Updated Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, 2:52 p.m. EDT: Becca Brennan, the owner of Summerhill, plastered over the holes in the wall that caused a storm of controversy when she referred to them as “bullet holes” in a press release, according to Gothamist. The repairs happened late Tuesday night. At a town hall in July, Brennan apologized for having a “sense of humor” but said she wasn’t going to repair the wall.
“Oh, great, another new bar on Nostrand,” said 25-year-old Justine Stephens when she first noticed a new business earlier this summer in her neighborhood in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y.
She was talking about Summerhill, a “boozy sandwich shop” that would become a shining example of what gentrification can do to black neighborhoods, not only in New York City but nationwide. The “summer oasis” opened its glass doors in June and sits across from a Key Food supermarket on the corner of Nostrand and St. Marks avenues. Stephens walks by Summerhill every day—at least she used to. Now her only desire is to see the eatery shut down.
In July, Summerhill’s owner, Becca Brennan, sent out a press release that sparked weeks of controversy:
Brennan was a corporate tax attorney with daydreams of opening a boozy sandwich shop until she discovered the perfect piece of real estate around the corner from her Crown Heights apartment: a long-vacant bodega (with a rumored backroom illegal gun shop to boot). Brennan signed the lease, gave notice and proceeded to spend over a year painstakingly gut-renovating the space with an uncompromising vision: a surf club vibe with a large concrete horseshoe bar, massive accordion windows, and cheekily wallpapered bathrooms. (Yes, that bullet hole-ridden wall was originally there and yes, we’re keeping it.)
The press release included a photograph of a cocktail next to the alleged “bullet holes”:
Summerhill also carried a brand of rosé packaged in 40-ounce bottles. It was rumored that the owner joked about selling the rosé in paper bags, though Brennan disputes ever having said that. Still, mentions of the “bullet-hole-ridden wall” and the 40-ounce rosé bottles quickly gained attention on social media.
“Crown Heights as a community, it’s so close and tight-knit, it’s like family, and I wanted to make sure that my neighbors that are not really on Instagram and social media knew about this,” said Stephens.
That’s when she joined forces with Jonathan Villaran and Paola Ayala, two organizers from Washington Heights in Manhattan and Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. The trio canvassed Crown Heights and organized an open forum outside Summerhill on July 22, where dozens of community members voiced their concerns and feelings of exploitation and pain.
Brennan issued a formal apology for “making light of serious issues” and said she kept the holes in the wall in an effort to maintain the building’s architectural integrity.
The apology did little to repair the relationship between the bar owner and Crown Heights residents. Nearly four weeks after the open forum, district leader Geoffrey Davis held an emergency town hall where community members could speak directly with Brennan.
Residents shared personal stories of losing loved ones to gun violence and presented a list of solutions to pacify community relationships, while others offered to patch up the hole-ridden walls themselves. But the town hall eventually turned into a back-and-forth screaming match between Brennan, public officials and community members.
“I think it looks nice. People would come in and say, ‘Are you keeping that wall?’ and I said, ‘Yes.” And some people would say, “Are those bullet holes?” And I never went to a person and said, ‘Yes, those are bullet holes.’ They are obviously holes from anchors in the wall. That’s where the soda fridge was when the bodega was there,” Brennan said during the town hall. She apologized for “having a sense of humor” and maintained her position on the restaurant’s hole-ridden wall.
“I might [cover the holes] if someone actually gave me a really rational reason why I should,” said Brennan, in an on-camera interview with WPIX 11 after the town hall. “I own my business. It’s inside, it’s not offending anyone outside.”
(The Root reached out to Brennan for comment for this story, but she declined.)
For many residents in Crown Heights, Summerhill is only a microcosm of a history of exploitation and a little-explored aspect of gentrification. Crown Heights is 70 percent black, a share that has shrunk since 2000, when blacks made up 79 percent of the neighborhood’s population, according to the New York Times. And since then, the white population in Crown Heights has doubled.
The bar sits on Nostrand Avenue, which runs for 8 miles through the heart of Brooklyn, N.Y. This major avenue passes through predominantly black neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights and Flatbush and is beginning to house modern apartment complexes and new, white-owned businesses.
Historically, when white people with economic power enter low-income communities, longtime business owners and residents are priced out of their neighborhoods without having the opportunity to take advantage of new jobs and local luxuries.
In the case of Summerhill, not only do residents view the new bar as a sign of a rapidly changing neighborhood; many also view it as a commodification of black stereotypes rooted in a layered and painful history that has long plagued the country.
“There’s a way of discarding what people want out of their neighborhoods, invalidating that and saying it’s not important,” Anthonine Pierre, lead organizer at the Brooklyn Movement Center, told The Root. “There’s a way that that is absolutely anti-black, it’s anti-brown, it’s anti-people of color and it says, ‘Actually I’m just here for the cheap land,’ or ‘I’m just here to economically profit from your suffering and not to actually celebrate and build new things with you.’”
This doesn’t mean that nonblack businesses are not welcome in historically black communities. Pierre says there are ways that people can come from outside the neighborhood and start businesses, cultural institutions and community establishments with people who live there.
“We’re talking about not just sort of dropping down like a spaceship and expecting everyone to just follow your lead,” Pierre said. ‘We’re talking about doing away with that kind of arrogance and saying, ‘Look, I’m new to the neighborhood, I want to start something, and I want to build it with the people who live here so it reflects the interests of the people who live here.’”
Many Crown Heights residents do not believe Summerhill can survive the tense climate, given the response from the community. Since residents began to protest the sandwich shop in July, the restaurant’s Yelp reviews have plummeted. Organizers Stephens, Ayala and Villaran would like to see the bar close its doors but ultimately want the decision to be in the hands of longtime Crown Heights residents.
“If the members of the community are telling you you’ve done something wrong and you’ve only been there for a year or two and they’ve been there for 50 years plus, you need to listen to them,” said Villaran.
“Covering up the wall and taking down the statues are just symbolic,” Ayala told The Root.
“There is a strength in symbolism and making motions like that, but it’s at no cost to the people whose history is not affected by taking down those statues—the same way that it costs her nothing to cover up that wall and stop all the controversy,” Ayala continued.
“Like I said over there at the town hall, this is only a microcosm of what’s happening in this greater city, number one, but really in the nation,” Ayala said.