Gentrification And The Service Industry
Taking Bedstuy Back, one storefront at a time.
"I've never felt so empty surrounded by a bunch of white people who didn't seem to know how to connect with me. I felt uninvited to the party sort of speak. It's one of the worst feelings I've ever experienced. I felt like the big "black" elephant in the room."
As a Brooklyn native, born and raised, I've seen The neighborhood I grew up in go from mostly African-American, minority-filled, disenfranchised, violent, and "ghetto", to overly expensive, favorable, restaurant, bar, cafe, gourmet wine shop packed, with triple a number of Caucasian residents. White people sit on the project benches and enjoy gourmet coffee and donuts before heading out for a day of drinking at their favorite brunch spot. Years ago these people wouldn't so much as a walk on the same side of the block as the projects, let alone sit in the built-in chess board tables, smoking American Spirits and rolling loose cigarettes at their leisure. For the record, I do believe that many of the changes that have occurred and continue to happen are for a great part very positive! The neighborhood is relatively safer, there are dining and nightlife options that never existed, however, I must ask one thing: Are these changes only due to protecting the interests of the new residents? Are the pop up of random police towers an effort to instill the feeling of protection to the people who already lived here? I think not. It's comparable to a venture capitalist protecting his investment. He's capitalized on something that's sure to make him money. Now he's got to make sure his investment is safe from anything jeopardizing his payout. This is the essence of gentrification. By definition – gentrification is the buying and renovating of houses and stores in deteriorating urban neighborhoods by wealthier individuals, which in effect improves property values, but also can displace low-income families and small businesses.
So the urban neighborhood of Bedstuy where I grew up is now saturated by gentrifiers who feel protected by the increase of police presence and safer environments, as black and latino communities feel threatened and displaced. I would have liked to see my neighborhood progress but by the terms of the people who lived here before. The reasons for the shortage of black-owned businesses and success in urban areas, in my mind, is due to ill-conditioning of the black mind, through years of systematic racial oppression and setbacks; an issue for another essay.
So you may already know how I am trying to correlate gentrification with the service industry. More white people equals more restaurants and bars, which equals more jobs for black people? Not Really. It's amazing how many new places open up, and not one employee is black unless they work in the kitchen. I am not exaggerating, just take a walk through Bedstuy, Ft.Green, Lefferts Gardens or Bushwick and look who's there more often than not behind the bar.
I'll share my personal experience. I got a job at a unique new concept situated in what used to be a tough west Indian, Caribbean, and African-American community. In fact, it's actual location was just a few blocks out of a 10 blocks strip of gentrification, where the sidewalks are lined bar after bar, restaurant after restaurant, with coffee shops and cafes, and not to mention a Starbucks! I will not reveal the name of the owner or name of the bar, but it goes without saying that they were white. The first couple weeks of my employment was everything that a new job is supposed to be. New people, new surroundings, you're feeling out the vibes, making early connections with colleagues and customers, getting to know the place. In my first week, I received a very passive aggressive email. It basically highlighted two incidents, one of which occurred before I even was finished training and the other just a few days after.
The first incident involved a customer who wanted an old-fashioned the "old fashion way." It wasn't until after I served him an old fashion, as I was told to do so, that I learned he wasn't satisfied with the drink. My trainer soon interjected when he learned the customer was dissatisfied. He immediately proceeded to raise his voice and inform the customer that the beverage director of the establishment was one of the best around, and that she designed the bar program to the T. I watched in horror as this bartender (who happened to be a good friend of the owners) argued with the man about how a drink that he was indeed ingesting and was paying for. The customer even made a point of saying that he should have his cocktail the way he wants it, since he's paying for it. The bartender snapped back, "Well I've lived here for the past two years, and there is nowhere on this avenue that is going to make the cocktail like that." That gentrifier pretentiousness made me sick to my stomach. I actually stood up for the customer, saying "Well, I've been here my whole life, and I have gotten an old-fashioned made that way plenty of times in this neighborhood." At that point, I had to step back. Here I am, the new girl, already stirring up the pot. The senior bartender had no right to argue with the man. He should have apologized and made the cocktail how the customer wanted it since it wasn't an impossible request. Needless to say, the customer never came back. After the man left, the bartender proceeded to curse and complain about the situation to other customers who had just seen what happened.
The second incident occurred just days later. A really good Stevie wonder song came on that I absolutely love and couldn't help but dance to. The bar wasn't swamped to the point I couldn't take a few seconds to get down to a Stevie record. In that moment, my barback who wasn't that great of a bar back actually, and a white woman — of-course — became very irritated with me. (I was the only black person in the FOH). "Excuse me but you're dancing is getting in my way!" Of course, I moved aside thinking she was joking as she stormed off. I looked over to the customer who had seen it all and jokingly asked: "She was just playing right?" He raised his eyebrows and arched his lips. "Yeah, she was just joking" I replied. The customer un-assuredly cosigned. I let it go and went on about my day. Later on, when it was getting really busy, I noticed that the barback wasn't being very helpful. When I called her out on it and kindly asked if she would be more proactive in helping me when we got extremely busy, she quickly snapped back: "Yeah well I have things that I'm doing too." And then she walked away.
