Friday, November 20, 2015

On The Passing Of Bette Stoltz, Who Helped Revitalize Smith Street, "The Little Street That Could"

 Smith Street, Bette Stoltz's"the little street that could"
 Bette Stoltz 
 Smith Street Soup Fest, one of Bette's events.
Bette Stoltz with one of the students of High School For International Studies' Culinary Arts Program
 Bette at Smith Street Funday 2013, which she organized
Bette Stoltz with Carmen Farina of New York City's Department of Education

Many in South Brooklyn had been hoping for the last few days that long time neighborhood activist Bette Stoltz would recover from a heart attack she suffered at the beginning of this week. Sadly, last night came the news that she had passed.

My thoughts go out to Bette's husband, children and her beloved grandchildren, of which she so proudly shared photos and updates.

Bette was such a lovely person who was fully dedicated to the community and worked tirelessly for its residents.

She wore many hats and was involved in absolutely everything related to South Brooklyn. She was the Executive director of the South Brooklyn Local Development Corporation (SBLDC), a non-profit which she founded. She served for years as a member of Community Board 6, was involved in the creation of the beautiful Transit Garden at the corner of Smith Street and Second Place, served on the EPA Gowanus Canal Superfund Community Advisory Board and was a member of several neighborhood associations, including Friends And Residents of Greater Gowanus.

She helped fund and bring a full fledged Culinary Arts Curriculum and facilities to the High School For International Studies at 284 Baltic Street and was so proud of its students and graduates.

In the past year, Bette was hard at work on creating a joint Business Improvement District (BID) for Smith Street and Court Street.

Of all her many accomplishments, the one she always seemed proudest of was her role in revitalizing Smith Street in the 1990s.  She lovingly referred to Smith Street as"the little street that could" and helped nurture the first businesses that took a chance and opened stores and restaurants there after the City repaved the street, installed new sidewalks and lighting.

Bette was the face behind the much loved Smith Street Soup Festival in the fall,  Smith Street Funfair in the summer, and helped organize the incredibly popular Bastille Day P├ętanque Tournament. She also made sure that Smith Street was decorated for the Holidays in December.

Recently, Bette's health was failing and she seemed to reflect on the changes in the neighborhood and on Smith Street.  When I reached out to her in October to ask if the Soup Festival would take place this year, she answered in a long email to let me know why she had decided to cancel the event for 2015. She was nostalgic that the Smith Street Restaurant Row that included Patois, Saul, Robin des Bois and Grocery which she had help create in the 1990s was changing again.

I am sure Bette would not have minded me sharing this email she wrote to me on October 20.  I could not know that this would be my last conversation with her, but reading it again makes me realize that she was concerned about the future not only of small businesses in the neighborhood, but also of the quality of life here in Brooklyn.

Here is what she wrote to me.

Hi Katia,
     Yes the disappointing news is that there will be no Soup Festival on Smith Street this October.  Last year we had 22 different soups for people to taste.  This year, after reaching out by phone, e mail and/or personal visit to all the usual suspects I could only come up with 13 soups, and I felt that people would be unhappy with such a reduction of choices and we would be better off just not having it.  
     I hope this loss of a community loved event will be a wake up call to the realtors and property owners in the neighborhood.  It was a very slow and tough summer after a disappointing year for many businesses, especially restaurants, many of which closed.  What is replacing them is mainly bars with minimal food ( "tapas"/small plates) which have become the entrepreneur's choice since things to drink do not spoil while foods do. Then the American Urban economy has changed to the point where one cannot make a living/support a family with just one store,  People are opening 2 or 3 or more locations, partnering with a variety of others, and are stretched so thin that even if they do live in the neighborhood they cannot devote as much of themselves to just one location as before.
     Those who do not own their buildings are rightfully fearful of huge rent increases in the near future. This is no secret.  The Realtors blame the "greedy" property owners.  Yes, this may be partly true, but where does the line fall between a realtor advising the client or the client giving orders to the realtor??
Do we need a Nuremberg Trial for the Real Estate Industry?  Some property owners already retired to the sunbelt and just want to maximize their retirement quality of life.  Those who recently bought at very high prices say they need to seek high rental incomes just to make their numbers work.  The "old timers" are dwindling and to top it all off the big developers are buying the large footprints and letting them sit while taking years to put together plans for new construction which will be designed for high rental retail operations.  
     And the demographics of the neighborhood are constantly changing. There are pendulum swings between a young single customer base, and a family and child oriented customer base.  Brownstone buildings that used to be home to 4 or more families are now one family homes.  People have more money, but at the same time they have to work much harder and for longer hours so they have much less time to shop in their neighborhoods.  But then again with Lightstone building 700 mostly studio & 1 bedroom rental units, will we suddenly get a new influx of the young singles?
     A generation of Community Builders fashioned what we all thought was the perfect mix for an urban neighborhood and then along comes CHANGE.  Too soon for me.  

I will miss Bette very much. She was an integral part of this community. Farewell, my friend. Thank you for teaching me the importance of staying involved and to speak out.


James said...

Katia, thank you so much for this tribute. It's just so hard to think of her NOT being on Smith Street (and everywhere else) but the tone of discouragement in her incredibly accurate reading of the state of Smith Street et al is so sad. Makes me want to go out and knock some Bette-sense into some real estate vultures!

Jim Vogel

Katia said...

I know how you feel, Jim. All we can do is to honor her by continuing to be involved as she was and to hope that one day, Smith Street will shine again like it did ten, twenty years ago when she dedicated all her time to helping young restauranteurs and businesses open up their businesses here when the rents were so much more reasonable.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this Katia... My heart is so very, very heavy right now. The lioness of love has left the building... Thankfully she left Bette seeds everywhere, including inside us. Xo

Katia said...

What a lovely thought and image, