Local Residents Respond to the Summerhill Controversy in Crown Heights

Signs about the press release and announcing a forum are pasted all over the neighborhood. Photo by Alicia Kennedy.

Opening a restaurant in this town is risky, expensive business: Where will it be? What’s the concept? Will people like it? Who did you ask? The opening of Summerhill, a new “boozy sandwich shop” located in Crown Heights—a traditionally working-class, African-American, West Indian, and Hasidic Jewish neighborhood in the throes of rapid gentrification—has highlighted that last question, which is often missing from the marketing plans of entrepreneurs like Summerhill’s Becca Brennan, a “reformed corporate tax attorney.”

On Monday, the restaurant’s owners issued a media blast to highlight the restaurant’s street chic: wine bottled in 40-ounce bottles, recalling the urban mythos of Black men on corners with malt liquor, and $12 cocktails displayed against a “bullet hole-ridden wall,” recalling the bar’s supposed past as a spot to purchase illegal guns.

The blast worked. Summerhill got attention. Gothamist and Eater reported on Brennan’s decision to use racial stereotypes and a history of violence as a cheerful marketing campaign, just as intended. But neighborhood folks past and present went off, a fact that seemed to surprise Brennan. As many took to Twitter or posted flyers around the neighborhood in protest, she defended the advertising, at first, even joking about it on her personal Instagram account. She missed the fact that beneath the collective anger was the clear, painful understanding that Crown Heights residents, especially the ones who are not white, were never the intended audience for Summerhill. This failure to engage with the existing community, and, more egregious, the decision to dehumanize it so as to be a mere prop, is another example of how restaurants and bars have become both markers and battlegrounds of gentrification and inequality in an increasingly divided city.

“It’s not just about gentrification,” said Laurie Prendergast, a former teacher and 17-year resident of Crown Heights. “Enough of my (black and brown) neighbors own their homes, have good jobs and have mainstream consumer tastes and desires, whether it’s for clean streets or a variety of restaurants where you can sit down or a nearby place to have a drink on a second or third date. It’s about being displaced as these amenities come to the neighborhood… My building is part of an affordable housing project, so we had to go through an income certification and are rent-stabilized… There will always be working poor people on this block—but now, we can’t get a $4 West Indian plate or a $3 draft beer or… a fried egg sandwich for $2 plus coffee. We have to go farther and farther away just to have these simple things that we can afford.”

Neighborhood residents Jonathan Villaran, an administrative receptionist originally from Washington Heights, and Justine Flutes, a musician and arts administrator, are organizing a community dialogue about these issues to take place in Crown Heights on Saturday, July 22: “Exploiting a neighborhood that has struggled with poverty, violence and more is not a good way to open a ‘hip, vibrant bar’ for everyone. You’re reminding members of the community of a troubled history and making light of a darker time.”

Brennan has since apologized for the campaign that unintentionally minimized gun violence, as well as her comments defending it, stating that her intentions were misinterpreted. Still, the Instagram profile photo for Summerhill features a Black man standing before the fake bullet-hole-ridden wall holding up a sign that reads “day drinking.”

“Saturday’s forum is a way to discuss the grievances between the Crown Heights community and Summerhill and its patrons,” Flutes said. “We have spoken with staff members of Summerhill… and at the time of our discussion, they were open to participating in the dialogue.”

For writer LaToya Jordan, community dialogue is great, but only if it yields change. Jordan grew up two blocks from what is now Summerhill, between Nostrand and New York Avenues. “I’m glad the owner has apologized and plans to talk to neighbors about her business being a better neighbor,” she says, “but shouldn’t she have done that before she opened?”