Later on, I approached her and asked her about the dancing incident earlier. She tried to save face by saying "By all means, you can dance, but in that moment you were in my way and it was really annoying." As I find myself having to do often in this world, I apologized as I "hit the Shmoney dance" and promised to be more aware of the space. The next day I awoke to a passive aggressive email about knowing the cocktail recipes and understanding how they did things here. I was reminded of the recipe book stashed by the expo window, and that I should always consult the book if I was unsure of something. Ok, that's fair. The second half of the email was addressed to the fact that the support staff was not there to clean up after me. I was told that I too was responsible for busing tables, running food, and washing dishes as well. The tone of her email assumed that I didn't know the meaning of "support staff." It suggested that I was not doing any of the aforementioned things. I immediately felt attacked, pointed out, and picked on. I could see how the relationships my white coworkers had with my superiors were different from mine. It was not the ideal way to end my first week at a new job. This was the formation of a cloud that would loom over the rest of my employment at that place.
As time went on, I convinced myself that I was not bothered by the fact that my white coworkers didn't seem to click with me. What did we have in common? They didn't "get me". I told myself that I was here to make money, not friends. The female staff was definitely intimidated by me. I'm a black, beautiful, strong, confident, outgoing woman, who could make the hell out of a cocktail, entertain the guests, and maintain control of a bar at the same time. I often got looks and smart remarks. I could feel the jealousy, like a chill of a cold wind. My boss would snap at me in ways that I had never heard her speak to my white counterparts. I begin to feel singled out, alone, and disliked by my coworkers! To make matters worse, my boss would only schedule me by myself. Rarely was I placed on the schedule with the other bartenders on the busier nights. Naturally, it was a shock when I did work with the other staff, especially since they were not used to working with me.
I had never before felt more aware of my black skin in a working environment. I didn't feel part of the team. During prep time, before opening, I would literally be juicing fresh fruits, and the staff would be having a conversation that didn't include me. Sometimes I would interject myself, but it would only last for a minute or so, and my co-workers would go back to talking and giggling amongst themselves. At meetings, I would feel isolated. The staff wouldn't initiate conversation with me unless I started them. I remember thinking how do I feel like an outcast in my own neighborhood? I've never felt so empty surrounded by a bunch of white people who didn't seem to know how to connect with me. I felt uninvited to the party sort of speak. It's one of the worst feelings I've ever experienced. I felt like the big "black" elephant in the room.
As time went on, it became harder and harder for me to keep my feelings at bay. When my boss would snap at me, I would snap back. I've always believed that no matter who you are and whether you're my boss or not, as human beings, respect should always be given. She would dish attitude and I'd serve it right back. The ice was beginning to crack. It got to the point where a discussion was in inevitable and it happened. I was the sole employee to receive a six-month review.
During the review, I was told that my coworkers were complaining about the disorganization and cleanliness of the bar. They had complained about items not being labeled, dated, or put back in the right place. She mentioned that she would check the schedule every time she'd hear a complaint, only to find that I was the last person scheduled, which she deemed indicative that the problem was me. I was clearly offended, because before she even said anything like this to me, I would subconsciously make sure that I put everything away where it belonged, finished my tasks and side work, and kept the bar immaculately clean, because somehow I knew that I would be blamed and I didn't want anyone to be able to say that I did anything wrong. I'd say to myself "let me restock this wine and liquor because I know they going to blame me if I don't." After listening to my boss pin the entire disorganization of her bar on me, and telling me that there were numerous emails between her and her business partner about my name coming up over and over again as the culprit over several months, (which she did not present at all by the way), I simply asked her to give me an example of these said incidents. When she told me about something that I supposedly did, I quickly informed her of the exact location where that misplaced item belonged down to the inch, and I asked her why would I put such a thing in such a place? I also reminded her of just how unorganized the bar was to begin with, to which she reluctantly agreed, and gave a pathetic excuse by taking away her own accountability. She quickly rejected my defense by saying, "this defeats the whole purpose of me telling you about one incident if you're just going to tell me why it isn't your fault". She had taken away my right to defend myself. How could she blame me for something I actually did not do? I wondered just how many of these incidents I was falsely being blamed for. When I told her about the discomfort and tension I felt between my coworkers and herself, she inferred that my feelings sounded like an " interpersonal issue" — A sentence straight out of a communications 101 course. This was her rebuttal. A case built on discrimination in a white owned business toward the only black front of house employee could have become a huge problem for her. She chose her words wisely. My boss couldn't allow herself to see the real underlying issue, and that is one of racism, which often seems to go under the radar to a person endowed with white privilege. Her biased position as a white woman blinded her to the very real issue of race, and how that most definitely played a part in my relationship to the rest of the team, a team that I did not feel a part of.
