The newest cocktail bar and “boozy sandwich shop” in Crown Heights hasn’t been around for long, but it’s already shaping up to be one of the most divisive businesses in New York City.
Summerhill, located at 673 Nostrand Avenue, opened in June, but yesterday, owners sent out a PR blast to editors at various New York publications, including Eater, highlighting elements of the restaurant that, to anyone familiar with the endless push-pull of neighborhood demographics in New York, read like a checklist of gentrification red flags and worst-practices. Update: Since this story was published, more information has come out. Click here for the latest.
Among other things, the press release advertised that Summerhill, run by a “reformed corporate tax attorney” from Toronto named Becca Brennan, was opened in “a long-vacant corner bodega (with a rumored backroom illegal gun shop to boot).” Alongside $12 cocktails and “cheekily wallpapered bathrooms,” the restaurant also seems to be selling a generous dose of self-mythologizing: “Yes, that bullet hole-ridden wall was originally there and, yes, we’re keeping it.”
That “bullet hole-ridden wall,” when fact-checked by Gothamist, turns out to likely just be cosmetic damage. "Just looking at the angle I don't know if that is possible that that's a bullet hole,” Brennan admitted to Gothamist. “We call it [a bullet hole-ridden wall] because if you look at the history, someone seriously said, 'Isn't that the place where we could buy guns?'
And then we were like, 'okay.'" (The “history” she refers to is an anonymous comment left on a community website post about the building.) Brennan defended this fictionalized historical narrative as, like the bathroom wallpaper, “cheeky.”
The stretch of Nostrand Avenue between Eastern Parkway and Atlantic is one of the most rapidly changing commercial strips in Brooklyn, as encroaching gentrification motivates landlords in the majority-black neighborhood to raise rents. In recent years, dozens of restaurants, coffee shops, and bars oriented to the neighborhood’s young, affluent, primarily white newcomers have opened within a few blocks of Summerhill. While some of the new wave seek to incorporate aspects of the neighborhood’s cultural identity and West Indian roots, Summerhill seems to be the first to specifically emphasize Crown Heights’ history of violence and poverty as a thematic element.
Besides the fake bullet holes, the press release calls the business serving $12 cocktails (including one called #VanLife, hashtag and all) an “oasis” and the “most Instagrammable, ‘let’s just crush some watermelon cocktails’ hangout.” The restaurant’s website and social media accounts also prominently feature Forty Ounce Rosé, a high-low mashup of the trendy summer wine with the iconic malt liquor bottling style which has come under scrutiny for appearing to make a joke out of African-American cultural stereotypes.
When Gothamist asked about the symbolism of her wine choices, Brennan — who is white — responded, “I'm not an authority so don't feel comfortable commenting on anything other than my business.” Brennan plans to serve the wine in paper bags.
An undated profile of Brennan published on Hello Living, the website of the real estate developer of her Crown Heights apartment building, says that Brennan (who was interviewed for the profile when Summerhill was still under construction) “plans to give back to the neighborhood she inhabits by hiring local residents and providing culinary training to those who may not otherwise have access to it.”