“This is not a Black neighborhood,” he said. “I don’t know if you can tell.”
A long time resident of Park Slope, Martin is one of the few remaining people of color in a neighborhood that used to be exclusively Black and Hispanic.
In the early 50’s Park Slope was a working class neighborhood, composed primarily of Italian and Irish immigrants, but by the late 50’s and through the 60’s and 70’s it was almost entirely African American.
|Nkiru Books in 1977. Image: Marcia Wilson|
In 1976 a young teacher, Leothy Miller Owens, founded a bookstore called Nkiru, which sold books by and for the Black population of the neighborhood. This was the first Black bookstore in Brooklyn, only the second in NYC. Starting as a small, grassroots collection of materials in her own living room, Nkiru served as a meeting place and “hangout” for the families and participants in the Black Power movement. As the movement grew, so did Nkiru’s customer base, and as a result the store relocated to a slightly larger space at 76 St Marks Place where it remained for over a decade. However, when Owens died in 1992, her mother Adelaide Miller took over, running the store from 1992 to 1999. Under severe financial distress, Nkiru barely made rent payments during those years.
In the mid to late 70’s artists began renovating brownstones in Park Slope and surrounding neighborhoods. As Pete Hammill later recalled in a 2008 New York Magazine article, “Preservationists helped secure landmark status for many of the neighborhood's blocks of historic row houses, brownstone, and Queen Anne, Renaissance Revival, and Romanesque mansions." Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, this trend only gained momentum, and quite quickly, the White upper middle class coming in from over-priced Manhattan replaced the Black and Latino working class.
|Mos Def (left) and Talib Kweli (right) outside of Nkiru. |
Image Credit: Mike Schreiber
In the early 90’s Talib Kweli, then just a teenager, worked at a Barnes and Noble in Brooklyn. He was troubled by the lack of literature on and for Black Americans, and pursued a job at Nkiru. The store, which had little money for bills let alone employees, turned him down for almost two years. Kweli would not be dissuaded however, and was finally offered a part-time position. He fell in love with the small shop, and resolved that if he ever had the money, he would invest it in Nkiru.
In 2000, together with childhood friend Mos Def, Kweli purchased the still struggling bookstore, moving it to 732 Washington Ave (about a ten minute walk from its previous location) and transforming it into the Nkiru Center for Education and Culture. This non-profit preserved the mission of its original architect, which was to promote literacy and multicultural awareness for people of color. Over the next couple years, focusing on their music career, the artists entrusted the day-to-day operations to Kweli’s mother. Under her leadership, the center organized literacy projects, workshops, storytelling and lectures. It also offered a stage for open mike and poetry jams—allowing Black community members to soundboard their writing and art in a public space.
However, within just two short years, the center was closed.
Talib Kweli and Mos Def are successful musicians, with money to spare. They could have saved the store from closing due to financial difficulties, but they didn’t. Not because they didn’t love the store, which they certainly did, but rather because the neighborhood Nkiru occupied no longer supported it. The neighborhood in which it had thrived for years no longer needed it.
Leothy Miller Owens had a vision to educate and encourage Blacks through a community-based bookstore. But the demographic of Park Slope had drastically changed. The bookstore was hanging on for dear life by the mid-90’s, a time when young, white, professionals moved to the area in ever-increasing numbers. Prospect Heights to the north and Windsor Terrace to the southeast also experienced gentrification of this kind, making Park Slope, by the year 2000, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Brooklyn.
High rent forced the low-income residents to move elsewhere. Today, the commercial impact is apparent—on Fifth Ave, for example, dollar stores and small family-owned businesses have been replaced with banks, trendy bars and high priced boutiques.
|Kings County and surrounding area 2010 Census Archive.|
Big chains, like the Barnes and Noble on 7th Ave, may also have contributed to Nkiru’s closing. Initially the reason Kwelli wanted to work at Nkiru was because of the lack of Black literature in the corporate bookstores. By 2001 and 2002, many had convinced these stores to open Black sections, and many of them did open such sections, perhaps inadvertently monopolizing on the few customers Nkiru had left. And, of course, what better sign of gentrification then Starbucks, which here, are as numerous as the cut offs and creperies.
In the 1970’s Nkiru’s customer base represented that of the neighborhood—just 20 years later, that neighborhood was almost completely unrecognizable. A former resident of Park Slope, Ebony Haynes says that the area is now “Where hipsters go when they have babies.”
|The site of Nkiru now houses a salon at 732 Washington in Brooklyn.|
Martin has lived in the neighborhood for over 26 years. Nkiru was gone, he says, “overnight”. Shaking his head, Martin pulls a hand-rolled cigarette out from behind his ear and says, “I don’t think people were buying the books anymore. And you know," he continued, "these [the owners] were good people. I say good because they had the right ideas about having a place for Black people, but good people doesn’t mean they were business people. ” He went on to explain that the owners had a passion for literature and educating the community, but the community was changing, and changing fast. Black people weren’t buying books there anymore, or playing music on its stoop. Kids weren’t coming to hang out after school—there were no longer girls with jump ropes singing songs. Because now, those people weren’t in the neighborhood at all. Black people could no longer afford to stay in the neighborhood that had for so long nurtured a place like Nkiru.
Martin explained that he happened to be in a rent stabilized building, and had, for that reason, been able to stay. “My brothers grew up here.” His watery eyes widen when he adds, “I’m the last of the Mohicans!”
The demographic and physical change in Park Slope, spanning just 30 short years, is stark. For over 30 years it was a community-based area. It was physically poor and impoverished, but rich in those things money and influence have historically only destroyed—it was “grassroots” in the truest sense. Kids knew the kids in their neighborhood—they knew them not only because they went to school together, but because they went to church together, and because their parents were friends, and their sisters were friends, and their friends’ sisters were friends, and so on. A bookstore like Nkiru was not only the first Black bookstore in Brooklyn, it was a place for Black people to go and relate to one another. It was a place for them to verbalize their oppression, and to strategize--reading Malcom X, Ralph Ellison, Baldwin and countless others—on how to overcome the exploitation and racism American capitalism had inflicted upon their class as workers, and upon their race as Blacks, in a country that valued white wealth and influence above the needs of its citizens.
Today, big businesses have monopolized even the corporate bookstores to such a degree as to eradicate them completely—companies like Barnes and Noble and Borders, companies that may have greatly contributed to the financial distress of Nkiru, are now faced with extinction themselves. Amazon.com (and others) now sell electronic copies of books for a fraction of the cost. Where a hardback copy of Richard Wright’s Native Son might sell for $19.99 at a corporate bookstore, it can be purchased used on Amazon for $3.98. Further, they no longer have to produce as many physical books, but can now make virtually free, electronic copies and sell them cheap. And convenience reigns. Kindles, and other electronic literary devises, are fast making paperbacks a thing of antiquity.
Convenience means big corporations. And big corporations mean monopolies. And monopolies, time and time again, eradicate small businesses and communities, forcing the people within them to find homes and friends and neighbors elsewhere.
“I miss the place,” says Martin, looking ahead at the salon that now inhabits the space at 732 Washington Ave. “It was a different street—“ he says, his eyes once again glazing over in memory. “It was a different place.”