• Market Street between Halsey Street and Washington Street in Newark, New Jersey.
  • The barber brotherhood. Ab of Iconic Styles, Newark, New Jersey
  • Surviving gentrification.The barber brotherhood. Eric of New Wave Unisex, Newark, New Jersey
  • Jay of Epic Creations keeps his barber chairs swinging to service local customers in Newark, New Jersey.

Welcome to gentrification America | Think Piece

7 mins read

With the changing commercial district in Newark, New Jersey, a shift in commercial real estate and leasing made it harder for small businesses. Comparing a popular African American hairstyle, ‘the Brooklyn’ with gentrification, local mom-and-pops try to stay afloat against big box companies entering into Newark’s downtown.

a word often used, abused and thrown around
like the people, places and things 
it is supposed to represent.  

like the complexions, aromas, and swag, 
of the people that it builds upon, 
there is nothing new under the sun; 
especially for children of the sun 
who feel like the sun never seems to shine on them.  

Throughout history, 
“minority” populations 
sought to overthrow those who conducted massive land grabs. 

When they lost, 
churches were built upon pyramids and Native mounds. 
Or, in the case of present-day,
gourmet coffee shops dish out $3 expressos 
where bodegas ounce sold $1 coffees.

Those who were the numerical majority, 
became the majority power 
under the guise of implemented military and psychological warfare. 

From police states to the inferiority complexes 
brought on by social Darwinism, 
in the ashes of neighborhood barbershops, 
Now, Itlalian-named salons emerge 
where customers once asked their  barber for a “Brooklyn” 

The Brooklyn

“The Brooklyn,” a hairstyle birthed in New Jersey, though named after a New York hairstyle, to me, represents how inner-city excellence, displaying the contours of the all mighty Afro, have been cut off and stand to be a culture erased in gentrification. 

You see the Afro is much like the halos in ancient art that surround religious figures. The halo emanates upward and outward from the crown of the head just like the Afro.  The light of the halo represents the essence of the person’s spirit. Within the same reference, the Afro represents the essence of our hair in its natural state. However, modern religious art opted to remove the halo from its paint brushes; as is the same as corporate America deemed our natural hair, unruly.  

When the Afro became a threat and symbol of danger, Black men adapted the style into the Caesar haircut for Emperor Caesar. On the other hand, Black women straightened their hair through perms, or rather took off their crown to get jobs and overall, the ability to walk through hostile terrain to feed their families.

Applying this to gentrification, like the Afro’d greatness of indigenous, Native people, the style in its rawest form can be intimidating. So, those who try to control populations often find reasons to cut down the Afro-halo. Or, rather sections of the earth populated by the static electrical-stranded beings of the avenues, our blocks.  

As a hairstylist, I learned that Black people’s essence was in our hair/halo through an easy-to-do experiment. The flame. Since, Black hair and the halo all expand upward, with that flame or heat you can make our hair straight or curlier.  But that same flame and heat does very little to white or Asian hair. To make their hair expand for longer than a day, you need chemicals. Any hair stylist would agree.  

I remember in cosmetology school, I put a lighter to Black hair and it sizzled then curled even tighter, while white and Asian hair had little to no sizzle with just the typical burned quality.

This test is seen through the Brooklyn haircut. As a revision of the Afro-halo, the Brooklyn, is a low taper fade added to the style in hopes to become presentable to dominant culture, that is the Caesar cut. In truth, it was a stand against corporate America or how we navigated it, even when it encroached into our very neighborhoods, attempting to dictate who we were and our value.  

Although we modified ourselves to be “more presentable” in dominant culture, franchises like 7-Eleven, Gap, Starbucks, and Nike Town, were not excited about working next to the rough edges of the Afro, which is also represented by the “hood,” or our blocks.  So, we had to tidy up our storefronts to play ball or be one of the first to be evicted or fired.  

What I found out is that it does not matter if the majority of the community patronizes our businesses. Or even, if our product is superior to competitors. In reality, it’s about land ownership and the cost per square footage.

Halsey Street Corridor. Located in one of the most bustling areas of small businesses in Downtown Newark, Halsey Street is going through a lot of renovations of the 19th and 20th Century row home storefronts. Rutgers University’s Newark campus and Prudential Center have several projects here. Some are ongoing. When I looked for my shop in 2010-2011, the average price to lease was $1,500 to $1,600. Now it is upwards of $3000.

