It’s lunchtime at Polski Meat Market on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, and business is dead. Again. An older woman makes pierogis in the back, while her son Adam Parys mans the meat case, which contains nine kinds of kielbasa, and another employee straightens the shelves. In half an hour, only one customer steps inside.
“A lot of Polish butcher shops have closed down now,” says Parys, who is 23 and manages the shop, owned by his mother. “Business has slowed down… There used to be a lot of shoe shops here too, clothing stores, other Polish shops… They’re gone.”
For decades, Manhattan Ave. was populated by mom-and-pop shops, 99-cent stores and ethnic restaurants. As Greenpoint gentrified, the street stayed much the same, while Franklin Street became the strip for trendy new restaurants, boutiques and bars. But now on Manhattan Ave., upscale restaurants, bars and coffee shops have appeared where empty storefronts once sat, and the scrappy street suddenly looks as if it could be Greenpoint’s new destination boulevard.
On this particular Wednesday, it’s hard to find a table at lunchtime at Calexico, a Cal-Mex restaurant, or at Fornino, a pizzeria — both of which opened branches on Manhattan Ave. after opening more popular locations in Brooklyn or Manhattan. Other chains have picked up spots on Manhattan Ave.: Van Leeuwen, an artisan ice cream shop, Konditori, a Swedish coffee bar primarily in Williamsburg and Manhattan, and Scalino G.P, a version of an Italian café already in Park Slope.
In the last year, the avenue has also attracted independent restaurants and bars. First came Tørst, a Danish beer bar; then Beloved, Brew Inn, and Lake Street, a trio of neighborhood watering holes; and finally El Born, a swanky, modern Spanish restaurant, which opened just before the new year. Casa Blanca Group, a travel agency that runs a cyber cafe on Manhattan Ave, says it’s looking to transform part of its space into a bar. And a liquor license was recently applied for at 1103 Manhattan Avenue, though it’s unclear what kind of restaurant or bar will fill the space.
New leases aren’t going cheap. Michael Breen, a real estate agent with Douglas Elliman who covers Greenpoint and Williamsburg, says he recently did a deal off of Manhattan Ave., on Greenpoint Ave., leasing a Nordic-themed coffee shop, Budin, for $68 a square foot.
That’s not as high as rents over on Bedford Ave. (currently between $200 and $250 a square foot, per Crain’s) but it’s definitely an increase.
“They weren’t getting $60, $70, $80 a square foot before, and they are now,” he says. “Some of that has to do with Greenpoint Landing.” The Greenpoint waterfront development will include 10 high-rise towers, a school and a park, and will edge right up to Manhattan Ave.
North Brooklyn Realty, which leased the Swedish coffee house Konditori, said that deal was done for north of $50 and $60 a foot, too. The coffee shop replaced a cheap hair salon, one of a dozen or more stores on Manhattan Ave. that have closed over the last several years, making room for new businesses.
Polish-owned boutique Pretty Lady, for example, was recently replaced by a Bejeweled accessory store. The family that ran Zayas Appliance, a Polish appliance store that had been on Manhattan Ave. since 1972, filed for bankruptcy in 2011 and today rents the space as a three-bedroom apartment for more than $4,300 a month.
When Zayas shut, Y.K. Patel, the owner of Jam’s Stationery down the block, told Crain’s that he feared being priced out, too. His rent had just gone from $4,500 to $5,000 a month after his previous lease expired. This past October, Jam’s finally closed its doors. It will soon be replaced by Pro Health, an urgent care center, according to a local realtor.
Breen at Douglas Elliman says more closings are to come. “[Some businesses] are still paying 2000 prices… and when that lease comes up those businesses aren’t going to be able to renew,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of vacancies.”
But other longtime businesses haven’t budged. At Polonia Restaurant, which has been on Manhattan Avenue for 17 years, a portly Polish woman serves hungry customers helpings of Ukranian borscht, Hungarian pancakes and tongue at lunchtime against a backdrop of fruit still life paintings and embroidered doilies.
At the 60-year-old Peter Pan Donut and Pastry Shop, customers still excitedly call out orders for donuts and egg sandwiches and éclairs. Thomas O’Malley and Jennifer Case, who are taking a break from looking at wedding venues, lovingly clutch a box of the shop’s famous red velvet and honey dip donuts.
O’Malley, who lived off Manhattan Ave. five years ago but has since moved to the Upper East Side, came back to the neighborhood for donuts.
Case noticed the changes: “We were just walking down the street and saying that there’s a Brooklyn bar that just opened, there’s like a new — ”
O’Malley cut in: “A Swedish coffee place, which is totally a city place –”
“And there’s a super fancy Italian restaurant,” she added.
“But,” O’Malley said, “The original places still are the popular places, like this place.”
At Polski Meat Market, Parys says he feels okay about his new neighbors. “I don’t care,” he said. “The neighborhood needs some changes. There used to be a lot more Polish people living here. Now there’s a lot more different people.”
Elena Manich, a Catalan native and five-year New Yorker, is one. She opened El Born on Manhattan Ave. in late December. Where a crumbling Indian restaurant stood last year, the modern Spanish spot serves goat cheese croquettes and quail in spicy chocolate sauce.
“I saw the potential. The location is amazing, it’s so close to the subway, and to the park in the summer,” said Manich from behind a long marble bar lined with mezcal and Spanish vermouth. She described Manhattan Avenue as “the heart of Greenpoint,” much like Bedford is to Williamsburg.
Of course, Manhattan Ave. isn’t quite Bedford or Franklin Avenue yet. El Born opened up across from a pawnshop selling gold chains and broken watches, and next to Park Ave Shoes, which sells reliable Spring Steps and Clark’s.
But the street seems to be on its way. Jarek Czajkowski, a Polish real estate agent who was taking a break with friends in the Omega Realty offices on Manhattan Avenue that Wednesday, says Manhattan Ave. is following the same trend as the rest of Greenpoint. “The price are crazy, the valuations are just — I don’t know, I don’t know who is buying this,” he said. “It’s like it’s all on steroids. People are playing a couple million dollars for the shed.”
O’Donnell says he hopes the development on Bedford Ave. and Franklin Street doesn’t spread here too quickly.
“It’s like a delicate balance. Right now it’s just on the edge,” he said from outside Peter Pan, whose storefront read: “Today’s menu: Take it or Leave it.” “The cool part of Williamsburg is just the same people over and over. Greenpoint is a really good mix. I hope [Manhattan Ave.] doesn’t lose the mix.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post was revised because it incorrectly referred to Franklin as Avenue rather than Street.