April 4, 2007
New York Times
When YaYa Ceesay’s dream of opening a soul food restaurant came true in 2003, business, at first, boomed. He had found a great spot along an up-and-coming stretch of Atlantic Avenue across the street from the Brooklyn House of Detention and quickly built a strong group of regulars.
He opened the doors each day at 6 a.m., and from then until after the lunch crowd headed back to work, his restaurant, the Soul Spot, was packed with correction officers, prisoners’ families, neighborhood residents and passers-by. Fish and grits, chicken and waffles, scrambled eggs, salmon cakes — you name it he served it.
But in June 2003, three months after his glorious introduction to Brooklyn, the jail closed and the breakfast crowd disappeared. Three months after that, Mr. Ceesay was forced to trim the Soul Spot’s menu, and he moved back its daily start time to just before noon.
When the prison population left, he said, about 20 percent of his customers went with it.
Now that the city’s Department of Correction has said that it wants to reopen the jail and double the inmate population in five years, Mr. Ceesay and many other nearby business owners are saying they will be more than happy to provide food or services to those who will work there or who will visit the people held within.
“The jail being there was really good for us,” Mr. Ceesay said. “The corrections officers and all the breakfast they ate was a big part of the business. It was good for us.”
But not everyone is quite so happy that a jail that once held 700 inmates will hold more than 1,400 if plans become reality.
Some residents in the area said that what is good for the mom-and-pop businesses might not be so good for the moms and pops whose new condominiums, many worth several hundred thousand dollars, would be just down the street from the repopulated jail.
“Go ask the parents of the school kids who go to Packer who will have to walk past the jail on their way to the store for a bag of potato chips,” said Corey Baylor, an investment banker who moved into a State Street condo four days ago, referring to the Packer Collegiate Institute on Joralemon Street. When the jail closed, the area surrounding the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Boerum Place, where it sits, was trying to reinvent itself. It was an unremarkable neighborhood of gas stations and hunched old office buildings. Today it is home to some of the newest high-end apartment buildings in Brooklyn. There’s a sparkling new YMCA a block away from the old jail, a high-rise is being built next door and rows of condos line State Street a block away.
Mr. Baylor said the resurrection of the jail could hurt growth in the neighborhood. He suggested that the city lease or sell the building to a company that would be able to bring in the kind of money the community needs to nurture more residents.
Correction Department officials said they want to encourage the economic gains on Atlantic Avenue, which is why they are seeking to include commercial space in the expanded jail.
Those plans do not alleviate Mr. Baylor’s concerns. “If the jail never comes online, we’ll all be very excited,” he said. “If it does come online, we’ll be extremely disappointed. What about all of those people who bought condos here and were told that the jail would never reopen?”
Onur Aktulgali, manager of a gift store near the jail, said the Correction Department plan is “not good for Brooklyn.”
“Brooklyn is developing,” he said. “Nice places for shops, nice places for people to sit at coffee shops or cafes. The last thing we need is a jail next door.”
Ludner Jacques, who lives in the area and works at the Brooklyn Criminal Court building, said he has heard the buzz about the jail-reopening plan but does not understand what the fuss is about.
“It’s going to be interesting,” he said. “It makes me laugh, actually. You know, when you are paying this kind of money for a place, you don’t want to live next to prisoners. But if we can live here, and people live in this area, why not inmates too?”
From behind the counter at the St. Clair Restaurant at Atlantic Avenue and Smith Street, opposite the jail, the owner, Costas Costa, watched the comings and goings yesterday. Since 1968, when he bought the 100-year-old building where he operates the restaurant, Mr. Costa has served diner food to anyone who wants it.
“For business, it’s a good thing,” he said, wiping down the counter with a stained rag that was once white. “The area doesn’t like it. But we made good money with them there.”
Back at the Soul Spot, a few doors down from the St. Clair, Mr. Ceesay cut a few pieces of his prized meatloaf. Then he lifted his head and took a step back, chuckling.
“The neighbors act like the prisoners are going to be out in the streets causing trouble,” he said. “But they’ll be kept inside, in check. And we look forward to having them back.”