With its high rents and desirable real estate, Brooklyn has always been one of the primary theaters in the national gentrification war. The latest battle comes courtesy of a “boozy sandwich shop” currently facing an outright boycott after a roller-coaster week of PR stumbles, social media missteps, and mounting community anger.
Summerhill, a bar and restaurant owned by first-time restaurateur Becca Brennan, is located in Crown Heights, a historically black, West Indian, and Jewish neighborhood that in recent years has been the frontier of the city’s seemingly unstoppable tidal wave of gentrification, demographic shift, and displacement. A recent press release touting its “bullet hole-ridden wall,” 40-ounce bottles of rosé, and the space’s alleged history as an “illegal gun shop” raised eyebrows for its apparent capitalization on stereotypes of black violence and poverty.
But when Brennan admitted to Gothamist that the bullet holes were actually just cosmetic damage, and that she fabricated the location’s history as an illegal gun shop from an anonymous comment left on a community blog, the situation exploded. Anger and action were almost immediate, with Brennan and her restaurant called out online for “slum cosplay,” “tragedy porn,” and “faux-ghetto schtick.”
Crown Heights’ population has shifted dramatically in recent years, with the white population of the still primarily black neighborhood nearly doubling, new construction booming, and established families and businesses driven out by skyrocketing residential and commercial rents. Summerhill is located in a corner lot that once housed a corner store, but which sat empty and boarded-over for years, a frequent practice when landlords are holding out for a long-term tenant willing to pay rent high enough to make up for the years of lost rental income.
In recent years, dozens of new businesses have opened in the neighborhood that are either owned by or aimed at the neighborhood’s newcomers — mostly young, white, creative professionals — including bars and restaurants on Summerhill’s block. Crown Heights boasts an remarkably well-organized and vocal community base, and groups like the Crown Heights Tenant Union have been actively engaged in the evolution of the neighborhood as new faces and new money disruptively flow in. (Earlier this year, CHTU successfully lobbied for an establishment called “Crow Bar” to change its name to the less racially charged Franklin 820.)
This isn’t just happening in New York: Helped by the rapid communication enabled by sites like Facebook and Twitter, communities across the country have been organizing to speak out against businesses and developments that are perceived as gentrifiers, cultural appropriators, or cultural erasers. Weird Wave, a hip third-wave coffee shop in Los Angeles’s predominantly Latino neighborhood Boyle Heights, has been home to protesters nearly every day since opening for business a month ago. In Austin, Blue Cat Cafe has been “under community boycott” by activist group Defend Our Hoodz, after the Instagram-friendly cat café opened in a space owned by landlords who demolished the beloved piñata store next door.
Shortly after Eater NY and Gothamist reported on Summerhill’s fake bullet holes, the streets around Summerhill were covered in anonymously distributed flyers calling out the restaurant as a racist, colonialist gentrifier, and the restaurant’s Yelp page and Instagram were overrun with commenters calling on Brennan to reconsider her assumptions about who her community is, and what sort of customers she’s trying to serve. (Many more commenters also took slightly less diplomatic positions.)
The community frustration came to a head outside the restaurant on Saturday afternoon; where Eater NY reports that a crowd of about 50 people had gathered for an “open forum discussion,” complete with a circulated list of demands that included the removal of the “bullet-holed” wall, and for Brennan to open up the space for community gatherings. After a few hours of protest, Brennan had still failed to directly talk to the crowd, and the mood changed from a community airing its grievances to an outright call for a boycott.
Brennan, a former tax attorney, is from Toronto, where Summerhill is the name of one of the wealthiest, most desirable neighborhoods. She originally justified her intentions as “cheeky,” but has since apologized “for any offence caused” on Instagram, in an interview with Gothamist, and in a printed apology circulated by a publicist at Saturday’s protest. “I deeply apologize for any offense that my recent comments might have caused,” Brennan’s apology read. “I did not intend to be insensitive to anyone in the neighborhood, and I am sorry that my words have caused pain. I made light of serious issues and that was wrong.”