The Real Deal New York

Funky retail strip develops on Brooklyn’s Columbia Street

By Adam Meagher | October 29, 2007 01:42PM

Last year, when Geoff and Lynette Wiley decided to leave Chicago’s trendy Wicker Park neighborhood for New York, they visited first to search for a new place to call home. The neighborhood they discovered, Brooklyn’s Columbia Street Waterfront District, west of Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill, is slowly but steadily making a name for itself among the borough’s retail streets.

“We rented a car and did concentric circles all over Brooklyn,” remembers Geoff Wiley, “and it was just obvious that this place was happening.” This summer, the couple opened Jalopy, one of the newest — and hardest-to-classify — businesses on this increasingly diverse street.

The front of the store features vintage guitars and banjos for sale, while in back a small performance space hosts roots music, a “vaudeville freak show,” and screenings of Godzilla movies; an espresso bar and music classes round out the offerings. In August, the owners (who also live upstairs) were married inside the store; the party that followed spilled out onto the street.

Jalopy seems right at home on Columbia Street, where an eclectic mix of small shops and restaurants has evolved over half a mile from the nearest subway stations. The neighborhood extends from Atlantic Avenue, its northern boundary, south to Hamilton Avenue and the entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. The waterfront to the west affords striking views of Lower Manhattan and Governors Island, and its piers have been the site of port activity since the 19th century.

To the east, the sunken Brooklyn-Queens Expressway — known locally as “the trench” — separates the area from its more genteel neighbors and contributes to a strong local identity. Columbia Street was one of Brooklyn’s busiest commercial streets during the heyday of the ports, a place of crowds and street vendors.

Starting in the 1950s, however, the area fell victim to a series of misfortunes, beginning with the movement of the shipping industry to container ports in New Jersey, followed shortly by construction of the BQE, and continuing with a sewer line project in the 1970s that blocked car and pedestrian traffic and proved disastrous for businesses.

According to Angelo Castellano, co-owner of the antique shop General Nitemare, the sense of community that came of such adversity is what sets Columbia Street apart. “Doing business in a neighborhood like this is totally different from the city — say, the Upper East Side,” he says. “There, it’s just location, location, location. Here, to do business and succeed, you’ve got to be accepted.”

Castellano and his brother and partner, Rocco, reopened the store, which focuses on mid-century furniture, a year ago. They say sparse foot traffic on the street, a frequent complaint from merchants, hasn’t hurt their business. “People are coming to our store from all over — Westchester, Long Island, Jersey, the Upper West Side, Tribeca,” Angelo says. “This is the place to be.”

Craig Hammerman, district manager for Brooklyn Community Board 6, shares the brothers’ enthusiasm. “Columbia Street is so edgy, I don’t know whether to call it ‘cool’ or ‘hot.'”

Either way, new retail continues to open on Columbia Street, especially in the two-block, tree-lined stretch between Degraw and Union streets. In the last year, newcomers here have included DUB Pies, specializing in Australian- and New Zealand-style meat and vegetable pies, and Panache Kids, a children’s clothing shop; soon a tapas bar called Mazzat will follow.

They join more established but still young businesses like the Mexican restaurant Alma, known for its rooftop garden, and Main Street Ephemera, where shoppers can find a 1950s horror movie poster or a button from Sen. Ted Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign.

Farther up the street toward Atlantic, three- and four-story brick buildings give way on one side to the port. Though pedestrians are even scarcer here, businesses like Freebird Books & Goods, the “Formula 1 bistro” Pit Stop and WinkWorth, a lingerie boutique, have set up shop across from the towering gantry cranes.

Union Street, which meets Columbia Street to form the area’s commercial epicenter, is also gathering steam. Union between the BQE and Columbia is a culinary block, with Neil Ganic’s Bouillabaisse 126 and Schnack, a comfort food venture from the restaurateurs behind Smith Street’s path-breaking Patois, sharing territory with 102-year-old Ferdinando’s Focacceria.

Toward the waterfront, Union is home to vintage shops like Bopkat Vintage and Stilo as well as the family-owned Union Max, whose co-owner, Rachel Goldberg, is also half of the duo behind the gallery/boutique Brooklyn Collective.

“It’s finally starting to do something,” says Goldberg of Columbia Street. “When we first opened Union Max six years ago, this place was dead. Now, there’s a ton more street traffic.”

But she cautions that the recent success may have built-in limitations: “Rents are getting too high for what the area can support.” Goldberg and several other shop owners pointed to the recent demise of a 2,000-square-foot pharmacy at the prime location of Columbia and Union as evidence that the neighborhood’s retail renaissance may still rest on shaky foundations.

At $20 to $30 per square foot, up from $10 to $12 just two years ago, commercial rents on Columbia Street remain modest compared with nearby Court and Smith streets. Local broker and developer Frank Galeano dismisses the idea that the pharmacy has larger implications — “He was a madman,” he says of the pharmacist — but he admits that rents have been rising faster of late.

Frank Manzione, who grew up in the neighborhood and owns its oldest real estate firm, believes that the same factors that isolate the area also help protect it from skyrocketing rents that would stifle its off-the-beaten-path character. “Hopefully, we’ll learn from Smith Street’s mistakes — the rents escalating so high that restaurants go in and then go out,” says Manzione.

Columbia Street occupies a special niche, says Kenneth Freeman, a sales director in the Brooklyn office of Massey Knakal Realty Services. “The retail environment is changing, but it’s certainly not mature,” Freeman says. “Someone who has an idea can get a space for a more affordable price than on the more established commercial spines, so they can afford to do something more creative.”

Retail prosperity on Columbia Street faces threats besides rising rents, such as an ongoing reconstruction of the street and sidewalks that has some merchants upset. “It smells like a donkey’s ass on this street at night,” explains a bartender at Lido, a neighborhood bar. “Our customers literally have to walk the plank to come inside.”

Margaret Palca, owner of the 17-year-old bakery Margaret Palca Bakes, says the project threatens to disrupt an already challenging retail situation. “I have a wholesale business, so that carries us along,” she says. “But as far as the retail, we have felt a tremendous impact.”

Still, agrees Palca, this is a new era for Columbia Street. “When I opened, my corner was a big hole full of garbage. Nobody wanted to walk on Columbia. Now, everybody wants to be here.”

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