In Crown Heights, tensions flare around a beloved mural and a new restaurant
"There's blackouts, there's floods, there's shortage of gas — and there's Meat."
When rumors began spreading that a beloved Crown Heights mural — one memorializing late rapper Sean Price — might be wiped away, the neighbors mobilized. An online petition garnered more than 13,000 signatures, Price’s family members stationed themselves on the block to keep watch and local lawmakers began to investigate.
Meat, a soon-to-open kosher restaurant at 115 Kingston Ave. that had already made a bad first impression on the neighbors by skirting trash regulations and turning curious residents away, found itself in the limelight.
With tensions high, the involved parties gathered for a Tuesday night meeting. Community leaders and concerned residents sat down at Meat with the restaurant’s management.
As tensions flared, a revelation emerged. The lavish restaurant had nothing to do with the threat to the mural — at least according to a community leader who said he spoke with the landlord.
The owner of the property on which it is painted, he explained, is looking to sell. Someone advised him to remove the art on the side of the building. He started the process, covering up a different mural on an adjacent wall, which set the panic alarms ringing and the rumor mill churning.
Not only did it appear Meat was not behind the threat — the threat was over, at least for the time being. The building owner, through the intermediary, told the Brooklyn Eagle that he’s heard the community’s concerns and will not paint over the mural, which has stood at the corner of Bergen Street and Kingston Avenue since Price died almost four years ago.
The rumors, tensions and accusations of bad faith, however, have not yet been put to rest.
‘Someone’s painting over my mural.’
“On Monday, July 8, I woke up to a text from a neighbor,” Marie Cecile Flageul, a resident of the block who helped make the Price portrait happen, told the Eagle. “She said, ‘Someone’s painting over my mural.'”
That neighbor, with the help of local children, had created a large-scale piece of art on the side of a building, just steps from the mural in memory of the late rapper.
Price — one-half of the Brooklyn hip-hop duo Heltah Skeltah — died in his sleep on Aug. 8, 2015, at the age of 43. The mural went up that weekend, across from the site where Meat now stands. It includes a portrait of the late Brownsville resident, the Brooklyn Bridge and some of Price’s lyrics: “Use your head for more than a hat rack.”
Like the storied Biggie Smalls mural in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the tribute has drawn crowds from all over the world. It also serves as a backdrop for an annual memorial service held by Price’s family. This year’s service is just two weeks away.
“It’s a great thing for the community,” the late rapper’s widow Bernadette Price told the Eagle. “I know what he meant to the world as an artist, as a mentor, as a father and as a friend.”
On that Monday morning, the work of neighborhood children — which depicted kids playing, painted five feet away from Price’s memorial— was being painted over.
Flageul is the curator of the Museum of Street Art, founded in the wake of a whitewashed 5Pointz, which she co-founded alongside Jonathan Cohen — the Queens-born artist known as MeresOne. He painted the Price mural.
Flageul phoned Cohen to meet her on Bergen Street as soon as he could. Cohen asked the workers if they planned on painting over the memorial, as well. They said yes. Cohen positioned himself in front of the wall and said, “Well, you’ll have to paint over me, too.”
This prompted a “natural chain of solidarity,” Flageul said. At first, she and Cohen took turns watching over the memorial. From there, Price’s family members started showing up to make sure it wasn’t painted over. They were soon joined by other neighborhood residents eager to join the watch.
Since then, residents and community leaders had wondered whether the workers’ arrival had anything to do with the first of many “soft-openings” at Meat the night before — and whether its management company, Basil Hospitality Group, was behind the push to paint over the artwork.
News of Meat’s arrival first broke in 2014. The previously dilapidated corner property had been under construction ever since, with residents eagerly awaiting its opening.
It seemed as though, after more than five years of nothing there — nor at the nearby, still untouched Kingston Lounge, for which Basil Hospitality Group acquired permits from the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2015 — there was a light at the end of the tunnel for residents who’d long-complained of racket, rats and rubbish stemming from the site’s vacancy and subsequent construction.
At Tuesday’s roundtable, the mural served as a catalyst for a more significant conversation. Concerns ended up running the gamut — from alleged disrespect and discrimination to illegal garbage dumping and the claims that the restaurant hosted repeated “soft-openings” without the proper licensing.
Head of Basil Hospitality Group Danny Branover chalked the “soft-openings” up to menu tastings with friends and family — something, he said, he thought he could do — and something, residents say, made them feel unwelcome. Neighbors, who were unaware why they weren’t being let in, further claim to have been shooed away by an armed security guard who’s been outside of Meat since July 7.
“The sentiment of the community is that their rights are being infringed upon and that the legacy of Sean Price was in jeopardy,” said Assemblymember Diana Richardson, who alleged Tuesday that she, herself had been disrespected by Meat management.
Richardson, who represents parts of Crown Heights and Prospect Lefferts Garden, said that — after concerned residents approached her, showing her videos of the workers in question pointing at the Kingston Lounge and hovering around Meat — she was told by two respectful gentlemen that Meat had nothing to do with it, and that they were here to be good neighbors.
But, after going door-to-door with what she thought was good news, she was met by even more concerns — from the restaurant’s bad trash practice to its bad vibes. When Richardson stopped by a second time, she said Tuesday, she saw the alleged disrespect first-hand when she was told to leave.
