Photography by Randy Smith and text by Taylor Smith
Twenty-five years ago this summer, Crown Heights was a neighborhood divided. When a Hasidic male driver struck and killed a young black child in August 1991, TIME called the ensuing fallout between the neighborhood’s dominant ethnic groups “the city’s worst racial violence since the outbreak that followed Martin Luther King’s assassination.” Walking through Crown Heights today, such tension and violence are hard to fathom.
The 2016 version of Crown Heights is one actively undergoing rapid gentrification, and as such it’s a melting pot of hipsters and old-timers alike. Franklin Avenue, the main thoroughfare once known for drugs and crime, now flourishes with new business and earns its own trendy New York guides. And yet, the neighborhood retains a sense of community. Just last year, New York Times Real Estate featured the predominantly Caribbean- and African-American neighborhood, branding it “Crown Heights, Where Stoop Life Still Thrives.” Curious to learn what makes this storied neighborhood so special, we took to the streets (and stoops) of Crown Heights, to see the faces of a changing community.
Crown Heights’ picturesque brownstones, like these on Park Place between Franklin and Bedford Avenues, undoubtedly contribute to the major real estate boom the neighborhood has experienced over the past few years.
Naqueba and Andre have lived in Crown Heights for about four years, during which they’ve spent plenty of time out on their stoops, enjoying a front-row seat to a changing neighborhood. Naqueba says the change has been a mixed experience. It’s brought new businesses and a greater sense of safety to a once drug-infested Franklin Avenue, but there are fewer family-owned operations.
Cola, pictured walking down Prospect Place, is another Crown Heights newcomer who has noticed a “dramatic change” in the business landscape and local demographic over the years, but appreciates that her chosen pocket of Brooklyn has held onto a feeling of community. Her canine friend Chloe, who fears stoops, could do without that particular aspect of the neighborhood culture.
Friends and recent residents Martine (L) and Nicole (R), on the other hand, are so comfortable on Nicole’s stoop at Sterling and Franklin that they ordered pizza to it on a sweltering Saturday afternoon.
An equally essential component of Crown Heights culture: the street vendors, who line the sidewalks peddling West Indian trinkets.
Lion, who “doesn’t trust the Facebook”—and so required some persuading to pose—sells his fare on the weekends, working with autistic children for the Evelyn Douglin Center for Serving People in Need during the week. A 20-year resident, he recalls the tougher times vividly: “When Franklin was Franklin, it wasn’t easy. It was rough.”
Walk down Franklin Ave today, and “rough” hardly comes to mind. The avenue, here intersecting with Sterling Place, now teems with new energy and establishments.
The brains behind artist showroom/incubator Brooklyn Brand Collective, which recently opened a pop-up on Franklin between Sterling and Park places, Israel David is one of many diversifying the Crown Heights marketplace. “The idea was to bring emerging brands together and streamline the production, like a one-stop shop.”
23-year-old Kenny, who was manning the table and may also run the art department, but was “not sure,” has lived in the area for around 10 years. “This may sound shady, but it used to have a lot more black people, and for whatever reason… but there’s more businesses now. And there’s always something about here that keeps the area lively, you’re always meeting people.”
Randy Smith is a photographer and photo editor living in Brooklyn. To see more of his work, visit his website.