What's up with that?
EC: When Neighborhoods Start to Gentrify, Bagel Shops Aren't Far Behind
Credit: Photo by Ozgur Coskun via Getty Images

Ayanna Prescod has lived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, her entire life, on the same block where generations of her family members have made their home for more than 60 years. Today, she said, gentrification has transformed the neighborhood into an entirely different place. Friends and neighbors got priced out and moved away. The discount stores and beauty supply shops she used to frequent have closed, along with her favorite nail salon and local fruit stands. In their place, perplexingly, are a whole lot of bagels.

When a Dunkin’ Donuts opened on Eastern Parkway in 2009, Prescod knew the neighborhood was about to have a “major makeover.” Sure enough, in 2013, Yossi Cohen and Yuki Levinson saw the for-rent sign at a former Jamaican restaurant on Nostrand Avenue and decided to test “an untested market for $2.25 iced coffee” and upmarket schmears in a new shop, Lula Bagel.

"I'm not West Indian, and we’re not very cheap," Cohen told DNAinfo shortly after Lula Bagel opened. "We don’t have the prices of the delis in the corner. The items are a little more sophisticated, and the pastries are from well known bakeries, and the cheese we’re using are expensive, and the coffee that we use is premium.”

The business model, however, seemed to work. In February 2015, Michael de Zayas, the owner of several new businesses in Crown Heights, including a bookstore, a retro cocktail bar, and a hair salon, opened Nagle’s Bagels—whose bagel sandwiches features specialty products like apple ketchup and chili jam—on nearby Franklin Avenue.

“Really? How much coffee and bagels does the neighborhood need?” Prescod, the founder of OurBKSocial, told Brick Underground, a few months after.

Not nearly enough, apparently. That July, a husband and wife duo opened Bagel Pub a block away from Nagle’s.

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Credit: Photo courtesy of Nagle's Bagels

Coffee shops, Rosie Spinks noted in the Guardian, have long been seen as markers of “what everyone hates about urban change and gentrification.” First, the wisdom dictates, “come the creatives and their coffee shops, then the young professionals, then the luxury high-rises and corporate chains that push out original residents.” Last year, blogger Sam Floy studied that notion with the help of data scientists and found that a neighborhood was “up and coming” if it had “a high density of coffee shops, a low density of chicken shops, and low house prices.”

There’s no similar study on the presence of bagel shops in gentrifying neighborhoods. But there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that those businesses are part of the same shifts in retail that signal the arrival of new demographics and beckon more to follow.

“I haven’t tested this specifically but my very educated guess would be that there’s a response on the part of the businesses. Once they see the neighborhood changing they go in to capitalize on some of that change and it could then, you imagine, perpetuate the change or accelerate it as residents see that not only can they find a place to live there but there are amenities they care about,” said Rachel Meltzer, assistant professor at The New School’s Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy.

That was the case in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. In the 1930s and '40s, Five Points was the epicenter of black life and culture in Denver. But in the '50s, finally able to shake off racist real estate policies, black homeowners moved out of the neighborhood. Between the '60s and the '90s, however, as their clientele left, businesses closed and the neighborhood declined. Since then, demographics have shifted dramatically. In 1990, according to the city, the population in the 11 census tracts within a mile of Five Points’ central Welton Street Corridor was 39.6 percent white and 38.7 percent black. By 2010, the population was 68.9 percent white and 15.1 percent black.

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Credit: Photo courtesy of Rosenberg's Bagels & Delicatessen 

When New Jersey native Josh Pollack started looking to open a New York-style Jewish bagel shop in Five Points, he said many retail spaces in the Welton Street Corridor were empty and food options were limited.

“I literally just looked at the numbers. There were so many apartments in the area within a five block radius and nowhere to eat breakfast,” Pollack told me.

One of the empty spaces in the neighborhood was the Arcade Building, which was first owned by the prominent black investor and philanthropist Charles Cousins. After Cousins’ granddaughter, Dr. Renée Cousins King, granted Pollack a long-term lease, he spruced up the place, preserving much of the original architectural features.

