Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

A Fight to the Throne: Can the 'Old' Crown Heights Reclaim its Reign?

Local Journalism student Emily Toliver writes about the creative ways Crown Heights locals are resisting gentrification and preserving Brooklyn's cultural capital.
Doughpe Cookies.

By: Emily Toliver 

It's a dark and cloudy day in Crown Heights, but a bright light shines through the window of one small business. Inside it is Mackenten Petion, Crown Heights resident for more than 20 years and founder of Doughpe Cookies, a hip-hop-themed bakery located in the central part of the neighborhood.

The day's batch has been bought out, leaving no cookies for potential buyers, but Petion remains open and doesn’t shy away from sharing the shop's main “lineup.” That being “Ooo La La German Chocolate,” “Baby Dee Cookie Milk Chocolate Chip,” “Hawaiian Sophie,” “Buttasoft Jelly,”and “Frank White,” along with the “feature” of the week, “Honey Dip.”

All referencing iconic lyrics from the expansive discography of the hip-hop genre, yet when asked about the changes to the Crown Heights area, the sweet excitement subsided. Petion responded, “I feel like the city’s not doing enough to keep the culture going, and that’s a major issue for me.”

With the rise of gentrification, it seems like the majority of the neighborhood also feels this loss of culture. And, while living and business ownership has become more expensive, the community of Crown Heights is not backing down. Instead, they’ve found three ways they can work together to combat these drastic changes.  

“The neighborhood came together to support, to tell you the truth, cause everyone and their mother’s putting the word out,” Petion said.

Just days after the store's grand opening, Petion expressed his gratitude for the neighborhood’s welcoming. Being an avid hip-hop fan, along with celebrating the 50th anniversary of its existence and history, Petion is bringing something fresh in hopes of bringing people together.

“The fact that hip-hop is 50 shows you we’ve crossed three generations in this music. That means grandparents have history with this music the same way that young kids have history — that’s beautiful. That threadline, that running through line, is beautiful.”

And the ties of the genre to the borough run even deeper. Although originating in the Bronx during the 1970’s, hip-hop made its way to Brooklyn shortly after and was used as a way for communities to express their feelings towards socio-political matters within the country and their homes. Turning hard times into creative think pieces that allowed people to share their experiences and connect with others.

Petion stated, “Cause the commonality was disenfranchisement and people of color. So, any place that was occurring you could relate to hip-hop.” This relation has kept communities connected and now remains the second most listened-to form of music in the United States, according to the Headphones Addict website. 

The influx of people moving to Brooklyn has prompted the rise of luxury apartments alongside rent increases for small businesses. This year's data from MNS real-estate firm shows the spike in housing prices by a 20.58% increase in rent costs through their year-over-year price change overview. And on top of that, Brooklyn saw an 80% revenue drop in 2019, 39% of that primarily caused by owed rent, according to a survey conducted by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. 

Because of these spikes, businesses have chosen to band together, not only to establish a sense of fellowship within the neighborhood, but also to provide support for each other. Petion continued to speak on his experience stating, “I’ll go to this corner store right now with no money in my hands, and I’ll take out milk, I’ll take out eggs, cause she knows I’m right there and I have my team send her cookies over, if her daughters need something I help them, like collaboration over competition.”

He continued, “If you go down Nostrand, you’re gonna see all sorts of little signage of people and companies and things that they represent within the neighborhood.” Further pushing their collective effort to unite the community. 

Not far from Doughpe Cookies is 1148 Union Street, home to one of the many BK Community Fridges, a public refrigerator pantry that provides access to free food 24 hours a day through donations made by community members, businesses and partners of the neighborhood. This chain of refrigerators spread across the borough has boosted the fight against food insecurity which affects 30% of Brooklyn residents, according to a poll conducted by Change Research in 2022.

And, as the colorful fridge states, “Community Care Comes From The Ground Up,” and this nourishing alternative is doing just that. With the help of locals and more these fridges have extended a welcoming hand to those in need and have worked to restore allyship within the neighborhood. 

Community Fridge
Community Fridge. Photo: Emily Toliver. 

The local Community Boards have also stepped in to counter gentrification, “The community knows the signs, the community is very much aware,” said Nikiesha Hamilton, lobbyist and government consultant working closely with organizations surrounding the African diaspora, also born and raised in Crown Heights.

She continued by giving an example of ways each Community Board tries to limit omens of gentrification, stating, “They’re like ‘We don’t want bike lanes, we don’t want bike lanes,’ they see bike lanes as a signifier — one that reads 'The gentrifiers are coming.'" And this sign is one of the onset indications of the rampant upsurge in many major areas. 

After speaking with Fred Baptiste, chairperson for Community Board 9, he spoke to the relevance of the issue by sharing questions some members have before making any final decisions stating, “What are the impacts and implications of that, so if we say yes to the bike lanes what else are we saying yes to?” 

 “I don’t think the community can go back to where it was before, but I think the community can fight to preserve and develop what is now.”

The community of Crown Heights knows that after so much development, it’s not easy to say that things will go back to the way they were, but the community still finds ways to keep its long history and culture alive.

Hamilton finished, “That makes me a little scared but also hopeful because we are fighting people and I think we’re gonna fight to stay here and prove that Brooklyn will not be Brooklyn without us.”

 Emily Toliver is a current student at The New School studying Literary Studies and Journalism.