Small Shops Adapt on Boroughs’ Border

By Rebecca Ungarino

Aldo Cabrera sits on a barstool in Sacred Phoenix Tattoo, his Bushwick, Brooklyn, shop. From behind the counter, he watches passersby through the large front window of his small shop. Six years ago, his traditional tattoo parlor on Wyckoff Avenue was a Spanish party supply store run by his mother, Luca.

Bushwick’s Hispanic community has shrunk considerably in the last few years, and so have the number of his mother’s customers. The Cabreras have tried to hold onto the businesses they’ve put together, but Luca’s once thriving business has been reduced to a shelf of quinceañera party favors and a dozen rental folding chairs in the tattoo shop.

“It’s really a race thing, as this area changes,” said Aldo Cabrera. His mother’s clientele, almost entirely Spanish-speaking and working class, has moved toward Jamaica, Queens, in search of cheaper rent.

Call it Quooklyn or call it Ridgewick – as some do – it’s unusual for a shopping strip to sit on the border of two neighborhoods.

Though the sign above the door advertises both services, the Cabreras know they won’t be able to last much longer.

Bushwick, Brooklyn, and Ridgewood, Queens, have transformed in the last decade, with young professional, artistic, steadily more affluent white communities sprouting. Longstanding local business owners are feeling the change on the neighborhoods’ border, where strips of small businesses dot the avenues.

Longtime members of the community say change has accelerated in the past two to three years, as more apartment buildings have been renovated and more Hispanic eateries have closed.

Two blocks away, Chino Villa stands behind the counter at his wine and liquor store, Vinos En Wyckoff.

“Oh, it’s safer around here,” he said with a laugh. “It’s a younger crowd now, more ‘hipster.’ It’s still very diverse, but now I even have tourists in the past year.” Villa, 45, lives in neighboring Maspeth, Queens, and walks to work every day. He has managed wine and liquor stores across Brooklyn since 1991 and opened his larger Bushwick store with his son in 2012, after a smaller location next door, opened in 2008, was successful.

“I started to hear about those changes in this area. The clientele is more exclusive. It’s a different culture now,” said Villa, looking out the front window as a young couple in pea coats strolls in to buy a bottle of Rioja on a recent Sunday night.

“Years ago, in this area, it was different. I don’t have to sell booze from behind glass,” he said.

Three blocks from Sacred Phoenix Tattoo and Vinos en Wyckoff is La Fe Funeral Home, on the corner of Wyckoff Avenue and Greene Street. Olimpia Barillas’s family owns the home, which holds about 150 services per year within the Spanish community.

Luca Cabrera co-owns a traditional Spanish tattoo parlor, once her party supply store.
Luca Cabrera co-owns a traditional Spanish tattoo parlor, once her party supply store.

Barillas’s in-laws have owned La Fe — and the apartments above the funeral home in Bushwick — since 1989. Though Barillas’s father-in-law died last year, the funeral home remains a family business. She has seen the changes in surrounding small businesses and watching passersby on the street.

“This used to be a drug-infested avenue, and on Greene Street, there used to be abandoned buildings, prostitutes, just lots of drugs,” said Barillas.

White non-Hispanic residents make up an estimated 84 percent of Ridgewood’s population – close to 138,600 of its 165,800 residents – according to the 2011-13 American Community Survey data, an ongoing Census Bureau survey, up 2 percent from the 2007-09 survey. Median household income rose about $3,500.

According to the surveys taken at the same time in Bushwick, the influx of white non-Hispanics has been much more significant — from 28 percent in 2009 to 45 percent in 2013. Median household income rose about $7,000 during this time.

“Ridgewood, Glendale, Bushwick — it all got safer. You know, now there’s a sushi place, and cafes,” she said.

In the past two to three years, Aldo Cabrera, 34, knew where the Ridgewood-Bushwick border area was headed. He supported the owners of a neighboring bar, Old Stanley’s, who opened their doors last April.

Three blocks away from Old Stanley’s, a “Cheers”-style bar with a wooden interior and a punk jukebox in the back, unlike small nearby Latino bars, sits Fair Weather Bushwick, an upscale coffee shop.

“People who come in here are mostly young, 20s, 30s, and have moved here one or two years ago,” said Shane Sener, its owner. The year-old shop is steps from the Myrtle-Wyckoff L and M train station, on the intersection of Brooklyn and Queens.

Olimpia Barillas, whose family has owned La Fe Funeral Home in Bushwick for over 20 years, says the neighborhood has become safer.

Sener, who lives a block from his shop, said he knew the area was changing once a Planet Fitness gym, CVS and Dunkin’ Donuts opened adjacent to one another at the intersection of Myrtle and Wyckoff avenues between 2011 and the shop’s opening in 2013. He has become friendly with many of his regular customers.

“If a guy comes here who is 28 years old,” said Sener, wearing a sweatshirt with the Brooklyn Roasting Company logo, “he’s lived around here for three years. He was a waiter or a bartender before he became a graphic designer in SoHo.”

Faisal Ahmed, who manages a Subway sandwich shop on Myrtle Avenue in Ridgewood, said Subway was looking to open more locations in the area because of the neighborhood’s “up-and-coming” appeal, and high foot traffic over the past year.

Subway opened a location deeper into Ridgewood on St. Nicholas Avenue last year, away from the Myrtle Avenue strip, said Ahmed, but closed quickly because of slow business. The real growth, he said, is closer to the train station and away from lower-income homes on the outskirts of the neighborhoods.

“This area is a major transportation hub. And so here you have a lot of hip people, actors and students, because it’s going to be the next Williamsburg in 10 years,” said Ahmed, referring to the yuppie-filled hipster paradise.

The border area still has a large Puerto Rican population, whose families still send their children to neighborhood public schools in the area, farther east toward the sprawling Evergreens Cemetery and Knollwood Park Cemetery. In this easternmost part of the border area, crime is consistently higher than farther west, toward Cabrera’s tattoo shop, Old Stanley’s Bar and Fair Weather Bushwick.

“We have about 50 percent Puerto Rican students,” said Noreen Zantua, a special education teacher in Ridgewood for the past 14 years in two public elementary schools. Lower-income families continue to push farther east for cheaper rents.

Zantua, who lives in Nassau County on Long Island, has seen the quality of life improve in Bushwick and Ridgewood.

“But back then, some of the teachers had bought houses and apartments near where Bushwick and Ridgewood meet. We would say, ‘Oh, God, who would do that?’ But now, it’s much different,” said Zantua.