A Taste of Gentrification in Fort Greene

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A hip new restaurant battles it out with a neighborhood fave

When the storm waters rose, Hurricane Sandy claimed among its many victims The Pink Tea Cup, a soul food joint in Greenwich Village that first opened in 1954. Now the restaurant has moved to the corner of Cumberland and Lafayette in Brooklyn’s trendy Fort Greene neighborhood, where it opened three weeks ago. The new location confirms what longtime residents already know: the hipsters are coming.

Dimly lit and lined with brick, The Pink Tea Cup wants to be cool. “Eat, drink, laugh,” exhorts a sign on the wall. The Tea Cup is no greasy spoon. But walk five minutes down Lafayette toward Fowler Square and you’ll find The Academy Restaurant, a glimpse into Fort Greene’s more prosaic past.

Inside the diner, a long narrow counter separates the mostly empty booths from a short order cook frying eggs. Breakfast is served all day, along with Greek staples like spinach pie, chicken souvlaki, and marinated lamb shank. The Academy first opened in 1986. It’s a family-owned neighborhood favorite that depends on a usually reliable stable of regulars.

But not today, says Toula Koutroumanos, a waitress and the sister of Academy’s owner. Today is dead. “Business is not so good,” explains Koutroumanos, a curly-haired woman in her early 60’s who’s been here since 5:30 this morning. “Too many new restaurants opening . . . this neighborhood, yeah, it’s changing.”

Fort Gentrification

Over the last 15 years, a steady stream of transplanted Manhattanites, young families, and even European tourists has poured into Fort Greene. Muffin shops and juice bars have moved in. They’re a far cry from the bars and brothels that serviced sailors and dockworkers until the last vestiges of the once mighty Brooklyn Navy Yard shut down nearly 30 years ago.

Like much of New York, crime in the neighborhood has fallen dramatically since its recent peak in the early ’90s: murders, rapes, and robberies are all down more than 80 percent.

Easily accessible from Manhattan, Fort Greene became a natural home for downtown workers looking for cheaper rent. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of apartments and houses on the market nearly tripled.

The new residents are mostly white, in contrast to Fort Greene’s long history as a predominantly African-American area with prosperous black upper- and middle-class professionals. Since 2000, the number of whites in Fort Greene has almost doubled, according to New York City census data. Whites now make up a little less than one-third of the population. Meanwhile, the number of African-Americans, who remain the largest racial group in Fort Greene, has declined by more than 30 percent.

A New Home

At the Pink Tea Cup, a copper-plated bar seats eight. High on the wall behind it, a small portrait of Jimi Hendrix rests on the top shelf, watching over diners from its perch next to a bottle of Maker’s Mark. A bartender sings softly along to R&B.

So far, the restaurant has found a market in this leafy residential neighborhood for its $20 plates of chicken and waffles. On a slow weekday afternoon after the lunch rush, staff members say business will pick up for dinner. Weekend brunches are “crazy.”

It may feel like home now, but Fort Greene is only the latest stop on The Pink Tea Cup’s circuitous journey. The original Village restaurant shut down in 2009. Lawrence Page, a local businessman, bought the rights and reopened a few blocks away, but the customers didn’t come. After an aborted move to Harlem, he tried again with a spot near 6th Avenue and 14th Street, until Hurricane Sandy intervened. Then the Tea Cup lost its liquor license and declared bankruptcy. But the persistent Page, who is traveling this week and was unavailable for an interview, decided to relaunch the business, this time in Fort Greene.

The restaurant’s website says that 50 percent of the Manhattan location’s customers came from Brooklyn.  (Last year, when Page was considering moving the Pink Tea Cup uptown, he told The New York Times that “most of my clientele is from Harlem and the Bronx.”)

“Page is very hip,” the restaurant’s website proclaims, “and understands that if you do not move with the times, you can damage your brand.”

The Regular Crowd

Inside the Academy Restaurant, a neighborhood favorite that opened in 1986. Business has been slower, but the regular crowd keeps coming in. The Brooklyn Ink/Nick Nehamas

Inside the Academy Restaurant, a neighborhood favorite that opened in 1986. Business has been slower, but the regular crowd keeps coming in. The Brooklyn Ink/Nick Nehamas

At the Academy, a waitress named Donna Duhart does her best to keep up with the new Fort Greene, especially the European tourists. “French I can fudge a few words,” says Duhart, a retired nurse, “but German they just have to point to a picture.”

“Our customers,” says Toula Koutroumanos, “they change from black to white.”

Emily Learnard, a 40-year-old editor who says she can almost see the Academy from her apartment, comes in for a meal about once a day. From Learnard’s perspective, there are pros and cons to gentrification in Fort Greene, where her family has lived since the 1970s. “It’s certainly good I can walk down DeKalb Avenue for two miles and be safe,” Learnard says. “That wasn’t always true. But it’s getting very pricey now. There’s a real split between the poor and the middle-class.”

The Walt Whitman and the Raymond V. Ingersoll Houses, a 15-minute walk across Fort Greene Park from the Academy, are two of the poorest housing projects in New York. The median household income in the area, where rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard grew up, is just $9,662.

As the sun sets on Fort Greene and a cold day gets colder, an 87-year-old regular named C.W. Smith sits down with his great-niece, Patricia, in the very last booth at the back of the Academy. Smith, an African-American man wearing a white beard and tweedy brown coat, thanks a waitress as she sets down a bowl of chicken noodle soup and a side of toast with plenty of butter.

“I love you, baby,” he teases.

“I love you right back,” she replies.

Smith says his grandfather was a white man and his grandmother a freed slave. He appreciates Fort Greene’s growing wealth and racial diversity.

“All this used to be the black Greenwich Village,” Smith says, gesturing widely with his arm. “Now there’s a white Greenwich Village here too.”

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