Crown Heights Residents Fight to Save Associated Supermarket

Issue 262

Protest planned for this Saturday at 1:45 pm after property owners announce April 7 eviction date.

Julia Thomas Mar 12, 2021

On an early March Saturday afternoon, Destiny Ciliberti walked three blocks from the Crown Heights apartment building where her family lives to the Associated Supermarket at 975 ­Nostrand Avenue to meet her mother to go grocery shopping. Outside the market, Ciliberti’s mother, Joy McGeary, lingered in the cold air with her two younger daughters, ages seven and 11, while waiting for Ciliberti to arrive, exchanging “hellos” with a market employee and fellow shopper near the store’s automatic doors in the meantime. The family had gathered to pick up a few items — snacks, spaghetti sauce, juice, chocolate chip Häagen-Dazs ice cream, and during this particular trip, bread for turkey burgers — as they have done e­very few days for as long as Ciliberti, who’s 22, can remember.

Now, as the Associated Supermarket faces an ­eviction notice from the site’s owner, many residents — including Ciliberti, McGeary and their family — who have long depended on the store are advocating that it remain, as an essential community business that sells affordable groceries in the historically Black American, Black West Indian and Caribbean neighborhood.

“I think that this neighborhood is going to see the same type of development that over by Franklin Avenue has seen where we see a lot of small shops kind of get shut down and bought out and then gentrified so that it appeals to the mass mainstream,” said ­Ciliberti, who grew up in Crown Heights and is currently serving as an AmeriCorps member. “It just feels like a losing battle in the gentrification of Brooklyn.” 

The supermarket is a staple for many in the community, particularly elderly residents who live nearby and can easily access the store or get their groceries delivered by Associated employees. Local residents also say it’s the only grocery store sourcing fresh produce for half a mile within the area, meaning that if the store is forced to close, the cost for transportation to travel to another supermarket would become a barrier or significant hassle for many.

The Associated Supermarket, housed in a one-story building with a red metal roof bearing a glowing “Associated” sign with two burnt out bulbs, has been open at its current site, adjacent to a parking lot, since 1991. The market was predated by an A&P grocery store, which opened in 1970 when Midwood Investment and Development acquired the property. In 2015, Associated owner Pablo Espinal signed a 5-year lease when his original 25-year lease expired, and has been on a month-to-month lease since June 2020.

“It just feels like a losing battle in the gentrification of Brooklyn.” 

On March 8, Associated received a 30-day notice from Midwood to vacate the premises. Negotiations between Espinal and Midwood about terms of the site’s development and payments for vacating the site have been ongoing since early this year. In January, activists and other news outlets reported that Midwood had previously presented a 90-day eviction notice, but Midwood said in a statement to the Indypendent that no such notice was issued. Midwood said that it will seek out court intervention and pursue damages under the lease if the property is not vacated by April 7.

Midwood said in a statement that they plan to develop “a significant amount of affordable housing, along with retail,” which would likely include a larger supermarket.  Midwood has not yet filed for rezoning or construction permits for the property and plans to develop in compliance with the current zoning, which allows for mixed-use apartment buildings under R7-1. 

“We appreciate local concerns about the temporary loss of a grocery store on this site,” a Midwood representative wrote in a statement to the Indypendent. “At the same time, we are hopeful that community members will see the benefits of replacing an oversized surface parking lot and a 50-year-old obsolete supermarket space with desperately needed affordable housing and a new, larger supermarket.” 

Community members quickly mobilized in response to the news about the eviction notice, which came as a shock to many in the area. Though the local Brooklyn Community Board 9 will not be officially involved in dealings over the property unless rezoning or construction permits are filed and the ULURP process is initiated, a majority of the Brooklyn Community Board 9 members recently voted to support Associated and the fight to save it. 

“If the Associated disappears, what comes back, if anything comes back? Will the community have affordable food options?” said Fred Baptiste, the Community Board 9 Chair. “There’s definitely concern on our part.” 

 On January 30, dozens of people gathered to distribute flyers and share information with local residents about the possible closure. One week later, more than 100 people convened for a rally in support of ­Associated and spoke about their longtime connections to the store and its importance in the community. 

Michael Hollingsworth is a longtime housing advocate, lead organizer with the Crown Heights ­Tenant Union and candidate for City Council District 35, where the Associated is located. He grew up shopping at the former A&P with his mother and brother. Looking at ­recent instances of gentrification and the impact of ­luxury grocery stores and housing developments in Black neighborhoods, Hollingsworth fears that a new ­supermarket may not adequately serve the community or ­allow people “to get the same things that they’ve been accustomed to, to be able to afford the price points in this market,” he said. “When these new developments come in, the supermarkets that usually come with them don’t serve these folks well.” 

Older neighborhood residents will have a harder time grocery shopping if the store they have used for decades closes. Photo: Sue Brisk.

Vivia Morgan, a candidate for City Council in nearby District 40, community board member, and licensed real estate agent, questions the accessibility of housing rentals for working class people in the area, some of whom she said are making less than $20,000 per year. Morgan started a petition on to “Save The Associated Supermarket,” which currently has over 4,600 signatures. 

“If you really want to come to my community and say you’re going to build affordable housing, let’s think about the people that’s working in McDonald’s, in those fast food restaurants, and the home health aides taking care of the elderly,” Morgan told the ­Indypendent. “When … they said, ‘this is affordable,’ it’s not really affordable. You have to ask the question, who is it ­affordable for?” 

Angela Howard moved to Crown Heights and bought a house in 1998, with the intention to live in a Caribbean neighborhood after growing up in Grenada — “And then the neighborhood changed again,” she said. The prospect of the grocery store closing — adding to the number of developments in Crown Heights that have contributed to gentrification — particularly during a public health emergency, “would be a major loss,” she said. Howard notes that she and her neighbors have communicated more than ever over the past year around supporting each other with groceries, signing up for COVID vaccinations, and organizing celebrations of people’s lives when loved ones have died due to COVID complications. 

“I think it’s interesting in a time when we talk about food deserts all the time, that we would deliberately create a food desert, and that is what’s happening throughout this neighborhood,” she added. 

Ciliberti recalls frequenting the Associated as a kid and feeling a sense of familiarity with the store’s employees, as well as comfort and fondness in knowing that the market was a place she could consistently count on to buy necessities. “In case I ever need anything, I can come here, get something last minute,” she said. “The supermarket has always been the place to go. This is it for us, basically.” 

Juan Contreras, 45, who works in maintenance and lives with his mother two blocks away from the store, has frequented the store for 20 years. As the person ­responsible for cooking in his household, he shops there ­every day and appreciates the store because several of the employees are also native Spanish speakers. “I don’t see why they want to make it disappear,” he told the ­Indypendent. “We’re going to fight because this is the only one. We need it.”

As it was beginning to get dark, Edwin, a Black man wearing a Brooklyn Nets hat over his greying hair, exited the store with a bag holding bread, cheese, and cake for his mother. He’s lived in Crown Heights since 1977, when he immigrated from England, and estimates that he shops at the store three to four times a week. “Since this place was open, I’ve always been shopping here,” he said. “If it’s gone, I’m gonna suffer.” 

Community members and allies are rallying in support of the Associated at 975 Nostrand Avenue on Saturday, March 13 at 1:45 p.m.

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