By Idil Abshir
Cortelyou Road feels so self-contained that at times it resembles a small town. Like a residential Russian doll, Cortelyou Road has become a neighborhood within the broader neighborhood of Flatbush. A seven-block stretch from Coney Island Avenue to East 17th Street, Cortelyou Road is home to over 85 businesses. On weekends the street is teeming with people at the farmer’s market. Patrons fill the many bars, restaurants and cafes, and children play in the playground at PS 139.
A decade ago, this stretch of Cortelyou was virtually abandoned. The street was lined with 99 cent stores and bodegas, and there were no businesses where residents could linger. Homes were poorly maintained, and when those who lived in the nearby Victorian houses wanted to rest or hang out somewhere besides their own homes, they had to leave the neighborhood entirely.
The story of Cortelyou’s transformation mirrors that of many other Brooklyn neighborhoods, both historically, as at the start of the 20th century, and more recently as a trendy, upcoming area. It has developed commercially, and this has become as much a definitive aspect of the neighborhood, as the quality of its housing. For residents, and prospective residents, what is outside their house is as important as what is on the inside.
“Brooklyn has evolved,” said John Manbeck, former Brooklyn Borough Historian. Of the changes on Cortelyou Road, he said, “The same thing happened in Williamsburg, people who lived there years ago wouldn’t recognize it. Red Hook too.
Before the turn of the century Cortelyou Road was farmland, and a throughway for those making their way further south to the glamour and racetracks of Coney Island. T.B. Ackerson, an icemaker, quit his factory job in 1898 to develop the area into a residential neighborhood, building Victorian and Tudor-style homes. Victorian Flatbush, which Cortelyou Road is a part of, was the place to be: here Guggenheim bought a house for his soon-to-be-wed daughter; Nellie Bly, a groundbreaking journalist, lived on manor off Cortelyou; and Thomas Edison reportedly did some of his experiments in the basement of a house just off Cortelyou Road. Further into the 20th Century, the neighborhood developed into a relatively middle class suburb, and stayed that way until there was a spike in crime in the 1960s. New York City was in the midst of a financial crisis, and Flatbush wasn’t spared. Welfare tenants were relocated to apartments in Flatbush and the middle class began to panic. Flatbush, like the rest of the city, was undergoing what was termed ‘white flight,’ in which the middle class white residents were fleeing the city. By the mid 1970s middle-class residents, both black and white, left Flatbush, not returning until a decade later. Manbeck described this as an “upheaval” for Cortelyou road.
Jan Rosenberg, who has lived here since 1986, says that the neighborhood was drastically different when she moved in. “The houses were more deteriorated and in need of repairs,” she said. “The main difference was that it was much more dangerous.” Rosenberg was a sociology professor at Long Island University in downtown Brooklyn before she ventured in to the real estate business. She is currently a partner at Brooklyn Hearth Realty. In 2001, Rosenberg founded Friends of Cortelyou- a group that sought to attract business to Cortelyou Road.
There were no new businesses drawn to the area. Friends of Cortelyou tried to attract merchants, convinced that this could redefine the neighborhood. “Our commercial strip is so short. I strongly felt, after looking at other neighborhoods, that three or four new businesses would make an impact, ” said Rosenberg. “We had nice houses and nice apartments but no businesses.” Rosenberg clarified that while useful stores existed, like the delis and dollar stores, nothing was in place that neighborhood residents were drawn to. Rosenberg went on to say that her work developing Cortelyou Road, and her current job as a realtor was never a far departure from sociology. “I got into real estate as a function of what I was doing with Friends of Cortelyou- trying to change Cortelyou Road,” Rosenberg said. “It was kind of applied sociology.”
In an article she wrote about the neighborhood titled “Gentrification from the inside out in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park,” for newgeography.com, Rosenberg writes that the quality of life collapsed, and that Cortelyou Road didn’t have it’s basic needs covered banking and eating establishments, for example despite the efforts of the Giuliani’s administration to clean up this and other neighborhoods. However, the city’s efforts to make the neighborhood more livable were only successful to an extent. Although there was a business void, the neighborhood was safer, there were more people investing in family homes.
Still, “there was a void,” Rosenberg said. “There were 99cent stores, and then a 97cent store opened. That was an indicator of a downward trend, we were competing downward.”
Charlie Hull, a recent Brooklyn College graduate, and server at the Purple Yam restaurant on Cortelyou, says he that although he has been living in the neighborhood he saw no point in visiting Cortelyou Road until establishments sprang up that he felt were worth visiting. “I never really ventured up to Cortelyou Road until things started opening,” Hull said. “Just because I didn’t really have a reason to.
Getting the businesses to initially invest Cortelyou was more difficult than the Friends of Cortelyou anticipated. The group found themselves with an unexpected obstacle. “People didn’t take this neighborhood seriously,” Rosenberg said. “People thought it was laughable that you would try bring business to Cortelyou Road.”
Unsure of where to start, but certain that a few business would make a big impact, the Friends decided to approach business owners in other parts of Brooklyn who had faced the same problems. “We recruited merchants who’d opened restaurants in a neighborhood that wasn’t developed,” said Rosenberg. “We took a cue from Fort Greene. We talked to several of the early restaurateurs- they had the same pent-up demand, and cheap rent.”
Susan Siegel, the creator of the farmer’s market at Cortelyou, and later the executive director of the Flatbush Development Corporation said the changes to Cortelyou Road were absolutely necessary, because the area was experiencing ‘economic leakage.’ Nobody was investing or spending in the neighborhood. “We liked that it’s not Park Slope, but at the same time there was so much missing. We spent more money outside the neighborhood than in it,” Siegel said. “If I needed to cook something with broccoli or arugula I had to leave the neighborhood.”
Siegel says that the farmer’s market is at the core of the neighborhood. “The farmer’s market is like the town square,” Siegel said. “It was a way that all diverse neighbors could come together for the first time ever. It was a real community builder.”
The challenges Siegel faced involved getting people to come to the market, and proving to existing businesses that the market wasn’t going to take away their business: something that was easily achieved since the market provided goods that resident had to leave Flatbush to find. Business owners faced different challenges. One of the current owners of Picket Fence, one of the first restaurants to open during Cortelyou Road’s renaissance, said that it was a huge risk for the original owner of the place. “He took the gamble and didn’t know if there would be a payoff,” said Roma Agarwal a joint owner since 2007. “But he saw the incentive, he saw the market here.”
Rosenberg said that merchants eventually saw that the opportunity outweighed the risk. “Business people saw it in Williamsburg and on Smith Street, “ she said. “They knew if you get a foothold in a neighborhood it pays off, because they can come in when the rents are still low. In 5-10 years that is a strong advantage.”
Siegel says that commercial overhaul is happening all over the borough. “It’s definitely a broader Brooklyn Story. Brooklyn is booming,” Siegel said. “Bed-Stuy is another neighborhood that’s changing.”
Siegel believes that the changes on Cortelyou have been for the best, but points out that not everyone has supported them. “A lot of people are against gentrification. People get priced out,” she said. “We don’t want that to happen here but you can’t stop it, these things happen in waves. It’s progression.”
Rosenberg feels the changes on Cortelyou Road far superseded any of their expectations. “It’s amazing,” Rosenberg said. “Cortelyou road is like the little street that could.”