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?


Hollywood Has a Big Ole’ Asian Problem and It’s Time to Get Woke

Where are all the Asians in Hollywood?

Whether it’s the struggle to find Aladdin and Jasmine for the live action version of the beloved Disney film or some downright questionable casting choices, Hollywood seems to be stuck in the 60s when it comes to representations of Asians on the big screen.

And this is what the 1960s looked like in Hollywood.

In Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Mickey Rooney’s cringe-worthy portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi, the Japanese-American neighbor of Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly, is straight-up yellow face. He is a bucktoothed, bespectacled and clumsy caricature of an Asian man. It’s not a good look.

More than fifty years later, it may come as a surprise to hear that despite the significant social reforms in the United States, Hollywood still hasn’t evolved very far from overtly racist representations of Asians.

From Yellow Face to White Washing

Major Hollywood studios (Paramount, Marvel, MGM, etc.) can’t seem to get it right and it’s costing them dollars and good will.

1. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender (2010) cast white actors to play three out of the four lead characters, all of whom  appear to be Asian or Native American in the original Nickelodeon series. Noah Ringer was cast to play Aang, the title character, which caused a not-so-minor shitstorm with the show’s fiercely loyal following.





2. Dr. Strange (2016), directed by Scott Derrickson, made the odd choice of casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, who is a Himalayan high priest in the original Marvel comic. While the gender bending twist can be applauded, the choice of Swinton–a white woman of Scottish descent–created a significant amount of controversy given the curious deviation. Check out this epic email thread between comedian Margaret Cho and Swinton and this last comment from Cho, “Asian actors should play Asian roles.” Duh.

3. Ghost in the Shell (2017), directed by Rupert Sanders. Where to start with this one? The film is based on the Japanese manga series of the same name that emerged in 1989. The choice to cast Scarlett Johansson, a white actor of South African descent, as Major Motoko Kusanagi was widely criticized.  In addition, the promoters ran a regrettable marketing campaign which ensued in hilarity and an epic roasting of the casting choice.

4.  To the delight of fans young and old alike, Disney is planning to release a live action version of Mulan (2019). Even here, the casting of the lead character, Fa Mulan, a legendary female warrior from ancient China, who is, not surprisingly, of Chinese descent, seems to be a challenge.

Before casting calls even began, a petition was circulated asking Disney not to cast a white actor to play the lead role. The petition garnered over 100,000  signatures. Disney formally announced that an actor of Chinese descent would be playing the title character. It is a bittersweet victory to say that, in 2017, an Asian actor will finally be chosen to portray an unambiguously Asian historical figure in a big budget film.

The Last Airbender, Ghost in the Shell, and Dr. Strange have at least two things in common: (1) White actors were chosen to play characters of Asian descent, and (2) The movies tanked spectacularly at the box office.

Disney, please don’t drop the ball on Mulan.

A New Hope

Outside of major Hollywood studios, there are a number of folks doing it right, especially on the small screen. Representations of Asians in TV shows from traditional networks and online streaming sites are complex, funny, and modern. In many of these shows, the lead actor of Asian descent is also writing the script, which makes a huge difference. And importantly, these trailblazers show that Asian actors in lead roles are bankable. Ka-ching!

1. The Mindy Project (Hulu)

2. Master of None (Netflix)

3. Elementary (CBS)

4. Quantico (ABC)

5. Fresh Off the Boat (ABC)

But there is still work to do.  Hawaii Five-O (ABC) recently lost actors Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park because ABC refused to ensure pay equity amongst Kim and Park and their white co-stars,  Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan. The series is also notorious for not having any significant Asian-Pacific Islander characters even though it is set entirely in Hawaii.  The continuing misappropriation and whitewashing of Asian culture results in disappointments such as the lackluster adaptation of Marvel’s Iron Fist (Netflix).

A recent Twitter project called #StarringConstanceWu imagines the well-known Asian actor from ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat in big budget film roles.

Let’s go out on a limb (not really though) and say that viewers are ready for their big and small screens to reflect the people that exist in real life. Hollywood, wake the f*ck up. It’s not the 60s anymore.