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The NYC Neighborhood That Thinks It's a Cat
Meet Lionel, Yani, Zach, David, Liz and Julio!
Welcome to Issue #43 of CAFÉ ANNE!
As a journalist over the years, I’ve written New York City neighborhood profiles for a number of “real” publications. The genre tends to be pretty formulaic. Aimed at folks who are considering a move, they typically include details about the neighborhood’s history, demographics, housing stock and schools. They also lean heavily on the perspective of “experts” aka real estate brokers.
I’ve always wanted to write a different kind of neighborhood profile—one based entirely on interviews with random residents found on the street. So I’m excited that this week’s issue features what I hope will be the first in a series of NYC community portraits I’m calling “The Neighborhood Speaks!”
I’m starting with Clinton Hill, in central Brooklyn. Mainly because it’s on the small side and just a 15-minute bike ride from my home in Brooklyn Heights. It looked pretty manageable. Boy, did I have fun learning about the neighborhood from Lionel, Yani, Zach, David, Liz and Julio! I hope you do too!
In other news, CAFÉ ANNE shoutouts to new paid subscribers Frank, Lydia, Chevanne, Tina, Eric, Neal, Aimee and Melanie. There are no paywalls in CAFÉ ANNE land, of course, so those who pony up do so purely to support the newsletter. Many thanks! Also shoutouts to Nick, Julia and Yang-Yang who sent cash via Venmo and Paypal, and Asta who mailed me a $20 bill. Any day I get cash in the mail is a very good day.
Finally, the folks at Leap, “The Conversation App for Curious Minds,” have tapped me for an online discussion this week on the topic, “Why We Should Talk to Strangers.” I will be interviewed by a stranger and hopefully a bunch of other strangers will join in and we can all talk to each other. This is coming up Thursday, September 22 at 11:30 a.m. NYC time. You can register here.
THE NEIGHBORHOOD SPEAKS!
The NYC Neighborhood That Thinks It’s a Cat
When I set out to profile Clinton Hill, a leafy neighborhood in North Central Brooklyn, I started on Fulton Street, a retail strip sporting many, many barbershops. Lionel Kearse, who was sitting on a bench in front of Levels Barbershop, told me he’d been living in Clinton Hill for a decade, and was happy to chat.
“Make me famous!” he said.
He had a great story.
Mr. Kearse is the manager at Levels. Raised in the projects near Dumbo, he left Brooklyn to attend college and barber school. When he came back in 2011, he got a job cutting hair at Levels and a place in Marine Park, miles away in Southeast Brooklyn. “Then things got good for me, so I got fortunate enough to live around here,” he said.
When he started, Mr. Kearse had no customers, so he handed out cards at the train station during the morning rush hour and in front of the shop. “I handed out, in 11 years, over 40,000 cards,” he said. “Now I can honestly say no one in this area cuts more hair than me in a day. Nobody!”
“New York is a hustle town,” he continued. “People actually respected the fact that I’d be standing somewhere, handing out cards. They’d come just because of that. Because they like your hustle and your grind.”
He cuts roughly 25 heads a day. While he started at $25, a cut he now commands $60-$120.
“I love it!” he said. “I make a lot of money around here because everybody got money. My clients is like Goldman Sachs, Harvard. I get a lot of out-of-towners. When they move here, they making the money. Syracuse grads, Harvard. I got lawyers, I got doctors. A lot of good people, and they spend their money.”
I asked him to describe Clinton Hill.
“It’s a beautiful place!” he said. “Even though it’s big, everybody gets along because you familiar with the people that live around here. Even though you got people coming in and out, we know who’s from here and we know who’s not from here. I haven’t had a problem since I’ve been here.”
He chalks it up to the neighborhood’s relative wealth: “You got good jobs, so the mindset is different than maybe somewhere else where people aren’t making a lot of money. It’s the zip code. Everybody here, you know, is up. There’s not a lot of down people here.”
“If Clinton Hill was an animal,” I asked, “What kind of animal would it be?”
“It’d be a cat,” said Mr. Kearns. “Smooth! It don’t want no problems, you know what I mean? It wouldn’t be a tiger, it’d be a cat.”
He wouldn’t be the last to make this comparison.
Mr. Kearse has seen lot of changes over the decade. Condo towers rose on properties formerly occupied by parking lots and gas stations.
