Flatbush Avenue freakout: How a race-baiting hoax hooked Bobo Brooklyn, briefly
The former Royal Video storefront wraps around Brooklyn's bustling Flatbush Avenue, where it marks the boundary between Park Slope to the south and Prospect Heights to the north. It's right where the broad commercial thoroughfare busts diagonally through the perpendicular intersection of Sixth Avenue and St. Mark’s Avenue, both picturesque streets of brownstone homes and limestone apartment buildings.
For a moment, it seemed like this would be the spot where racial tension in this increasingly gentrifying area would break the surface and spill out. The thought tantalized the city, but now it looks like that moment has passed.
In this dilapidated vacant storefront, a 43-year-old attorney from Midwood and former manager at Tavern on the Green named Akiva Ofshtein saw an opportunity. Not far up Flatbush, in the direction of Manhattan, ground is broken already on the Barclay Arena, the future home of the New Jersey Nets and the site of developer Bruce Ratner's rancorous dispute with neighborhood residents and activists. The locals are petrified of what an enormous development centered on a basketball stadium would do to their neighborhood and, in some cases, to their homes, as eminent domain was used to snatch up some of the property for the massive project.
Ofshtein wanted to open a restaurant and bar, a big one, with a location and a vibe that would entice high-flying Nets ticket-holders.
If the arena galvanized Bobo Brooklyn's most emphatic and star-studded community-protest movement, Ratner's final victory appeared to have sapped the locals of their willingness to fight the coming changes to their neighborhood. Ofshtein's plans for a two-story, 230-seat nightspot with private dining room, backyard patio and occasionally live music sailed through early community reviews. Ofshtein’s lawyer informed the local community board in November that he was seeking a liquor license, a move that requires them to give a description of the business and which can result in close questioning from the Board. But Community Board 6 missed the 30-day window to vote to support or oppose Ofshtein’s application.
Ofshtein had already moved on to the next phase of the review, a hearing in front State Liquor Authority officials, before Community Board 6 even had its first meeting about his venue, which he was calling Prime 6. No one showed up at the SLA’s hearing on Feb. 18 to speak for or against his application, so the state agency granted the license.
“I followed procedures,” he said. “I did what I have to do. It’s not my obligation to walk around knocking on doors to let everyone know that I’m opening.”
But by this time, Ofshtein was marketing the new place—and not in a way that was likely to appeal to local residents. The restaurant's logo, pictured at one time on its Facebook page, featured a basketball and a link to a "Prime 6 mixed CD" by DJ Big Jeff, The Brooklyn Paper reported. (You won't find them there now.)
Photos of scantily clad women appeared on Prime 6’s Myspace page—a page Ofshtein told Capital he let a friend put together with little oversight.
Meanwhile residents were poking their heads inside the construction site over the fall and winter to see a mammoth bar, restaurant and lounge taking shape. Curious neighbors heeded the advice of a banner on the storefront that invited visitors to check out the restaurant’s online presence. Jaws hit the floor when they found the photos of writhing, provocatively dressed women.
“That was an alarm bell,” said writer Steve Ettlinger, 62, an author who’s lived on St. Mark’s Avenue for 27 years. “Maybe they are trying to bring a little bit of that Manhattan stuff to our neighborhood. The website painted a fairly clear picture that it was going to be a large bar maybe with a gentleman’s club."
Too late, some found his application to the State Liquor Authority for a liquor license, which mentioned how the restaurant cum bar would attract spectators from Nets basketball games when the Barclays Arena opens at Atlantic Yards for the 2012-13 season. The mere fact of his association with controversial mega-development was another strike against him in some people’s minds. The stage was set for a showdown between Ofshtein and the residents over a potentially huge, noisy bar.
Residents said they couldn’t get hold of Ofshtein to find out what his exact plans were for the space. Word spread that Ofshtein intended to open a gentleman’s club smack dab in the middle of family-friendly Park Slope. Fliers went up on streetlights around the neighborhood urging neighbors to complain to Ofshtein’s landlord and to speak against the alleged strip club at an essentially moot Feb. 28 community board hearing about Prime 6’s liquor-license application. About 40 people barnstormed the hearing to oppose Prime 6.
They had somewhat less to worry about than they expected. Yes, it would be open until 4 a.m. seven nights a week with outdoor seating, but exotic dancers wouldn’t be entertaining the clientele.
Ofshtein said that he never approved of or even bothered to look at the web pages after giving an “acquaintance” permission to build the sites for free. After the outrage at the meeting, the websites were dismantled.
“This all could have been so easily avoided,” said Jim Vogel, a spokesman for State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, who represents Park Slope. He said her office was inundated with dozens of phone calls about the bar, more than any they’ve received on a nightlife issue.
“Why did these rumors get started? Because there’s been a lack of communication,” he said.
BUT THE SITUATION WAS ABOUT TO GET MUCH WORSE.
Two days after the moot community board hearing, an online petition unleashed a racial dimension that had been absent from the controversy. The petition, signed by a “Jennifer McMillen,” urged the owner to “embrace indie music” over a “full-on hip hop club,” although there hadn’t been any previous discussion of it being a rap lounge.
“It's not ‘racist’ to equate hip-hop with an elevated crime rate vis-a-vis other types of musical genres - It's just a statistical fact that crime is more likely to occur among urban audiences than among audiences of other demographics,” the petition read.
The petition gave fodder to young people who view Park Slope as a wealthy neighborhood barreling dangerously toward the suburban, elitist and even racist tendencies of the storybook suburban middle-American town, doubly hypocritical for its stylish adherence to limousine-liberal platitudes.
“If you read between the lines, the none-too-subtle message is that she'd rather have white guys in flannels standing around her patio than hard hittin' brothas with blow-torches and pairs a' pliers,” wrote Benjamin Leo on the local blog, Fucked in Park Slope. And this: "Sorry Park Slope: this is the kind of thing that makes me want to move to NJ and live in a white community that ADMITS they're racist."
Patch.com broadcast the petition, and the reaction on local blogs, launching the story into citywide and, ultimately, national and international news outlets.
But reporters looking for the movement behind the petition were soon frustrated. We could not find "Jennifer McMillen," or any record of her belonging to any local or neighborhood group, or any prior record of her living in Brooklyn. (Neither could The Wall Street Journal.)
Nor could neighbors remember the name from any neighborhood activities or organizations, or help indentify or locate her. And yet, suddenly, this lawyer from Midwood, who had never envisioned a "hip hop club," looked like the victim of rabid and rapidly institutionalizing racism in the swiftly-upward-moving (and increasingly white) area around Flatbush Avenue.
“The music thing is an aberration. That was never ever a concern of any of our neighbors,” said Steve Ettlinger. “It’s a complete distraction. It’s a free-for-all and an indictment of the web.”