“He said, ‘I’m sorry, miss, but you have to take this outside,'” Richardson recalled. “It is not our intent to not welcome new businesses into our community, but it is our intent to ensure that the proper respect is shown to the residents who live here.”
‘We’ve been attacked.’
“I’m being accused of something and I have no idea why,” Branover told the Eagle on Monday, prior to the meeting, in reference to the mural. “I don’t know what the underlying cause is. I’m all for arts and preserving history in the neighborhood. That building has nothing to do with me; it’s across the street. Why would I go around painting over other peoples’ buildings?”
“All we’re trying to do is build a beautiful facility, upgrade the neighborhood, welcome everybody and that’s it,” he said Tuesday. “I know there’s serious issues in New York — there’s blackouts, there’s floods, there’s shortage of gas — and there’s Meat. So I’m a little bit surprised that this is on the same level of urgency and severity.”
He also spoke Tuesday of alleged threats made to not just Meat, but to all of his businesses (Basil Hospitality Group also oversees both Basil and Bakerie). He later showed the Eagle a video of a man pounding on the window to the restaurant, and messages on social media about burning Meat down.
“We’ve been attacked,” he contended. “I have to prove that I didn’t do it, but I have no proof that I didn’t do it.”
Lucky for Branover, someone said they did.
The mural’s fate
“I called the landlord, and he told me straight up that he was the one who had the mural painted over,” 77th Precinct Community Council President James Caldwell said Tuesday in reference to 118 Kingston Ave. — the building on which the mural of the schoolchildren had already been painted over. “He told me, ‘The bank told me in order for me to sell my building, I need to paint over the mural.'”
According to city records, the building is owned by Mary Tavares, but Caldwell referred to the landlord as man named “Chi-Chi.”
“He said straight up he did it, but it had been posted on social media that Meat was the one who did it,” he said.
The landlord was not available to speak to the Eagle, but responded to a query through Caldwell, saying he was not going to cover up the memorial. But, supporters of the mural say they won’t believe it until they hear it from the landlord themselves. (Sources say the landlord was supposed to meet supporters at the mural Thursday, but didn’t.)
Mural aside, the conversation with Meat was far from over.
‘This is the worst that it’s been’
While supporters promised to post an update clearing Meat’s name, the mural was only the first order of business at Tuesday’s meeting.
“My grandmother’s church family lived in this building. I’ve seen the change in architecture of this building over my lifetime,” said Desmond Atkins, president of the Bergen Street Block Association. “I have been in this community all my life.”
Atkins accused Basil Hospitality Group’s business of “demolition by neglect:” illegally dumping garbage that drew crowds of vermin to the intersection, including the empty, landmarked Kingston Lounge across the street.
“Everyone here on the block has pictures of the repetitious way that trash is dumped — 20, 30 bags of construction waste, of cardboard waste — over and over and over,” he said. “I’ve been on this block for 45, 46 years and this is the worst that it’s been.”
While Branover promised to better oversee the waste his business produces, he told the Eagle after the meeting that he still didn’t fully understand how he’d become public enemy number one. The businessman pointed to an overflowing city trash can across the street. “And I’m the problem?”
He was standing with his security guard, whom he has adamantly defended.
“Security’s not a bad thing,” he told the Eagle on Monday. “The neighborhood can be a bit sketchy.”
At the meeting, he said he’d hired the guard due to the threats related to the mural. Residents, however, pointed out that the guard was there on Sunday, before the fate of Price’s memorial was ever in question.
The ‘elephant in the room’
At the end of the day, stakeholders stressed, nobody in Crown Heights wants tension.
Councilmember Robert Cornegy, who represents the communities of Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, echoed that, urging everyone seated at the table with him Tuesday to try and look past the “elephant in the room” after Branover was accused of only catering to the white, Jewish community.
“There are feelings at this table that go back decades between the two demographics in here,” he said. “There’s long history…that needs to be dealt with that’s not gonna be dealt with tonight. There are issues around the establishment that we need to make sure are taken care of.”
Towards the end of the meeting, State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery echoed Cornegy’s call for further conversation.
“How do we manage gentrification?” she asked the room. “This is a culture clash that we who have lived here a long time have to figure out how to manage.”
But, by meeting’s end, city and state officials had offered to help Meat obtain the proper licensing to fully open — so long as Branover agreed to stop operating in the meantime, to put an end to the illegal dumping and to train his staff to better connect with the Crown Heights community.
Stakeholders said that the business’ actions will speak louder than Branover’s words.
“We can’t put a date on when those licenses are going to come and when they’re going to open their doors,” said Assemblymember Tremaine Wright, who spent most of the meeting moderating, “but what we will be able to see is a progress report in terms of trash.”
Now, she said, it’s up to both parties to move forward together.
“The reality is, we’re all human in this space,” Wright said. “We unfortunately got off on the wrong foot and that means that we know the risks associated with our poor behavior — like if we operate in a way where there’s excess trash, or we’re policing them. The community doesn’t want to see this space empty with the lights off…and the owners do not want to have enemies of their neighbors.”
“There will be nights when [garbage] carting skips their business, it just happens, and there will be nights when they have a party that’s a little bit too loud,” she said, turning her attention to Branover, “but you need to have a relationship with your community so that they give you a pass in those instances.”
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