Black Entrepreneurs Setting Up New Businesses in Bed-Stuy

Brooklyn Swirl was set up in 2012 as Bedford-Stuyvesant's first frozen yogurt establishment by Jean Alerte.  (By Saif Alnuweiri, NYCityLens)

Brooklyn Swirl was set up in 2012 as Bedford-Stuyvesant’s first frozen yogurt establishment by Jean Alerte. (Saif Alnuweiri, Columbia News Service)

Historically, residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant didn’t spend much of their money in the neighborhood. The crack epidemic of the 1970s and ‘80s limited shopping options as businesses owner fled, leaving behind windowless buildings on Fulton Street. The remaining black businesses were mostly barbers, salons, fast food joints or abandoned storefronts. Until now.

These days, dozens black entrepreneurs have started to move into the district and have been attracted by three factors. The neighborhood has seen a 67 percent drop in crime over the past 20 years. It is attracting a college educated demographic with higher levels of disposable income. Lastly, businesses have played a more positive role in the community than in many other parts of Brooklyn, helping out other businesses and running scholarship funds.

At no other point in living memory have these three factors existed simultaneously, according to Kobla Asamoah, Restoration Plaza’s Director of Business Services. “They don’t remember the Brooklyn of the eighties,” he said of the new gentrifiers. “It makes it easier for them to picture and start a business here, as opposed to somewhere else in the city.”

Instead of flocking to more affluent Brooklyn districts, Williamsburg or Brooklyn Heights, young, black entrepreneurs are increasingly choosing Bed-Stuy as a place to set up their business. As a result, these businesses have become important pillars of the community’s social and commercial life. “If you are black, Bed-Stuy is a cool place to have a business,” said Mark Naison, a professor of African and African American studies at Fordham University. “There are a growing number of blacks who have disposable incomes and recession-proof jobs.”

These business owners are young and often know each other, said Michael Lambert, executive director of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Business Improvement District. He sees the new businesses opening up as being a positive trend for the district. Lambert has occupied his current position for slightly more than a year, previously working in community development in the Bronx.

Many wanted the conveniences they experienced living outside Bed-Stuy. “Why go outside my neighborhood if there’s an opportunity to do something new and cool in my neighborhood?” was a common question many of these entrepreneurs asked themselves, said Lambert. Today, there are a few dozen new black entrepreneurs in Bed-Stuy, most of whom have arrived within the past four years.

Brooklyn Swirl, the first frozen yogurt shop in Bed-Stuy, is one of the new businesses. As a black, college educated entrepreneur, Jean Alerte, the owner, who emigrated from Haiti in 1986 when he was seven, is emblematic of a new type of resident choosing to live in Bed-Stuy, where they are revitalizing the commercial life of the district.

The street corner his shop sits on was a very different scene in 2007, when Alerte first visited the area. There were no new storefronts and existing businesses were more haphazardly run. If people didn’t feel like working on a given day, the store would remain shut, he said.

After he attended CUNY at Old Westbury in 2004, he set up a marketing firm in Manhattan. Alerte’s wife, a Bed-Stuy native, thought they should open a business there. He said Bed-Stuy did not have any healthy dessert places prior to the opening of Brooklyn Swirl, and decided it was an opportune moment to open something different. And it has become popular with the neighborhood. After 3 pm, children and their parents on their way back home frequent the shop.

Along the way, Alerte has become a prominent figure in the community, making social investments there. He has been able to set up a scholarship that has sent 32 disadvantaged children to college through the success of Brooklyn Swirl. He also won the best new business in Bed-Stuy award and was recognized as best entrepreneur by the NAACP in 2012. In the end, he said, it’s passion that attracts people to a business.

Increasing levels of safety have also aided new businesses start up in the area. Statistics from the local precincts have shown that crime has dropped by two-thirds in the past 20 years. Dropping crime rates in Bed-Stuy, fits into larger patterns in the city and indeed nationwide, where crime has dropped by nearly half since 1992. Establishments like Bed Vyne Wine and Brew, two alcohol shops that provide a different sort of drinking culture to Bed-Stuy, have capitalized on that fact and recently started operating in Bed-Stuy. ”People were going to bullet proof liquor stores,” said Rotimi Akinnuoye, one of the owners, “there was no communication or education.”

