Tunnel Vision

How Brooklyn Bars Are Preparing for Life Without the L Train

Extending happy hour is one good idea.

by John Surico
Jan 17 2018, 7:30pm

Photo via Busà Photography

In early 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and policy proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here .

The Twenty, a clustered cocktail bar in Williamsburg, is barely two years old. Its clientele is split between locals, Manhattanites, and tourists. And its location is what many would call “prime real estate”: the corner of Bedford Avenue and Grand Street, just a few blocks down from a subway station that sees more than 27,000 riders pass through it every single day.

So, like most local proprietors, Jacob Willis has April 2019 marked on his calendar.

Willis, the Twenty’s owner, says his plan for the L train shutdown, which will eliminate service from Manhattan to the Bedford Avenue stop for 15 months, is to “diversify” his operations. He’s considering a coffee partnership with companies like Blue Bottle during daytime hours, featuring different roasters and beans every month, and inviting artists in to create an incubator-like atmosphere. And, maybe, lending bar space to a rotation of mixologists and intriguing food pop-ups.

“But it’s not enough—there’s so much competition around here,” he said, worryingly. “With the L train shutdown, it’s like, am I even going to make it that long?”

The strip of Bedford Avenue where the Twenty is located has some of the highest commercial rents in America, with an average of $350 per square foot in 2016. Even with the L train fully functioning, as it is now, turnover is constant. The impending shutdown will only exasperate that struggle to pay the bills, hitting right at the heart of what storefronts need most: people. As a result, the transit crisis has many small business owners scrambling to make plans for the "L-apocalypse."

National Sawdust is a concert and event space located three blocks away from the Bedford L train station. That proximity has forced Courtenay Casey, the executive director of the venue, to think a lot about how it can offset any potential losses accrued during the shutdown. “We’re going to be digging deep to know who our neighbors are,” she told me recently in the bright, cavernous performance space. “Celebrating community is something we always need to do, and the shutdown forces us to do that even more.”

Currently, the nonprofit venue’s programming includes residencies for local artists; free studio space in the summer; hip-hop every third Saturday; classical music every Sunday; and jazz programs for kids.

Moving forward, Casey said she hopes to work with more local artists and the increasing number of families who are moving to the area as construction continues, unfettered. Hosting events at nearby ferry terminals—which will see increased attention under the newly released L train shutdown mitigation plan—is something that should be happening as soon as possible, she added. Starting programs later, around 8 PM, could give residents time after a presumably longer commute; the venue is also looking at offering single and double events throughout the week.

The idea is to make National Sawdust more of a first thought to those living nearby who will be unable to quickly get to shows at, say, Carnegie Hall or another venue. “You don’t need to go to Manhattan to see a classical music performance,” she told me. “You can come here.”

On the contrary, detaching from a location can be of benefit for certain businesses during the shutdown, said Scott Davis, the owner of Teddy’s, a storied bar and restaurant down the road. That is why he’s launched a catering service ahead of the shutdown, which he described as “not being geographically dependent” on the L. “We can still do things in Manhattan, and elsewhere,” he told me, sitting at one of the tables in the back of the eatery. “Everything we do with lunch and dinner here, we can do there. And we can grow the service.”

It takes time to develop a catering business, Davis said, so starting one now—a little more than a year out from the shutdown—will hopefully give him a head start once the train goes offline, and the day-to-day foot traffic that Teddy’s relies on notably decreases. Because even now, he adds, the signs are becoming clear: Less vacant storefronts are being rented, and prices for apartments in his building are going down for the first time. “I’m a pessimist, and a realist, or somewhere in between,” he told me.

If business is slow, Davis admitted that food services, like lunch, could get cut, with less money to pay for employees. That underlines another major issue that VICE heard from small business owners: staffing, and how workers will be able to get to North Brooklyn without its most integral connection. “The staff in retail and in kitchens, a disproportionate amount of people live in the Bronx and Manhattan,” he said. “Would they want to add an hour to their commute? And would they have to be paid more? That’s what you have to start thinking about.”

Kate Buenaflor voiced similar concerns. Buenaflor has owned Soft Spot on Bedford Avenue for 12 years, and opened Kilo Bravo off a side street three years ago. The two bars rely heavily on staffing from elsewhere in New York City, and arriving late to work because of subway delays is already an issue.

“This is something we need to assemble ideas for,” Buenaflor told me at Kilo Bravo. “The conversation we’re having now is how to bring awareness, start brainstorming, and make clear that this is going to affect everyone. But also, how could it be positive?”

Buenaflor said the plan for her bars is to be more “event-driven,” by devising ways to attract residents who will be looking inward for leisure and entertainment. Like expanding involvements with organized sports leagues in the nearby McCarren Park, whose teams can come by the bars after a game, or hosting more private parties for both adults and kids.

Recently, Buenaflor said she started giving space to employees who had a side business, or hobby, with booths featuring artisan clothing and jewelry. That pop-up feature is one she hopes to expand, as well as partnerships with liquor companies for sponsored events. “This neighborhood will look completely different in two years. So how do you stay relevant?” she asked. “We’re going to have to get creative, and think locally.”

When I asked David Rosen, the owner of The Woods, how he was preparing for the shutdown, he, at first, said he wasn’t sweating it: the outsized bar in Williamsburg was close enough to other subway lines, the bridge, and the ferry; if patrons want to go there, they’ll find a way. He then added that the situation reminded him of six years ago, when the L train unexpectedly shut down a few weekends. Some retail stores, he recalled, told local officials that they saw upwards of a 80 percent drop in sales revenue then—a statistic that doesn’t bode well for 2019.

Should the shutdown start affecting the bottomline, Rosen said he’d explore a few options, like extending the happy hour, offering food-and-drink deals on weeknights and weekend afternoons, and hosting more local artists and 19-plus shows during the week. “We’re not really contemplating changes yet, but flexible if a need arises,” he told me. “Given that we’re close to the last stop, there may be a resurgence with folks from the borough who stop there and stay.”

Not discounting the havoc Hurricane Sandy wrought on communities in 2012, Rosen said that residents packed the Woods after the storm, looking to go despite being unable to leave their neighborhoods due to downed transit. “You move from being a destination, to more of a local gathering spot,” he said. “That’s what I can see happening.”

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[Update 3/26/2018: An earlier version of this article misidentified the owner of the Twenty. He is Jacob Willis, not James Willis.]

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