In 2016, Patti Jackson seemed to be on a roll. Two years into the opening of her Williamsburg restaurant Delaware and Hudson, the veteran New York chef and owner had racked up a string of accolades for her contemporary American fare. Pete Wells of the New York Times had given the restaurant one star in its first year. In March, New York magazine put Delaware and Hudson in its “Best of New York” issue for best comfort food. The restaurant had also earned a one-star Michelin rating for two years in a row.
Then, in July, the bad news hit: after months of reports, the MTA would halt L train service between Manhattan and Brooklyn for an estimated 18 months to make necessary tunnel repairs for Superstorm Sandy damage, beginning in 2019. Small business owners rallied and tried make sure their voices were heard. “There was a huge push in North Williamsburg to get out to the meetings,” Jackson recalled.
But restaurants notoriously operate on razor-thin margins, and ultimately, Delaware and Hudson was done in. In November 2018, Jackson announced that she would shut down her restaurant. In a press release, she attributed the closure to a bevy of factors: the current state of the industry, the labor market, the “inexorable changes” in the neighborhood—and the L train.
Fast forward to last week when, according to a new engineering assessment authorized by Governor Andrew Cuomo, repairs to the L line may no longer require a 15-month shutdown but could instead wind up being done on late nights and weekends.
Jackson described her immediate reaction as “pissed.”
“All of that build up and hype,” she said. “I’m still kind of processing it.”
The costs of running a business in New York, from rent to wages to construction, are already high, she noted. But the L train fiasco, she said, was the “;coup de grâce.”
“Talk about adding injury to insult,” she added.
For many small business owners in Williamsburg, the L was an economic lifeline. The subway not only brought in deep-pocketed tourists and customers from Manhattan but also the cooks, waitstaff, bus boys, dishwashers, store clerks and delivery guys that fueled their businesses. A 2016 survey by the L Train Coalition showed that of the nearly 100 small businesses in Williamsburg and Manhattan, 75% said their employees depend on the L train to get to work. Over half said they anticipated losing 25 to 75 percent of their business once the L train shuts down.
Even before the anticipated full shutdown that was to have started in April of this year, businesses last year were already feeling the effects of partial shutdowns on weekends that began in October.
As New Yorkers continue to digest the latest reversal and its repercussions, it is easy to argue that small businesses, whose pockets are often not deep enough to weather long downturns, have been hurt the most by the L train’s shutdown plan. Grant Long, an economist at StreetEasy, last year studied the small business environment in Williamsburg. In a report that came out in February, he wrote, “While residents of Williamsburg will certainly face headaches during the L train closure, the greater impact will likely be on local business owners, who may find it increasingly difficult to compete against the national brands capitalizing on their neighborhood’s reputation.” He concluded: “The L shutdown is temporary, but the resulting shifts in Williamsburg may be permanent.”
“A lot of businesses were worried about what was going to happen to their foot traffic,” he told Gothamist recently. Moreover, as Williamsburg’s cachet has grown, so has its reliance on tourism.
“A lot of people might complain about tourists, but in reality, they provide a really crucial source of revenue for entertainment and retail shopping,” he said.
In a city where empty storefronts pop up with alarming regularity, tracking business closures is difficult. Gothamist reached out to business improvement districts as well as the community board for Williamsburg and Greenpoint but was unable to determine if anyone had been keeping a list of businesses that closed after the L train shutdown announcement.
In an email, Paul Samulski, president of the North Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, expressed frustration and incredulity at the sudden L train shutdown reversal. "We're still quite upset about the fact the people have been making plans for over two years based on the MTA's original plan," he wrote. "Businesses relocated and/or didn't renew their leases."
Jackson was not the only owner to specifically mention the L train as one of the factors in the decision to shutter. In May 2018, Brooklyn Star, which was co-owned and helmed by Joaquin Baca, the chef credited with helping David Chang run his Momofuku empire, announced it would close after nine years. In a statement to Eater, the owners said at the time, “Increases in wages with more to come, product cost and operating costs all add up and make it difficult to break even, that and the uncertainty of the L train going down and how that will effect business were all factors.”
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After much deliberation we have decided to close The Brooklyn Star at the end of May after 9 years. It was not an easy decision. To our staff/family, past and present, who helped make The Brooklyn Star what it is Thank you. To all our customers & patrons we have loved being a part of the community and thoroughly enjoyed hosting and meeting you. Please come join us to say farewell over the coming month. Love Simon & Quino
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Baca, who recently opened a new restaurant called Teo in Bushwick, said the latest reversal “did make me scratch my head a little.”
The L train shutdown plan, he said, hit the neighborhood “on so many levels.” Renters moved out and glossy waterfront buildings that opened looked only half-filled. The character of the neighborhood began to change. Not surprisingly, business at his restaurant slowed down dramatically after the 2016 announcement, he said.
In hindsight, he said, the handling of the project “seems careless when you had so many people’s lives hanging in the balance.”
Still, though Jackson and Baca both said the impact of the announced shutdown was undeniable, it is hard to pin a business’s closure on any one factor.
In October, cineastes and Williamsburg residents alike mourned the end of Videology, a beloved cultural hangout which started out 15 years ago as a video rental store but later included a bar and screening room. Known for its themed-events that ranged from trivia nights to book parties to sing-a-long screenings, Videology drew a list of celebrities that included Paul Dano, Sam Elliott and Emma Stone.
At the time, Videology co-owner James Leet said he and his partner Wendy Chamberlain simply wanted to move on. “It just feels like it's the right time to pursue other opportunities,” Leet told Gothamist.
But Forrest Cardemenis, a film and events programmer at Videology, said that while he didn’t know whether the L train’s impending shutdown figured into the closure, “The entire time it was the elephant in the room.”
Reached through Cardemenis, Leet and Chamberlain declined to be interviewed again, saying that there was nothing to add.
But as an illustration of the growing concern over the planned L shutdown, Cardemenis said that at one point management began putting a question on their receipts: “Did you take the L train from Manhattan to get here?”
He said “yes” consistently made up 50 percent of responses.
But if they lost half their customers due to the L train shutdown, they also wondered how many they might gain from locals finding themselves without an easy way to get to Manhattan, he said.
By that measure, many North Brooklyn business owners who work in the nightlife industry recently said they’re not too concerned about the proposed night and weekend L train service suspensions, because most of their customers are locals.
“If the bridge and tunnel people can’t get in, then all our locals can’t get out,” said Mystik DaSilva, general manager of Radegast Hall and Biergarten on North 3rd Street. “And if they can’t get out, they have to go somewhere. I’d like to think we’re one of the places they’ll continue to come to.”
DaSilva did acknowledge, however, that most of her staff takes the L train, and the past few months of weekend closures have resulted in lots of last-minute “I’m gonna be late!” calls.
“We all know this is going to happen… so everybody needs to make adjustments and get their tails in to work on time,” said Da Silva.
For Jackson, the risk and uncertainty of the initial plan wasn't worth it. "It was either going to be something we could work with or not," she said, "but with the way things were trending I couldn't hold on to find that out."
Although irritated by the turn of events, both she and Baca said they have moved on and were at peace with their decisions.
“It’s spilled milk at this point,” Baca said.
Additional reporting by Shumita Basu.