Two brothers, Rotimi and Ayola Akinnuoye, and two business partners own Bed Vyne. Both the brothers completed their Master’s, Rotimi in Education and Ayola in Business Administration. One of their establishments, Brew, is a bar, replete with rough, rustic looking woodwork that fills with clients enjoying its cozy setting. The other, Wine, provides a more polished, brightly lit atmosphere. Above the shelves are signs with one-word categorizations of the tastes each wine, the establishment’s specialty, has.

Akinnuoye, who moved from Lagos, Nigeria in 1988 and lived in Harlem until 2000, when he decided to join his brother in Brooklyn, who was already working there. Since then, he noticed more diverse businesses and better services opening up in the area, like Peaches, a recently opened restaurant that serves southern classic American food. He has also become involved in the life of the community, both donating wine in support of various businesses in the area, and serving on the board of the Bed-Stuy YMCA.

Community development corporations, or CDC’s, have also been important players in this rise of new businesses. Originally founded in the 1970s to aid the city’s poorer residents in home ownership, New York City’s CDC’s built and provide the upkeep for 100,000 housing units, more than half the total public housing stock of the city, and have begun helping small businesses. Kenneth Mbonu, the Director of Economic Development at Bridge Street, said the CDC has aided 200 businesses this year. Mbonu said the greatest challenge for shops today is affording the monthly leases while they are in their start up phase. “We have a pop up program for start ups without the large overhead of monthly leases,” he said. Bed Vyne was a beneficiary of the program.

These non-profit’s, which receive funding from both private and public organizations, have helped fill in the vacuum left by government cutbacks during the 70s and the Reagan years. Flagship urban redevelopment programs, like Robert Kennedy’s Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, once a model of urban redevelopment programs, faced substantial cutbacks in federal funding which helped make Restoration a role model for urban development programs, exacerbating the decline of the neighborhood.

Salons are nothing new to Bed-Stuy. They were among the few surviving businesses after the collapse of the 70s, and dot the neighborhood, like a four-block stretch of Tompkins Ave where there is at least one salon per block. But Natasha Watterson, owner of Vanity Hair Studio, operates a different business, one which offers private treatment rooms and a higher standard of service. They have been a large factor in her salon’s success, and is popular with both Jewish and Muslim women living in the area who would otherwise have to go into downtown Brooklyn or Manhattan. “If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t have had all the clients with religious restrictions,” she said. “Nobody wants to feel naked, and that’s what happens when some women show their hair.”

Watterson entered the salon business trying to earn an “alternative” source of income from her job at the time as a director of a women’s shelter in Jamaica, Queens. She took cosmetology courses to learn how to run a salon, prior to having earned a master’s in public affairs. After having performed market research revealing that Bed-Stuy had the fastest economic growth in Brooklyn for the past two years and developing a business plan with a friend, she decided to “strategically” set up her salon in Bed-Stuy, rather than in Crown Heights, where she lives.

After a slow first nine months, her salon started getting write-ups in local online publications, and began getting referrals from previous customers. She also provided discounts through GroupOn and set up a Yelp business account to help her manage her business and market it.

Ron Howell, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College, said the Bed-Stuy of today is vastly differently from the Bed-Stuy he knew growing up. His grandmother spoke against frequenting notorious locales like Fulton Street. “You look like you’ve been on Fulton Street,” was a common refrain for children who appeared disheveled, he said.

But two factors make the current stage of Bed-Stuy’s development unique. The first is that the economic situation has been better for the past decade. Even with the recession, said Howell, the situation is much better than in the 60s. The second factor is the arrival of a moneyed class to the area. “If you have a cohort of moneyed people, putting money into the community,” said Howell, “those people are going to do whatever they can to enhance their investment opportunities. They are going to do whatever they can to make the community safe.”