“Fill in the blank,” I prompted him. “Clinton Hill is the most WHAT neighborhood in New York City?”
“Clinton Hill is the most relaxed neighborhood in New York City,” he said. “It’s a good place. Expensive though! If you don’t have a good job, you ain’t going to be able to live around here. The rent on a one-bedroom might run you $2200, $2300, depending. You can go as far as $3000.”
Mr. Kearse enjoys a two-bedroom apartment in a brownstone. “If I was recommending someone live around here, I’d recommend the brownstones because the new buildings coming up, they make them so small, and they’re charging so much,” he said. “The high rises and all that—you’re not gettin’ no size!”
I continued along Fulton Street. The neighborhood is full of little shops, cafes and restaurants, mostly mom-and-pop joints. One that caught my eye was Romantic Depot. I figured it might provide clues about what goes on behind closed doors in Clinton Hill.
Folks, it was pretty tame: lingerie, vibrators, dirty board games and naughty novelties including “Sexy Ass”-shaped gummy candies. My favorite, in the bachelorette section: the “Giant Pecker Apron”. “Be the life of the party!” the packaging promised.
Yani, behind the counter, said the best-selling items include the Rockstar, a “full-coverage toy” designed to penetrate any orifice: “Couples and singles love this toy because it comes hands-free, which means it comes with a remote.”
The next person I met was Zach Gropper walking his dog, Glen, on Downing Street. Mr. Gropper works from home, in digital marketing. He moved to Clinton Hill just three months ago, from East Williamsburg.
“Before that, I was in Manhattan, a bunch of different apartments for five or six years,” he said. “It was lot of moving around, but hopefully I don’t have to leave here. I like it here.”
I asked what brought him to Clinton Hill.
“Prices!” he said. “I found a gem in Clinton Hill at a decent price, which is hard these days. We’re happy here. We got some outdoor space, everything we could ask for.”
I asked him to describe the neighborhood.
“It’s an older neighborhood that’s becoming a newer neighborhood pretty quickly, I think,” he said. “I’ve been in all sorts of neighborhoods around the city, and gentrification touches all of them. This is a neighborhood where you can see it happen the most, and the most quickly.”
“It seems like it still really has its roots going back that way,” he continued, pointing north.” The miles of brownstones. My hope is to be around a while, but I hope that everybody who has already been around for a while doesn’t have to go anywhere.”
If Clinton Hill was an animal, he said, it’d be a peacock, with all the variety and colors. “It’s a beautiful animal, beautiful neighborhood!”
We were headed back toward his place on Fulton Street. “It’s an older building that was just redone—they sold it and flipped it, basically,” he said. “It’s a small building, six apartments, but all totally renovated and new. So I’m just expecting they’re going to hike up prices by a million percent after one lease, but I’m hoping they don’t!”
The last person I met that afternoon was David Stephens, a university administrator who had just picked up his son from the park. He grew up in Detroit and moved to Clinton Hill in 2012—his wife grew up in Brooklyn and they wanted to live near her parents.
“I would say Clinton Hill is a residential neighborhood that is cool for young parents,” he said. “As far as people who move to New York City to get the ‘New York experience’ or whatever that is, maybe Clinton Hill isn’t exactly the neighborhood for you.”
“We do have our nice restaurants you can go to,” he said. “There’s amazing parks for the kids. It’s accessible to most of the train lines.”
As he spoke, he nodded and smiled at everyone passing by. The mailman stopped to give his dog a treat and the two chatted a bit about the letter carrier’s plans to install a swing set for his grandkids.
“Jeeze,” I said, “It’s like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood around here!”
“Actually that’s what I was about to say. Clinton Hill is New York City’s most neighborhood of neighborhoods,” said Mr. Stephens. “Even though there’s new people moving in, we know each other, there’s community here. It feels homey.”
I asked how the changing community maintained its friendly vibe—that doesn’t always happen!
“It’s the people who came before we came,” he said. “Those individuals are welcoming and we respect them and their history, and how they made this neighborhood desirable for people like me to move to.”
I asked if he, in turn, tried to welcome the new new people.
“Oh, all the time yes!” he said “We held a Juneteenth party the past three years, since Juneteenth became popular.”
The party is in his backyard and they invite everyone on the block.
