Brooklyn rests on shifting sands. Its culture and communities contend with the impossible and endlessly accelerating rhythm of gentrification on a daily basis, from rising rents to threatened landmarks.
Over the last several years, the ground beneath central Brooklyn, the home of historically Black neighborhoods Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, has begun to move with particular speed. While the terraforming of these neighborhoods for the richer and whiter has largely followed the familiar patterns, enervating longstanding communities in process, there are glimmers of something else in the mix: A new wave of Black-owned endeavors — restaurants, bars, gallery spaces — that celebrate Afrocentric subcultures have managed to plant roots amidst the maelstrom of development, staking out and preserving space for, if not longtime residents, then for a young and growing creative class that has come to thrive in the borough. For many of these young artists, myself included, there is both guilt and freedom in occupying these spaces.
This small reclamation of increasingly occupied territory for the young, Black, queer, and middle class may seem largely symbolic, or limited in its impact, the importance of a thriving nightlife for marginalized communities can often be understated; it provides a haven for the development and expression of self-determined aesthetics, free from the burdens of code-switching or an oppressive gaze. Spaces like Sisters, Ode to Babel, and Bed Vyne Brew, three Black-owned businesses which fit this description, can provide an environment in which to safely explore the limits of one’s creative capacity and find like-minded community. For me, these spaces have meant watching artist friends grow into their own: DJs spinning countless sets and building names for themselves, artists hawking their wares at pop ups, writers meeting up to shoot the shit. I’ve gone on dates at these bars and danced late into the night. They are ours, even while the neighborhoods they anchor down are increasingly not.
It’s easy to tell someone where to meet you at Sisters, an all-day restaurant and bar in Clinton Hill: Just above the entrance, stamped into the building’s worn, wooden facade is a giant clock framed in white brick that looks out over Fulton Street and gorgeously recalls the architecture of a continental public square.
To enter, you walk beneath an interior archway and push a thick, Black velvet curtain to the side, revealing a room where classic Americana meets the Pacific Northwest. White-tiled floors, a white marble bar, and vaulted ceilings with a skylight and exposed wooden beams create an airy quality, though the room remains anchored by the soaring, geometric backbar and dark wood furniture — a signature of Oliver Haslegrave and his interior design firm Home Studios, which made its name creating spaces for Ace Hotels, Five Leaves, Paulie Gee’s, and Union Square Square Hospitality. There’s perhaps no small irony in that one of the Haslegrave’s hopes for the space is that the unfinished Portland cement will age over time, acquiring patina that will lend more warmth to the space; virtually nothing remains of the original hardware store that Sisters takes its name from, not least the portraits of iconic Black women like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker that once studded its walls.
That’s something of a tragedy, but the best way to understand Sisters, according to Damon Gorton, the 47-year-old proprietor, is to view it as the successor to Flatbush Farm, the farm-to-table restaurant he opened on the border of Prospect Heights and Park Slope in 2006 and was forced to shutter last year. Like so many small businesses that once occupied the area surrounding Barclay’s Center, Flatbush Farm could not keep up with everything that followed, and memories of the “The Farm,” as it is still lovingly referred to by patrons, were a common refrain in my conversations with bargoers at Sisters, many of whom migrated over when it closed.
Gorton warned me in advance that he doesn’t make for a great interview — “Did they mention I’m the worst interviewee?” — and he didn’t disappoint. When we finally spoke on a rainy Saturday in February, he alternated between one-word answers or gruff utterances of “next question,” spoken with deliberation into my audio recorder.
A large man in a black suit with a grey, tufted goatee, even his eyes were impossible to read. Just as I was getting desperate, he pulled a woman on her way back from the restroom into our conversation. “She’ll be able to speak to this better than I can,” he said. The woman, Thimali Kodikara, is a designer from London who has worked with Gorton on various projects, from flyers to event planning. “Damon will not talk about it himself, but he has been the epicenter of a really profound community,” she said.
That community is partly a product of Gorton’s past life in the music industry, with small outfits like Earwig Records. His restaurant functions as a de facto stomping ground for musicians and creative types: Earle Sebastian, Alicia Keys’s creative director, and Matthew Morgan, the founder of Afropunk, were both regulars at the Farm, while DJs and live musicians that have played at Sisters have gone on to hosting shows at The Lot Radio or working in programming at MoMA PS1. Stewart Randolph, a young Black DJ who I was introduced to by a friend of mine, DJ Ushka, and whose remix under the name Miracles was recently featured by Apple Music, is a Sisters regular.
Beyond providing a critical space for budding artists, many of whom are queer and of color, Kodikara said, Sisters is an intergenerational space — she and the other patrons describe a sort of community vibe that, even on a dreary day, is a haven for people of all ages and races. In that sense, Sisters is positioned to recreate, to an extent, the sorts of diverse public spaces that don’t exist any longer in gentrified Brooklyn.
Bed-Vyne Brew is warm and cavernous. The interiors of the low-ceilinged bar are done in the style of a cabin: the walls are covered in paneling made of reclaimed wood and long, communal benches hug the walls. The bar is located on a residential block — Tompkins between Putnam and Madison — that moves a little slower. The area feels less contested, perhaps because it is a block of homeowners.
