The New Phase in Bensonhurst

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A photo of 86th Street show Asian and non-Asian businesses side by side.

BENSONHURST – This area was once dominated by Italian-American residents but over the past decade Now, just like in Little Italy across the East River, they are losing their stronghold of the community to newly immigrants. The neighborhood is now mostly families and businesses of Asian origin. Not that this southwestern part of Brooklyn lacks diversity. Ethnicities such as Russians, Poles and immigrants from Latin America and Middle East also have a presence in this sprawling neighborhood.

“It is one of the greatest chapter of neighborhood evolution” Councilman Mark Treyger described in a phone interview, describing diversity in the Bensonhurst Community.

In 2013, Councilman Treyger assumed office as District 47’s councilman, which covered majority of prominent local Southern Brooklyn neighborhoods including Bensonhurst, Gravesend, and Coney Island. His first office was on Neptune Avenue, but he later added another district office in Stillwell Avenue near 86th Street,  because “I wanted a store-front office that is closer to the neighborhood,” and therefore he would be more accessible to all businesses and residents.

 The Councilman said that the community is “rich in diversity and heritage” and he is a firm supporter of how food is globally represented throughout the neighborhood.  He mentioned, “I am a big fan of the coconut and pineapple bun from a Chinese bakery on 86th Street and a cannoli from 18th Avenue…I could get great Mediterranean style food from Istanbul (a restaurant located on Bay Parkway and 86th Street) and pizza from Lenny’s Pizzeria.” 

As an advocate of businesses coming together, he established a Merchant Association, so local merchants could combat different problems, such as theft and vandalism.  Furthermore, he helped pass the law that made the NYC Department of Emergency Services translate pamphlets on what to do during an urgent situation in ten different languages.           

According to the Wall Street Journal, “Bensonhurst…was known as a middle class, Italian-American enclave for much of the 20th century…but its demographics are rapidly changing as…Chinese families flock the area”.  The US Census Bureau reported that Asian population are “…growing 57% between 2009 and 2010.”

The New York Times reported that “Bensonhurst has the largest number of Chinese-born residents of any neighborhood in the city, with 31,658, narrowly edging the populations in Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, according to a 2013 city report that offered the most recent data on immigrant New Yorkers.”

There are still old time merchants left, such as Meat Supreme, which has four locations, with two located on 86th Street, in the heart of Bensonhurst. The stores have sold mainly Italian delicatessen, produce, packaged meat and provide catering service for over 30 years.  Meat Supreme adapted their business along with the evolution of the community demographics.  They experimented with the addition of seafood and fresh produce departments.  The seafood department was soon phased out as a result of decrease in popularity, but the outdoor produce stand is a success. According to the store manager, “We had the fresh produce stand a year ago.”

At around 6 pm on a Thursday, there were only a few shoppers.  Meanwhile, the next door Asian supermarket was jammed with customers buying fresh fruit, produce, seafood and fresh butchered meat.  Despite Meat Supreme’s effort, they are no match for the ever growing Asian stores around them.   

The Main Pharmacy, a third generation local pharmacy also located on 86th Street, improved its business after it moved across the street to a brand new renovated location. The owner and pharmacist is an adjunct professor at the Arnold and Marie Schwartz College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Long Island University.  Since 1946, Ken’s family has been serving the Bensonhurst community not just with medications but with household supplies, cards, and many more. Ken said, “My grandfather and my father were both pharmacists…and I was brought up with loyalty.”  He said “In the past, if you help someone…they will not even think twice about having your back.” He further described, “Loyal customers would come back to you, but new residents like to shop in these big name pharmacists such as CVS, Duane Reade, until they make a mistake.”

In addition, Ken mentioned that the new residents and businesses do not hesitate to saturate any profitable market.  For example, his own LIU pharmacy student recently opened up a tiny pharmacy just a couple of doors away from him. Although inundated with competition and burdened with Affordable Care Act restrictions, Ken has been able to adapt to challenges.  He researched and implemented new marketing strategies such as advertising in different languages and adding different ethnic products to his stock, “I have a whole shelf dedicated to the community.”  Proudly displayed were various weekly specials posted on the store front in Chinese, and a shelf of Chinese herbal products, such as Chinese imported molasses displayed in the front of the store. Plus he hired Asian staff for the front desk, because “…people want to talk with their own kind of people.” In simple terms, he was reducing the language barrier and able to communicate with the neighborhood. He will continue to find ways to promote his business and generate profit.    

Bensonhurst’s recent booming real estate and economic developments signifies the cosmopolitan flair of the neighborhood. What attracts so many people and businesses to this community are the strong school district, convenient commute by public transportation, abundance of parks and recreation, and most importantly, a safe close knit community. As Councilman Treyger mentioned,  “We are the beneficiary and I am proud of it [variety within Bensonhurst]”.             

About MATTHEW ENG

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