The Deli That Serves as an Anchor in Fort Greene

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The Deli That Serves as an Anchor in Fort Greene
Ralphie talks to a customer in front of his wall of dollars (Vittoria Elliott)

On Lafayette Ave., amid the cafes and the brownstones of Fort Greene’s downtown area, is a small grocery store cum sandwich shop at Number 89. Unlike many of the other stores on the street, Number 89’s doors are often propped wide open, allowing the proprietor, Rauf Fayez, to yell out onto the street, greeting neighbors and beckoning in friends from behind the counter.

“Ralphie’s been here forever,” says Ray Oguendo, a Fort Greene native who lives in Park Slope. His family’s home was just up the street from Fayez’s store. And indeed, Fayez seems to know everyone who passes by. Unlike the neighborhood’s other grocery stores, where patrons silently browse, or cafes where slews of patrons can be seen plugged into laptops, the store at 89 Lafayette is always home to a conversation. A foldable chair sits opposite the counter, where visitors sit to chat with Fayez and their neighbors. People float in and out, sharing updates, checking in.

Fayez was born and brought up in Fort Greene. He’s a big man, bald with a grey beard. He has a booming voice with a thick Brooklyn accent. Arabic pop music plays from a small speaker behind the counter. Behind the register, taped to a bright green wall are several dollar bills with messages written on them; one says “Mr. Fort Greene,” another says simply says “MAYOR.” His storefront window is covered in signs for community events and causes. One poster declares “Refugees Welcome Here,” another carries the Arabic word for “love.” Sitting atop a shelf is a red hat saying “Make America Mexico Again,” a customer favorite in this largely Democratic neighborhood.

Fayez’s family came to the United States from Palestine in the years following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Fayez’s father bought the store at 89 Lafayette Ave.—which had already been run as a grocery store for about thirty years by two Jewish brothers—in 1974. It is the oldest continuously operating grocery store in the neighborhood, says Fayez proudly. But while Fayez’s grocery store and the neighboring Laundromat, which he also owns, have remained constants on Lafayette, the rest of the neighborhood has shifted dramatically.

Helen Anderson eats dinner at Ralphie’s while reading The New York Times. (Vittoria Elliott)

“There are not many places left like this here,” says Helen Anderson, a retired teacher who lives just around the corner from Fayez’s store. “Places that let you sit, hang out, socialize, give news, get news. You don’t even need to buy anything, you can just pull up a chair and hang out.”

“We used to barbecue right outside here,” says Fayez, gesturing to the space of sidewalk just outside the door. “Even when the neighborhood wasn’t so nice, we would all get together out there.” Now, he says, the area is different. “All the old families are gone. All the people that made this neighborhood what it is can’t afford it.” As Fort Greene’s rents have skyrocketed in recent years, increasing 59-63% since 2002 according to brokerage firm TripleMint and more than 8% last year alone, the neighborhood has become increasingly younger and whiter, with the new population replacing the families that used to live here. Fort Greene, which used to be a majority black neighborhood, has experienced major demographic shifts, with blacks now making up only 47% of the neighborhood’s population. Meanwhile, Fort Greene’s average income has increased from $60,061 in 2000 to $72,154 in 2010, even as the neighborhood includes the second poorest census tract in all of New York City, the Ingersoll and Whitman public housing developments.

Fayez’s store, with its loyal customers and casual conversation, is one of a shrinking number of old neighborhood bastions. “A lot of landlords have realized it’s more lucrative to rent out to someone who wants to start these fancy cafes,” says Fayez. “The new people who are moving into the neighborhood, the young kids, they don’t cook, they don’t want to come here, they want to go out” to eat. Fayez isn’t wrong: In a 2015 study by Morgan Stanley, Millennials eat out more frequently than members of Gen X or Baby Boomers. And for those residents who do want to grocery shop, a slew of new stores have popped up, offering specialty goods at high prices. Fayez believes this is because proprietors selling anything else would not be able to make the astronomical rent payments.

James Henderson, founder and owner of Rapid Reality in Fort Greene, estimates that the average rental for a commercial space in the neighborhood can be around $150 dollars per square foot. He estimates that in 2006, that rate would have been around $50 per square foot.

For now, Fayez’s store at 89 Lafayette continues to be a neighborhood anchor. “I’m not going anywhere,” says Fayez. But, maybe, he adds, in a few years, given the way the neighborhood is going, he’ll turn the place into a café.

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