“We got in at a time where the corridor was more than 50 percent empty, and it allowed us to get in at a low rent rate, which is the only way bagel shops or coffee shops that don’t sell alcohol can survive as a business. You can’t have a high overhead when all you’re selling is bagel sandwiches,” Pollack said.

After Rosenberg's Bagels & Delicatessen opened in July 2014, a slew of new businesses flocked to the area. In October 2015, 5280 magazine declared the neighborhood had “officially arrived.”

“Five Points isn’t ‘poised’ to become anything anymore. It already is. If you need convincing, visit Rosenberg’s Bagels & Delicatessen on a weekend and wait in the 20-person-deep line. Or tour the area’s dozen or so construction sites; they represent $250 million of investment by the city and private developers. Or eyeball the soaring median home values: $317,500 in 2013, up roughly 31 percent from 2009,” Kasey Cordell wrote.

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Credit: Photo by Trevr Merchant

Bagels, Pollack told me, are “for everyone,” and his goal is to “bring bagels to the masses, not just white people.” But some signals undoubtedly got crossed shortly after Rosenberg’s opened, when the shop began selling a hat emblazoned with the phrase “Tuning Five Points Into” followed by the six-pointed Star of David, causing some backlash in the community.

“It was more of a joke from their organization but I had a conversation with them that that leads to the idea that this community is for sale when it’s not. So we need to be sensitive about those types of things. I must say the owner has been very involved in the community— both the African-American community and the new emergent white population, which is most of his clientele. With gentrification we just gotta come to the table and have honest conversations and feedback,” said District 9 Councilman Albus Brooks.

In Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood, the opening of Eitan Saati’s bagel shop, Bagel Bite, in 1998 was a sign of both gentrification and Anglicization.

Saati moved from Jerusalem to the United States in 1985, and in 1981, along with his brother Uri, opened a bagel shop in Albany, New York. In 1998, Saati returned to Jerusalem and opened Bagel Bite in Baka with his other brother, Avi. By then, Baka was already deep into a long process of gentrification that began after the 1948 war, when many Palestinian, Armenian, and Greek homes became occupied by low-income Jewish immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East. After the 1967 war, the city’s borders changed and Baka became an inner-city neighborhood that attracted middle class Israelis. More recently, the neighborhood has become a magnet for wealthy Jewish immigrants from the United States, France, and Britain.

“There’s super gentrification going on in Baka, where the super rich, or the upper class, are pushing out the middle class that were there before them,” The University of Warwick’s Hila Zaban told me.

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Credit: Photo Courtesy of Bagel Pub

When Saati chose the location for his shop on Beit Lechem Street, it was in response to those demographic shifts. Native Israelis, he said, weren’t all that familiar with bagels, lox and, white fish at the time, but he figured that enough Western immigrants lived in the neighborhood to largely support a business based on the kind of food they already knew and loved.

“It looked like the population was changing,” he told me. “There were more people from France buying houses there, and a lot of Americans.”

In keeping, he taught his staff the English words for his products and instructed them to wear plastic gloves to cater to Western norms of cleanly food preparation. Two years later, once the shop was running smoothly, his brother Avi took over operations, and Saati returned to New York, where he now runs a new shop called A Better Bite.

Business at Bagel Bite was good in the beginning, Saati said, but these days “it’s not really doing that great.” Parking on Beit Lechem Street is hard to find, he said, and Western customers haven’t, in sufficient numbers, been willing to endure the inconvenience to get to the shop. His brother, meanwhile, fears the rent for the space is about to increase dramatically as property values continue to spike.

“I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but I think it’s been kind of at the end of the road,” Saati said.

The fate of a shop like Bagel Bite isn’t uncommon, Metzer said. She’s studied retail turnover in gentrifying neighborhoods, and she’s found that necessity services like drug stores and supermarkets are more resilient to change. Discretionary services, like bagel shops and other speciality food stores, she said, are more likely to “float in and out.”

“They’re part of the change but they’re a little more vulnerable to the change,” she said.