“We support black businesses with the food. And we also do a mac-and-cheese competition, and the winner receives a gift certificate for a local black business,” he said. “This year it was too many people! Next year we got to figure out something different.”
“I consider myself a gentrifier right?” he said before I took off. “Because me and my wife, our income level is not native to who was here before we came here. The natives here, they struggle to buy the cup of coffee that costs $4 or $5 as opposed to a dollar or two. But the reason we love this neighborhood is the people here before us were so welcoming. Sometimes the gentrifiers take advantage of those people. And then they are displaced. I think too much about this stuff.”
When I got home, I checked Clinton Hill’s median rent on StreetEasy. It wasn’t the $2200 to $3000 Mr. Kearse had suggested. It was $3800—up 40% in five years. The median price on a home, meanwhile, is $1.5 million.
Clinton Hill is mostly brownstones, and a growing number of condo towers. But it’s also known for its mini-mansions. Imagine what it’s like to live in a place like this in the middle of New York City!
When I returned to the neighborhood a day later, I was on a mission to speak with one of those homeowners. I got lucky. The first mansion I passed, a lady sitting on the porch waved and yelled hello. When I told her what I was up to, she invited me up to chat.
Liz Comerford, dressed in a red print strapless sundress and black combat boots, is an artist. She bought the house in 1997 for $355,000 after finishing the photography program at NYU. She was 27 at the time and had just inherited money from her grandparents.
Folks in the area refer to the home as the “The White House.”
“It’s a historical landmark house built by Colonel Lefferts in 1838,” she said. “The Lefferts [family] owned a bunch of farmland around here, and this was the first house that was built.”
I asked what it was like to live there.
“It’s a paradise! It’s a blessed paradise.”
“There used to be a lot of ghosts in here,” she added.
“How did you know?”
“Oh, because I saw them,” she said. “And my boyfriend at the time, he saw them the same way I did and described them the exact same way.”
“And you got rid of them by…”
“Good juju!” she said. “But taking down some of the walls also really helped.”
She’s tried to get the entire community landmarked. “I wanted to protect all these homes,” she said. “Developers want this property to build big buildings, but it’s important to keep our history. Our history is a part of who we are. We’re losing so much.”
I asked what kind of animal Clinton Hill would be.
“Animal? I don’t know,” she said. “That’s kind of a foolish question. Why would you ask a weird question like that?”
My last question, which I was now a little scared to ask: “What is the most Clinton Hill place in Clinton Hill?”
This one met with her approval: “Liz who lives in the White House, maybe,” she said. “Maybe me!”
She gave me a hug goodbye.
Ms. Comerford had suggested I check out Myrtle Ave., the retail strip on the north end of the neighborhood which borders Pratt University, a big school for art and design students. It’s also home to the Bella Rosa Flower Shop. Owner Julio Perez opened the store in 2006.
I asked what Clinton Hill was like 16 years ago.
“The people were different. Black people, colored people. People who don’t like to spend money. Not because they don’t want. No, because they don’t have. Especially old people,” he said. “Those people, they move from this area. The new people come, the rents go higher. For business, for apartments, for everything.”
Mr. Perez, who moved to New York from Mexico when he was 14, is doing alright. He married a lady from Poland; they live nearby with their four kids.
I told him the area seemed very friendly.
“Here you can say hi, they answer you,” he agreed. “But this depends on us—on you. If you don’t want to say good morning to your neighbors, it’s your choice. But if you want to be good with your neighbor, you have to be friendly, say good morning. You make family!”
“So someone told me this is a stupid question,” I said. “But I’m going to ask you anyway…”
“Nothing is a stupid question!” he said.
“Okay,” I said. “If Clinton Hill was an animal, what animal would it be?”
“Mmm,” he said. “A sweet cat.”
“You are the second person to say cat!”
“Many people don’t have cats because they are not like dogs,” said Mr. Perez. “Dogs are more friendly. But when you are nice with a cat, the cat is very sweet.”
“But if you’re not nice, the cat can scratch you!” he elaborated. “So people—the same thing. If you are nice, they can hug you. But if you are not nice, then they can slap you!”
“OK,” I said. “So that’s what Clinton Hill is like.”
He nodded. “That is what we are like,” he said. “We are so nice, but don’t come to bother us!”
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