Article and photos by Kenny Kim
At 8 p.m. on a recent evening, Jane Kim said goodbye to her employees outside of Kim’s Beauty and Hair, in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, and walked down Utica Avenue to her car parked two blocks away. She passed Church Avenue, which has long had high crime rates and now a new apartment complex that looks like it does not belong among the older, red-brick buildings.
At her car, she told me, “Ten years ago, I would have to bring my car in front of the store when there was still light outside because I was afraid of getting mugged. It’s not as bad anymore. I feel a bit safer here now.”
East Flatbush, a thriving, predominantly Jewish neighborhood until the 1960s, then saw an increasing number of Caribbean Americans populate the area, bringing their rich culture in art and music. During the 1980s and ’90s East Flatbush — like numerous other New York City neighborhoods — was hit by a wave of drug-use epidemics, and the street crime and gangs that came with it. Now stable and striving again, the area has started to gentrify, and people of many different ethnic backgrounds have been attracted to it.
Jane Kim, my mom, has been running Kim’s Hair with my dad, Charles Kim, for 15 years and has seen the community change. Gentrification lowered crime levels, they say, and they see a direct impact of gentrification and the diminished success of the store.
The reason? Wigs. A major source of income at Kim’s Hair has been the sale of wigs, which have been very popular with black residents of the area. But as gentrification diversifies the area racially, wig sales are down, as they are not so much in demand by whites or Asians, Kim said.
Nae Nzeogwu, the manager of Kim’s Hair, has worked there for eight years and has lived in Brooklyn for 20. Gentrification has also caused business to slow, she said, because prices in the neighborhood have increased, leaving people less money to spend on the beauty products sold at Kim’s.
“I think it’s like a domino effect. This area is going through change, which causes the rent to go up and people that have been living here for a long time get forced to move somewhere else,” Nae said. “Costs of living get more expensive, like grocery shopping, and so people don’t have as much money to spend on things they want like beauty supply products.” Median income in East Flatbush has increased 31% from 2000, according to the U.S. Census, and 47.5% of the individuals living in the area have never been married. The median age is 35.15 and consumer spending for all categories is below the national average.
On Zillow, a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in a new building is going for $600,000, compared to seven years ago when a comparable apartment was almost half that price, $335,000.
At Kim’s Hair, Gina Delva 25, a Haitian who has lived in East Flatbush for 21 years, agreed that the area is safer now, as well as the most racially diverse she has ever seen it. “There are more White, Hispanic, and Asian people now. I see a lot of different races when I go to take the subway to the city. Even 10, 15 years ago, there only used to be black people. Now everyone’s here,” said Gina.
As East Flatbush gentrifies, Kim’s Hair has been on a decline for the past several years. Kim said her net income had declined 50% from 2009, when the shop was at its peak, bringing in close to $500,000 in profits a year. “Losing 50% of profits in such a short amount of time is very shocking. Thankfully I am retiring soon,” said Kim, with a laugh.
As the neighborhood changes and different demographics of people move into the area, local stores will change as well. However, Jane Kim is optimistic about Kim’s Hair. She thinks there is a limit to how much store profits can actually decline, because in addition to wigs the shop sells it offers a range of shampoos and other beauty products.
“We have lost a lot of business over the years, but I think there is a limit to how much we can lose because the beauty supply industry is just one of those stores we physically need,” said Kim.