Can We Live: Summerhill Restaurant Aestheticizes Poverty and Pain in Brooklyn

Summerhill BK Misses the Mark

Gentrification: When superficial representations of Black culture and poverty replace actual Black culture and poverty. When Blackness and poverty become synonymous. Gentrification has never been about safety. It’s about aesthetics because, at its core, gentrification is reductive. There’s nothing more reductive than Summerhill, a new restaurant, and bar in Crown Heights–a majority Black community–that is asking Black and Brown people to perform for the same White gentrifiers who are robbing them of their homes and their humanity.

Becca Brennan, the owner of Summerhill (who I will refer to as “Becky” for clarity), shows us that violence and poverty are so readily consumable when served on marginalized bodies. On Summerhill’s menu is a “Forty Ounce Rosé” served in a brown bag. For context, Rosé is an historically high priced and elite wine, while 40s are malt liquors stocked in the bodegas of low-income communities. By placing this on the menu, Becky is repackaging poverty to be hip and profiting from it. She is in the business of stealing convenient parts of Black culture and putting them on display. By the same token, she is locking these communities into poverty. She is doing this by shifting the definition of poverty for her needs.

To be clear, “brown bagging” alcohol isn’t Black culture. Alcohol was hidden in brown bags to stave off police harassment. The men who brown bag at block parties are much more than poor; a lot of them are richer than most of us, on a real bank account level. They are also funny, pained, happy, stressed, and empathetic. But why am I explaining to you the nuances of Black lives in 2017? Walking into Summerhill is nothing like experiencing Black Culture. Instead, it’s like stopping to take a selfie with a dying brown child just to prove that you saved one.

A lot of us still hold childhood fears in our bodies. I don’t know what yours are, but for me, I still worry about having to find extra bottles so that I can make extra cents from the bottle tax to help my mom out. I still have a deep fear of poverty because it is a constant feeling of oppression that sits in my body. It is a feeling that has no room for simplicity. We also hold a lot of beauty. I am always thinking about my mother’s passions for poetry and her love of dance and music. So who am I? Should I be kicked out of my own body and have you replace me with a museum of only my traumas?

In Summerhill, you are able to sip on the culturally appropriated Rosé next to a faux bullet ridden wall built in an attempt to recreate the crime filled streets that were there before. I associate bullets with blood and death. I associate it with trauma. Becky associates it with a great time at the movies. I have family members that have been shot. As a society, we watched as Philando Castile was shot right before our eyes. There is nothing more triggering than walking by a cafe that celebrates the way some of our friends and family have died on your way to work. As a Black person, I’m tired of having to relive pain for a White person’s pleasure and monetary gain.

I almost wonder why this celebration of Black and Brown deaths isn’t an obvious form of racism, colonialism, and cultural oppression to everyone. One reviewer of the spot described it as, “Exactly what this neighborhood has been waiting for!” They are suggesting that before Summerhill and other gentrifiers, there was no community, everyone in the neighborhood walked with their heads down mourning for redemption. So long as gentrifiers continue to suppress humanity for the sake of profitable death, many people will remain gleefully ignorant. Then I remember that aside from the general ignorance, gentrification is the granddaughter of racism. And Granddaddy liked to go to the local park and watch us hang.

Summerhill restaurant is not a form of closeted racism. It isn’t even a new form. It’s complicit. I remember a Brooklyn that no one would go to. In fact, I’m from the Bronx, where a lot of my friends, who are also gentrifiers, still won’t visit. Maybe it’s because they picture me kicking away crack needles so that my kids can play on the concrete. Or maybe as artists, they won’t come to a place perceived as artless. Yet, here I am still living my best life as an artist. Being a mother to an artsy kid, enjoying my Dominican cafe and my Mexican tortas. We should not have to wait for our foods, clubs, and pain to be a White secret before it becomes true living. It’s already real for us. You cannot tell me differently.

There’s a Haitian saying that provides a different perspective on a people that are often described as poor or the poorest: Nou two riche pou yo ka di nou pov. We are too rich for them to call us poor.

Can we live?