I went to Summerhill, a self-described “boozy sandwich shop” in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, as an optimist. The cafe has ignited a fiery debate in the neighborhood that has raged since July, when it sent an ill-thought out press release highlighting an alleged “bullet-hole ridden wall” in an apparent attempt to burnish the restaurant’s street cred. (The wall in question, an exposed gray slab of concrete that admittedly adds a flare of aged character to the restaurant, owes the holes in it to shelves hung by the building’s previous owners.) After blogs picked up the press release, local community members quickly mobilized to call out the restaurant for capitalizing on the violent history of the historically black neighborhood, and the pushback hasn’t let up since.
On a rainy day in this week, I sat down with Becca Brennan, the owner of the restaurant. Brennan, who is white, seemed fed up with the controversy, and I legitimately felt for her. The echo chamber of social media is adept at turning small things into big things, and watching a crowd yell at this woman seemed maddeningly unproductive. Surely, I thought, a white woman in our country’s fraught political landscape would be able to recognize that she was coming from a position of privilege. I was hoping that we could have a straightforward conversation, and she’d be able to save some face. But that did not happen.
Brennan’s combative nature was immediately confounding to me. Perhaps, because I’m black, she sensed that I wouldn’t be entirely sympathetic to her cause. More than once before we began our interview, she cited the fact that she was a woman opening a restaurant as a point of difficulty in her life. It’s true, the majority of restaurants in New York are owned by men, and it is no small marvel that this woman, who only moved to Crown Heights two years ago, had gotten her business off the ground. But she remained defiantly oblivious to the difficulties faced by others. When I asked whether or not the fact that Crown Heights was a black neighborhood occurred to her as she opened and promoted the space, she seemed puzzled. “Did I notice that black people live in the neighborhood? Yes, I noticed,” she said.
The conversation was made more difficult by the presence of a man named Ken, an employee at the restaurant who seemed to act as an intermediary between me and Brennan. “It's so much money, and so much risk in this kind of business,” he said “And the fact that you can't truly appreciate that, and just like a little new contribution when there really aren’t many other businesses or safe havens that you can walk into without security cameras or stuff like that in the neighborhood, is just sad.”
I told her that instead of writing off the concerns of protesters I wanted to come to some sort of understanding about how, wittingly or not, places like Summerhill contribute to the displacement of longtime neighborhood residents, many of whom are people of color.
“They're angry and they have legitimate anger at, you know, the forces that be that do cause displacement that do cause gentrification to push certain people out of their homes,” Brennan said. “But I'm not a landlord. I'm actually a tenant two times over in this neighborhood. I'm not their landlord.”
I brought up the hostile town-hall meeting about the restaurant that took place a few weeks prior, during which many community members appeared frustrated that Brennan appeared so unapologetic.
“To be honest, I feel like I might be seen as an easy target, and they might be frustrated that it turns out I'm not an easy target,” she said.
When I asked her why people might think she was an easy target, she responded: “If they actually look into the facts, I have nothing to hide. I have no skeletons in my closet.”
“I made a mistake with the press release and that was six weeks ago. I apologized,” she said. “I've been dealing with this for almost seven weeks. The same people that acted all calm, cool, collected at the town hall meeting also come outside my restaurant on weekends and yell racial slurs to me and my staff. So I lost my cool.”
I told her what I thought a lot of people wanted to hear from her, which is that she understands white privilege, that she on some level recognizes the systemic advantages she has that make opening a restaurant in Crown Heights possible in the first place.
“I understand and I want to help, but there's bigger fish to fry,” she said. “I'm not part of a huge conglomerate and I'm not a corporation. I'll help you if you ask me to help. Just don't yell at me. That's not going to go anywhere ever.”
I ask Brennan whether or not she’s seen a decline in business since the controversy, and she wouldn’t give much of an answer. She says she anticipated July and August as slow months in the first place and couldn’t tell. In the time I was there, several passersby commented on the restaurant. “That’s that place with the bullet holes,” a teenager told his friend as they walked by. “Some ol’ fuck shit.”