Columbia Street’s Nightmare


By Katerina Zachovalova


Barry Jetter, 51, was not in the mood to joke around. He frowned as he was taking one pile of furniture apart, building a more condense pile to make more space in his crowded antique store called General Nitemare.


It was raining, and Jetter could not display his best arm-chairs, tables, and dressers under the trees on the sidewalk in front of his 1930s, 40s, and 50s collectibles store on 196 Columbia Street in Brooklyn. Although he does not have a permit to use it, the sidewalk is Jetter’s most efficient shopping window. The days like this mean the business is slow.


But the rain does not give him the biggest headache these days. It is the planned reconstruction of Columbia Street which troubles his mind. Although the reconstruction plans are being finalized at this point, and the work itself will not start until a year and a half from now, some of the owners of the 30 small businesses on Columbia Street worry they will face the same fate as their counterparts on nearby Atlantic Avenue. The reconstruction there lasted three years, and many small local businesses have suffered.


Jetter, who opened his first retail store here four years ago, said people have hard time getting to him because public transportation in the area is limited. He worries the reconstruction will make it worse. He said he thinks the plan may put him out of business.


“It is a possibility because if the money is not coming in… I get to pay my rent. I have to pay my employees. I have to buy furniture. I have to pay my own rent for my apartment. And if I have no business coming in here I can’t live off my millions which I don’t have,” he said, pausing dramatically between each sentence.


Jetter’s business has been slow since Sept. 11. He explained that before the terrorist attacks, he used to have a nice checking account and couple thousand dollars in cash all the time. But those days are over. One month of bad business, he said, could put him under.


The city plans to tear up and repave Columbia Street from Atlantic to Hamilton avenues. The city contractors will also tear up the sidewalks and install a water main there. The project will cost $20 million.


Jetter and some other owners fear that once the streets will be under construction, their customers will not be able to get them, or, simply, will avoid the area all together.


“People won’t be able to get down here. There will be a trouble with parking. I know what happened on Atlantic Avenue. It was a nightmare. It hurt a lot of business,” said Jamie Vipond, a co-owner of bar B-61 and restaurant Alma on the corner of Columbia and Degraw streets, which opened a half year ago.


Susan Goldberg, 57, the owner of Union Max, an antiques store specializing in beads opened two and a half years ago, said she is not so worried. She owns her store. But also, she said, her customers are a more dedicated crowd.


“My main customers are bead customers, and they would go anywhere to find beads. I don’t know if you know any bead people. They are the most fanatic of all antique people,” she said.


Jetter’s customers are different. They need car access and parking near the store. Peter Maltese, 39, a frequent General Nitemare customer, who loaded a large bookcase in front of the store, said the reconstruction can affect his shopping.


“It will be definitely harder for me to come down the block. I would not be able to load a piece of furniture like I did just now. I would have to park around the block and carry it around,” he said.


According to John Martin, a deputy director of roadway construction at the Department of Transportation, the project will take two years. But, he said, not any one block will be under construction for that long.


According to him, workers may stay on one block anywhere from couple weeks to a month, depending on the individual block conditions. He said pedestrians will have always access to the stores.


Martin also added that the overseeing city agency, the Department of Design and Construction, will work with each business owner to minimize the losses.


“They will work with each store, store to store, and find out their hours, and find out what they need. … I can’t say there will never be no pain during the project, but it has to get done, and they will have a better looking area after we are done,” Martin said.


But Jetter and some other small business owners are skeptical. They said they do not believe the project will make their neighborhood more attractive. Some Columbia Street blocks will loose the red brick on the edges of the sidewalks. The city plans to pour concrete instead. According to Martin, the funds available cannot cover the extra amenities.


Contractors will also take away the Belgian block pavement and trolley tracks which lie underneath the asphalt, resurfacing in patches, creating puddles and bumps. But, according to some locals, they also create the feel of the neighborhood, and should be reused.


And then there are the expectations of additional traffic. Jetter said the additional cars which will drive on Columbia Street once it is repaved and widened will not boost his business. He said they will zoom through the neighborhood to avoid the constantly jammed Brooklyn Queens Expressway.


“This is not gonna be people stopping. I think any reconstruction they are gonna do is a joke. They are tearing up the character of the neighborhood that is cut from everything. By reconstructing it, they will cut it off even more because people are going to whiz by,” he said.


Columbia Street District is a tiny sleepy neighborhood in southwest Brooklyn. The old-timers still consider it a part of industrial Red Hook, but the neighborhood has become more residential than the rest of Red Hook in the past 15 years.


It is cut off from Carroll Gardens by the Brooklyn Queens Expressway to the east and by Gowanus Expressway from the rest of Red Hook to the south. Only few years ago, bakeries, bars, restaurants, and antique stores have started to settle on Columbia Street.


Jetter was one of the first to come. He opens at noon and stays until midnight.  Some customers return every week to fish through disorganized piles of furniture and chrome collectables to find hidden treasures. Some look for expensive Heywood Wakefield pieces to add to their collection, but the majority looks for furniture to use in their apartments.


The owner refinishes the pieces for them while listening to NPR or Grateful Dead. He says he is the cheapest in town since he does all the work in the store. A dining table starts at $300, a chair at $65.


“A lot of it is personal stuff. A customer tells me how she wants me to finish it, what she wants. It is run like an old time business,” he said.


            Jetter said he fell for the 1930s to 50s furniture because it is not ordinary. He added he never gets bored with it because of its corky shapes and curves.


But Jetter is like his furniture. He is not an ordinary antique store owner. He wears glasses that lack a screw. His wavy graying hair pulled back in a pony tail, his graying beard, brown hat, and boots are covered in saw dust. His hands are the hands of a craftsman; always dirty and always full of finish stains, and cuts. And his business card reads, “Send lawyers, guns, and money, the shit has hit the fan.”


            Jetter said he is trying to find ways how to overcome the reconstruction trouble. “It forces me to start to advertise. I have good following of people who buy from me. Networking is good. But you need new blood because you can put only as much in one apartment. Well, I’ll do something. I am a survivor.”