That Bed-Vyne Brew is a craft beer bar run by four Black men is a little astounding — while Black people comprise just over 11 percent of beer drinkers, they are only 3 percent of craft beer drinkers — even if the backstory is rote: Two brothers, a former colleague, and a college friend got together and decided to sell something that was less available in Bed Stuy at the time — they found that people would reflexively go into Manhattan to pick up wine or drink craft beer. Since 2011, the four have built a Black-owned mini-empire, comprising a wine store, a craft beer bar and a cocktail bar. In addition to craft brewing, the brothers have also taken an interest in Black-owned wineries, whose products they sell out of a storefront next door to the bar.
Bed-Vyne Brew, typically just called “Brew” in order to distinguish it from Bed-Vyne Wine, the adjacent wine store, is tended full time by Michael Brooks, since the other partners — brothers Rotimi and Ayo Akinnuoye, and Peter Medford — all still have day jobs in the pharmaceutical industry. Originally from upstate New York, Brooks moved to Bed Stuy in 2007 after five alienating years in Manhattan. “I didn’t even know people that lived on my floor in my building,” he told me. In Bed Stuy, he found the community he was looking for. “There is a magic and an electricity and energy in this neighborhood,” he said. “People talk to each other out here.”
Brew, which occupies a former gallery space that was also owned by the four, feels like the basement in your parents’ house. You are encouraged, by virtue of the seating arrangement to commune with your neighbor over one the ten rotating taps. The crowd is made up of young professionals, likely upwardly mobile, and tends towards men. In our conversation, Brooks mentions the “neighborhood” almost reflexively and has said before that his vision for Brew is Cheers but in Bed Stuy. Cheers, of course, was a bar defined by its constancy and familiarity, it was an extension of the concept of a community. Bed-Vyne Brew, which has been a neighborhood fixture since 2013, aspires to the same.
If Clinton Hill is mostly conquered territory, Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights are on their way; a study combining data from the 2000 Census and the 2016 Community Survey states that they are some of the most gentrified zip codes in America. However, Ode to Babel, a combination bar, pop-up kitchen, gallery, and marketplace is thriving. Owned by Marva and Myriam Babel, twin sisters and Bed Stuy natives, Ode to Babel is their attempt to preserve the Black, bohemian meet-spaces of the central Brooklyn they grew in, which they’ve watched slowly erased by rising rents and a changing population.
What the sisters hope to restore, Marva told me, are the informal Black salons of the ‘80s and ‘90s that took place in cafes, bars, and apartments. The meticulous design of Ode to Babel reflects both her background in interior design and a specific aesthetic grounded in the Black culture’s very recent past, with homages to the Brooklyn of Spike Lee, Branford Marsalis, and Nelson George: The bartender is wearing waist beads; incense is burning; a portrait of Grace Jones hangs on the wall; and a Kurtis Blow record sits on a shelf next to a palm frond.
For the most part, the patrons at Ode to Babel are young, middle class, upwardly mobile creatives, not unlike the Babel sisters; it has become the salon they imagined, a place where young people of color who make culture congregate, whether it’s for a Well-Read Black Girl book club meeting or a mezcal tasting from a woman-owned distillery. Writers (including me), artists, and DJs spend their time and money there, and they bring their friends. The enormous custom wood-grain turntable station that greets you upon walking in is available to anyone with expertise enough to use it; last year, the DJ Oscar Nñ spun a memorable set in celebration of his fellow Papi Juice collective member, Mo Fayaz, in an intimate yet raucous celebration, complete with a signature cocktail.
The Babel sisters have largely succeeded in recreating the energy of the Brooklyn salons they once knew and never stopped seeking out; there’s a huge amount of cultural production that comes out of Ode to Babel, you can partake in anything from Afro house music nights to getting your fortune told. Always hanging in the air, though, is the tension between supporting a new creative class and taking care not to exacerbate the current crisis at hand — some of the very artists who gather here are implicated in the displacement of the community surrounding it. But so too is the sense that you are mingling with some of the smartest, most beautiful souls in Brooklyn.
Walking into a space like Ode to Babel, Sisters, or Brew means dwelling in the discomfiting gap between the feeling of belonging — of a space being for you — and the knowledge that that must mean it is not for someone else. If queer people and people of color are faced with a dearth of spaces to call their own, what does it mean for those spaces to be a part of neighborhoods that are changing? It’s especially challenging when change is contested or worse, violent. But it’s also hard to deny the beauty and utility of these spaces; the people who own these bars are from the neighborhoods they conduct business in and have experienced the cruelties of gentrification themselves. For them, to own these spaces is to oppose, in some sense, the shifting tides of change — they are not going anywhere any time soon.
Muna Mire is writer in Brooklyn.
Eli Schmidt is a photographer based in New York.
Video by McGraw Wolfman, Francesca Manto and Jesse Sparks
Creative direction and collages by Brittany Holloway-Brown, Manager of Visuals & Design
Fact checked by Samantha Schuyler