Hen For the French of Smith Street
August 08, 2002
Bette Stoltz is executive director of the South Brooklyn Local
What did Smith Street look like before its metamorphosis?
Nothing existed before: the district was really poorly cared for.
The buildings belonged to small business owners, mostly Italian
families who arrived to the United States in the 1920s. In the 1940s,
Puerto Ricans worked hard and were able to buy these buildings,
but it wasnt until the 1970s that the population begun to
change. At that time, real estate agents were not concerned with
Smith Street; sales were done by posting announcements on windows.
And it was up to us to manage all that.
In 1984, the government funded our efforts to develop associations
for tradespeople and residents so that everyone could work together
to change the district. We concentrated our efforts on schools,
district artists, etc.
At the same time, it was fundamental to change the image that people
had of Smith Street. An architect paid by the local authorities
helped us restore the storefronts and the buildings. Since 1989,
our association has published a calendar (called "The Smith Street
Calendar") including a listing of all the shops.
When did French restaurants first come to Smith Street?
1996 was the transformation year for this Brooklyn district.
What was the impetus for this phenomenon?
Alan Harding, head chef in a Manhattan restaurant, came to visit
us regularly as part of evening courses that we organize for students.
One day, he spoke with an elderly Italian man, an owner of a building
on Smith Street, about his idea to create a French restaurant, "Le
Patois." This was the first restaurant, and it took time to convince
the owner that a French cuisine restaurant could be a success. Actually,
before "Patois", there was Jean-Pierre Marquet who lived
all his life in the district and opened his pastry shop on Smith
Street 14 years ago.
Why did you invest so much of yourself for the French people
of Smith Street?
I was only doing my job: to develop an urban community. But, its
true that I love to think that I am like a mother hen for them.
I am "francophile". My husband is French, and I go often
to France. When they settled down, I helped them to understand how
things work, for example, how to advertise for their businesses.
In the case of Jean-Pierre Marquet, I helped him to negotiate with
the gas-company... He needed more gas to operate his bakeries.
How do you explain the strong concentration of French restaurants
in this street?
I would not know really how to explain it. Surely, by a snow ball
effect... at the point that today there are too many of them.
Indeed, there are at least 30 restaurants of all specialties on
Smith Street. On one hand, its a good thing, because our philosophy
is that businesses contribute to the well being of the community,
but I wish that there was also a place for small businesses, because
they are essential. Smith Street became a district full of fancy
restaurants. In fact, certain inhabitants have begun to complain
about the noise.
Are there going to be more French restaurants?
Yes, a restaurant will open on Short Street, because there is no
more space available on Smith Street. The owner has a restaurant
in Manhattan. The district doesnt seem to attract other businesses
besides restaurants. Many French who used to live in Manhattan moved
here, probably because the scale is more human here, and the area
resembles Paris a little bit: the streets are not very broad, one
can cross from one sidewalk to another without any difficulty.
In your estimation, how big is the French community in this
Approximately, seventy five hundred French families live in the
perimeter ranging between Bergen Street and Carroll Street. Its
a very recent phenomenon.
Remarks collected by A.Kh.
Translated from French by Elias Saber