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Mother Hen For the French of Smith Street
From France-Amerique
August 08, 2002

Bette Stoltz is executive director of the South Brooklyn Local Development Corporation.

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 wasn’t 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, it’s 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.

Too many?

Indeed, there are at least 30 restaurants of all specialties on Smith Street. On one hand, it’s 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 doesn’t 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 district?

Approximately, seventy five hundred French families live in the perimeter ranging between Bergen Street and Carroll Street. It’s a very recent phenomenon.

Remarks collected by A.Kh.

Translated from French by Elias Saber

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