, said that in 2009 sales have dropped more than 40 percent compared to the previous year. It is the worst crisis in the 25 years life of the shop, he says. Cuban-born, Palma moved to the United States when he was 7 years old. Before getting into retailing he was an auto mechanic. When his father retired they opened the shop and since then the business has expanded to a second store. But there are no further expansions planned for the coming year, said Palma. “I didn’t even take vacations,” he said. “I was supposed to go to Europe, than Dominican Republic, but I had to cancel. It has been a very bad year in sales.” For the first time, he had to take money out of his savings to pay for merchandise he bought on a 30-day credit line.
The story gets even gloomier if one walks a block down on Knickerbocker Avenue towards Myrtle Avenue. Here the landscape changes. Rincon Musical is a music store that has been carrying CDs, movies and music instruments since 1997. “It is the only store where you can find music instruments around the area,” said Luis Estevez, the manager, “the next store is in Queens and you have to take like three trains to get there.” But soon, Bushwick musicians will have to travel to another borough to get a replacement for a broken guitar string. Rincon Musical is closing its doors for good in January.
Estevez has been working there for the past 9 years. He has seen a constant decrease in sales, in part, due to the creation of portable music devices and more people buying online. However, this year has also been the worst for Rincon Musical, said Estevez. “Sales dropped more than 60 percent for us this year alone.” The store has for rent sign outside. Estevez said that they barely make enough in sales to pay a monthly rent that amounts to $14,000 including taxes. “And the landlord wants to raise the rent for next year. We can’t afford it anymore,” said Estevez. The store is currently looking for another location but Estevez assured us that it will not be in Bushwick.
Rising rents are a serious problem in Bushwick. People out of work, or facing financial struggles, cannot afford them. That leads to foreclosures for the owners and landlords. In 2007 Bushwick already had the third highest rate of housing foreclosures in New York City, 57.8 per 1,000 of one to four family housing units. Today, just in the central triangle of Bushwick, 582 and 1369 Dekalb Ave. have been recently foreclosed. In the same street, at number 1209, there is a stalled building. The works stopped before it was finished.
Between 2005 and 2007 the area’s unemployed civilian labour force was 9.8 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Last October, the average Brooklyn unemployment rate rose to a 16-year-high of 11.1 percent, the New York City labor department reported.
Mercedes Ramos does not need to read the statistics to know these things. She has been living within the perimeter of this commercial triangle for 30 years. Her son and her son-in-law both lost their jobs in 2009. “My son-in-law was working for DHL for 20 years and my son was working for the same company- for 15 years, and they both got laid-off at the same time,” she said. Neither of them has found a steady job. Ramos’s son is freelancing in several gigs and her son-in-law is collecting unemployment. Without a sure income the family has to sacrifice. They can no longer afford to pay for their younger daughter the Catholic school attended by her two elder siblings. “My youngest grandchildren has to go to public school,” Ramos said. “But that’s not what my daughter wanted, she wanted a good education for her three kids.” Ramos said that her daughter has made strict cuts in the family budget, such as paid extracurricular classes, been replaced by free classes. “My 12-year-old grandchild was going to ballet but it was too expensive so now she is going to free basketball classes,” said Ramos.
Some families cut their budget, others move away. This is one of the main reasons for the imminent downsizing of another historical store in the area. About 30 feet north of Rincon Musical, in the corner of Knickerbocker Avenue and Stanhope Street, Ira Levy has owned a party supplies store called Party Fair for the past 22 years. For several generations, Bushwick children bought their Halloween costumes, toys, and birthday decorations in his 7,500 square feet. At the end of November, the shelves were filled with Christmas lights, and Santa Claus, Virgin Mary and Jesus costumes. But after the holiday, two thirds of the space will turn into a bank.
Levy, as well as Palma and Estevez, has not seen any signs of recovery since this economic recession started. “It’s been hitting us for more than a year. I say it’s been hard for the past three years,” said Levy. Each year, Levy has seen his sales dropped 18 to 20 percent without any improvement.
The changes of the neighborhood have contributed to a decrease in sales, Levy said, “A new kind of people have been moving here, younger people who have recently graduated from college or are still studying.” Party Fair’s main customers are families with kids. But many are moving away. “Young guys don’t have money to spend, they are just starting their lives,” said Levy.
Despite of the financial hardship, business owners and neighbors in Bushwick have not lost their hope. Levy will reduce his store, but he won’t leave the neighborhood. Instead he will keep his smaller store and see how it goes next year. Palma, from Turrbo Fashion Innovators, foresees a better future a year from now. Bushwick’s recession, he says, “can’t last much longer.”