Greenpoint, Brooklyn — “I miss my old customers,” says Eva Wieczorek, the owner of a well-groomed hair salon bearing her name on Nassau Avenue in Greenpoint. Since 1970, when she started her business, the regular customers were her compatriots, working-class Polish immigrants. But in the last decade, most of them left the neighborhood that didn’t fit their budget anymore.
From 2000 to 2010 in Greenpoint, the population of 30-year-olds, the largest age group in the neighborhood doubled, Census comparison show. And as they moved in, they brought new tastes and consumer habits to the formerly conservative, Polish neighborhood.
Over the same period of time, the population of Polish-born immigrants in New York declined from 61,546 to 55,581, the Census bureau reports.
Vintage boutiques with names like Fox&Fawn and Kill Devil Hill, hip bars and cafes such as Papasitos and Troost have supplanted the neighborhood’s mom-and-pop shops and old-fashioned pizzerias that Wieczorek and her customers had come to love.
The businesses that have remained have had to adjust to the new, younger residents. Some of them have done it successfully and found their own ways to prosper.
Eva’s salon, for example, now orders more extravagant hair dyes like purple and green.
That’s what “yuppies” often ask for, says Wieczorek, 62. New residents also increased demand for services that Wieczorek’s former customers likely never requested, services like hole-head bleaching for men and straight and sleek hairdos for women.
Wieczorek, however, smartly made changes. manages the salon with her son Daniel, 34. She realized she could no longer handle demands for the newly popular services so she began recruiting people with the proper skills. She haired several stylists the same age as the new clientele.
Older customers still opt for perms and wavy styles, but Wieczorek says the salon doesn’t do them as often as it did in the past.
“We are getting modern,” says Wieczorek.
Clothing Store Owner
While she misses her old client base, she confesses, the change has been good for business. In the past two years, she has seen demand for beauty services grow by 20 percent, and people who live in the area now have more money to spend. “We love them,” she says.
Another family business a couple of blocks away, Greenpoint’s Toy Center on Manhattan Avenue, also welcomed the change in neighborhood demographics. When owners Herman and Nancy Hernandez took over the shop eight years ago, the local community was predominantly Polish. But Hernandez now says more non-Polish young families seem to moving into the area. “They are very faithful customers to the store,” he says.
Hernandez, 48, a former policeman, says traditional toys like Lego and Barbie dolls still sell well, but in the past five years different types of toys have risen in popularity. Durable wooden toys, as well as ones made of eco-friendly recyclable plastic, fly off the shelves.
“The young hipster families are looking for more earth-friendly type of toys,” he says.
Hernandez says young customers pay more attention to design now, and look for exercise toys, something to ride or to play with outdoors. Electronic and innovative toys such as micro robotic bugs and spiders or “beyblades”, metal toy combat sets, are also among top sellers now. “I get more of this stuff now,” says Hernandez.
In the donut and pastry shop Peter Pan across the street, the owner Donna Siafakas says she also has witnessed her clientele change dramatically from about two years ago. Long lines of young customers patiently waiting to be served is something Siafakas didn’t expect to see 10 years ago.
“Even myself, if I see a place with a crowd I would keep going. But these people come in and wait patiently in line, even in cold. And it’s amazing to me,” says Siafakas, 55, who has run the bakery with her husband Christos for the past 20 years. She says, if previous customers saw 10-15 people in line, “in a couple of minutes, they would be out.”
At Peter Pan, which opened in 1950, business is blossoming thanks to Greenpoint demographics’ change.
Siafakas says a few years ago she installed a coffee machine to offer espresso and cappuccino. “Before then we just had plain American coffee,” she says. Traditional Polish customers weren’t big espresso drinkers.
Jelly donut sales are another indicator of the changing tastes of Peter Pan’s customers. “Polish people were big fans of a jelly donut, because they made what they called punchki which is a Polish donut with jam inside,” says Siafakas. Once a best seller, jelly donut now is the least popular item in the menu.
To fit new customer tastes, the bakery added a red velvet donut. “About a year or one and a half ago, we began to think about what they would like. And red velvet was very hot at that time,” says Siafakas. The bakery substituted traditional red velvet cake’s crèam cheese frosting with glaze. She says, it’s better to eat them on the go this way, just as young customers prefer.
The neighborhood’s young hipsters and artists, Siafakas points out, seem to like the new offerings, but also appear to appreciate what the store has always been known for: its old-fashioned donuts.
For 20 years the bakery has kept low prices: for two dollars customers get a donut with coffee.
“It’s something that we had before that appeals to them. I think, it’s nostalgia of the place,” says Siafakas.
Before her family took over the bakery in 1993, it had been in Greenpoint for 42 years already.
The family did not change the recipes or the interior. The round bar stools remained – and they still do. Siafakas, who was born in Greenpoint, says, her mother always took her there to treat her to donuts after going to the movie theater that was nearby. “I used to twirl around, and my mom always tried to stop me. Children still do, and I don’t stop them, because I think it’s fun.”
Inside the Greenpoint’s retail old-timer across the street, Cato’s Army and Navy, hardly anything has changed in the past decade either, or so it seems. The shop started as a men’s clothing shop 37 years ago and catered mostly to blue-collar workers, which were the main settlers in the neighborhood. Now business is shifting from practicality toward fashion. That’s what new Greenpoint residents crave.
The shop sells the same items, but in smaller sizes and brighter colors. The owner Ed Veneziano, 57, says, 10 years ago he wouldn’t even order size 28 for male pants.
“It would be too small for our traditional customers,” says Veneziano. “When you think of somebody working manually, “skinny” would not be a word to describe what people typically would wear,” he says. “Greenpoint has been a blue-collar neighborhood forever,” says Veneziano. His traditional customers would have looked for clothes comfortable to work in.
Now the offerings are more stylish and appeal to women too. Veneziano said, he recently started selling female Western and military clothes.
“The challenge of local businesses was to figure new local residents’ needs. And for some business it has not been successful. There are a lot of empty storefronts on Manhattan Avenue,” says Veneziano.
He refers to of Valdiano’s pizzeria across the street. Its closed door now carries the announcement: “Thank you for years of support.” The pizzeria, which had been there for decades, went out of business at the end of March.
Veneziano says, fortunately, his shop’s usual assortment became fashionable outside the blue-collar workers’ world. But his survival, he says, depends ultimately on the fleeting preferences of consumers. He just got lucky.
“It’s like a lottery ticket,” says Veneziano.
PNG icons in multimedia courtesy of Julia Soderberg, Olivier Guin and The Noun Project