One of the last brownstones in Newark. Like Brooklyn and Harlem, brownstone homes were built throughout Newark; however, they were torn down for other multi-family housing. Newark used to be the summer homes for wealth New Yorkers until they moved to central New Jersey like in the Princeton, Plainfield and Piscataway area. This brownstone is on Central Avenue next to the old Kislak building. Up until 2016, people lived here regardless of the rodent and bug infestations that they often complained about. However, the rent was cheap for the area. The building was sold for over $500,000.

The old Kislak building gets a facelift after uprooting businesses. Since the 1970s, the Kislak Building, an insurance company, sat empty until developers bought it several years ago. A local real estate broker who went into the building said that like many other abandoned massive structures that sat empty for over 40 years, turned into toxic waste sites. Huge boilers, built in the ground, were under water while the asbestos and bacteria filled the air. The broker said that he began to experience skin infections and breathing issues as a result of going into those buildings. As they were renovating this building, much of Central Avenue was cut off to accommodate construction workers, while local businesses suffered because foot and car traffic became limited. Many businesses in the area folded during this time.

The block. An average commercial district in Downtown Newark has rows of mom-and-pop shops. Every week, one or two shutter or announce their closure.

The commercial real estate game in “up-and-coming” neighborhoods

Let me give you my experience. When I had a shop in Downtown Newark New Jersey in 2011, the average price for a shop in the “up-and-coming” district was $15 to $17 per square footage. Since my lease was for a shop that was about 425 square feet, this meant, in order to pay rent, I had to cut within the month, 425 people for about $15, just to make rent.

Going in, I reasoned that if I charged clients $35, which is the average fee for a haircut, I could pay rent, utilities and all my other expenses. However, my typical client who came to the shop was underpaid, and made about $15 an hour. But, in order for him to work, he must keep his Brooklyn cut fresh. 

Be that as it may, my average client could not afford the full price. As a result, I had to slash my base prices. With the discount, a $35 cut became a $15 dollars, which equates to $15 dollars a square foot. Yet and still, this was the beginning of a domino effect of local businesses in Downtown Newark, and I get that this is similar in other cities.

The building that housed my storefront was run down. When I leased it, the owner said that all it needed was cosmetics, but it turned out to be a total gut job. My wife and I spent all of our wedding money and savings. Yet and still, I had to continue to charge $15 haircuts because the local clientele were underpaid.

While my barbershop was nice, the slumlords who owned it never put in money for any type of upkeep. The building was so old and outdated that I couldn’t even get cable or a telephone installed. Ironically, it used to be the building for the city’s major power and gas company. However, the property owners felt like since my lease was cheap, they didn’t have to do anything. And, like most leased agreements in dilapidated buildings in downtown Newark, they let it rot.

What I discovered was that they were simply waiting for the demolished buildings next door and down the street to complete construction. When Starbucks moved into the new construction, it resulted in an increase of the square footage. 

Now, storefronts on the block went to $40 or $50 dollars a square foot.  The owners of the rundown building now have offers from 7-Eleven to rent next to the barbershop which makes them happier because a portion of their property is getting renovated. As a small, local business, I was just making and could only revitalize my unit as best as I could.

With commercial property, the owner of the building is only obligated  to provide a vanilla box, meaning walls, ceiling and doors. You as the business owner, are responsible for building out the shop. Unlike residential real estate where the owner is obligated to provide working plumbing, electrical, and up-to-code living, as a business owner, it is up to you.   

So, as the owner of a barbershop, $15 to $20 haircuts, in a part of the city where big box stores hawked for a piece of relatively land, made staying open an uphill battle.  

Overall, I argue that the hair industry is one of the only businesses that is cultural in nature.  So NikeTown or T-Mobile can come into a community and compete with a mom-and-pop store. Starbucks and Wholefoods can compete with the local bodegas selling coffee and food, but Paul Mitchell can not do a Brooklyn fade and the community will not trust them to do so. 

Sadly, though, I see fancy-named salons or franchise shops coming to Downtown offering the classic Brooklyn. While local barbers are not in these shops, soon, they might be forced to work at the same businesses who eventually priced them out of their own enterprises. Damn, that’s gentrification.

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1 Comment

  1. Great story — there were 3 beautician’s in my family – only one owned her own shop and that was in Los Angeles in the 1950’s. I have great memories of being in the beauty shop – the action of style and beauty unfolding, with music, gossip and “Sista” with her cart of plate of the day (turkey necks, rice, gravy, greens) and church lady desserts. There’s still music and gossip in the shop — but no “Sista” making food deliveries. Thanks for the memory.

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