This bias is what I believe prompted her to elevate the other staff members. If "Bob" bought a plunger for the bar, we'd get an email blast about how nice it was of him to buy a plunger, or if "Nick" came up with a new way to rework a cocktail, we received yet another email blast about how great his idea was. "Sally" would come in and help come up with winter cocktails. I never felt welcomed to do the same. I had plenty of ideas that were put into play, but there was never a staff blast about what Fontaine had come up with. For the duration of the meeting, my boss alluded to the fact that the staff didn't know that I was the issue because she didn't tell them I was scheduled last. However, when it came to my feeling uncomfortable with my co-workers, she turned her words around and said that maybe if my professional performance improved, that tension would decrease. This of course was absolute baloney since the rest of the staff "didn't know I was the issue."
By the end of the meeting, I couldn't manage to hold back tears. I was so upset with myself for showing emotion when my boss didn't so much as ooze a bead of sweat. I felt weak and defenseless. I'm a perfectionist, so I take very seriously every bit of constructive criticism I receive, but when that criticism is rooted in nonsense, to which one has no defense, it's very hard not to become enraged. My boss encouraged me to speak with my co-workers to get to the bottom of any issues after I had explained to her about the dancing incident when I first started with the barback who had since been promoted to bartender. So that's just what I did. I pulled my coworker aside and pleaded with her for us to start over. I mentioned that we did not start off on a good foot (literally ha!) and that I wanted to be able to move on and get along as co-workers. What she responded was quite shocking. "Well, to be honest with you, I wasn't quite thrilled when I was brought on as a bar back when I am a career bartender. You see, I actually care about this industry. I care about this bar. I know how things should operate, and when I see things not running as they should it really gets under my skin." The nerve of this girl, I thought to myself. Now, that's "interpersonal." I cordially read her. "Oh I'm so sorry you feel that way, and I'm so sorry that we got off on the wrong foot. I just want to let you know that I 'actually' care about this industry too. I'm not sure if you knew, but I'm a college educated filmmaker. I'm not sure if I sent you the link, I can send that too you, but I'm actually creating a feature-length expose documentary called 86'd about this industry from an economic and political standpoint to cultural and historical context. You know, I actually want to be a restaurant and bar owner. I have business plans already in the works. That is my future, so I do too care about this industry. If you ever feel like the way I'm doing something is funky, and vice versa, let's communicate, let's workshop these ideas. Communication is key! You know customers can feel the vibe if coworkers aren't getting along so I definitely just want to move forward, and I'm happy we had this conversation, bring it in" as I made a motion for a hug. She was floored! A fly would've flown in her mouth if she left it open long enough. Here I am, this black girl from Brooklyn, who had authority over her when she first started, who she assumed she knew more than. Nothing made me feel better than to articulate my film in such a way that she probably didn't even know I was capable of doing. I can honestly say that this is one of the proudest moments of my life — where I stood up for myself, in the most epic way.
When I got home, I cried myself to sleep. The day that all of this occurred just happened to be when the moon was covered in a total eclipse; the lunar blood moon. The emotions I felt in that moment was everything from sadness, to shock, anger, to solace. I was deeply entrenched in my mind and my heart. My tears felt like they were burning. It was such a sensation. As much as my "6-month review" hurt my pride and ego, the blood moon brought to light my need to take these lessons and catapult myself to the next level, because at the end of the day I knew how blessed, and divinely guided I was. I'm sure I'm not alone in this personal experience of dealing with the service industry and gentrified neighborhoods. This speaks to the unknown discrimination that goes on in my neighborhood and others like it. It is also part of what I will touch on in 86'd. It's so important to me to bring awareness to the silent discrimination of the service industry, as well as abuses such as sexual harassment, drug and alcohol addiction, labor and wage abuse. This experience has only propelled my desire to tell an endearing, truthful, and honest story, and to become an owner who will never allow any of her employees to feel dejected or indifferent. One of the biggest lessons that this experience has taught me is that employee retention in a restaurant or bar is just as important and equally vital as great customer service.
I ended up quitting the job in a most definitely unethical manner and I own up to that, however, the weight on my back was released almost immediately! My body physically, mentally, and emotionally rejected that energy, and I could no longer allow myself to be subject to ill-treatment any longer. I hope this article gives people who are experiencing the same or similar situations, the motivation to be fearless and eject themselves from their poisonous working environments. You could be facing racial or sexual discrimination, sexual or verbal harassment, bullying or disrespect; whatever the case, it's still unacceptable. Gentrification is not only occurring in Brooklyn, NY. It's happening in states up, down, and across the entire country. The displacement of long-term residents of urban areas is an individual experience shared by multitudes of people. I think it's safe to infer that service industry is affected in each of these states. I am not the only black person struggling to get hired at the new bar around the corner, where there aren't any black employees working FOH. I hope this personal essay resonates in some way with anyone who reads it. I am standing to "take Bedstuy back" when I open my first wine bar-cafe, Snugstation later this year. I'm taking Bedstuy back, one storefront at a time.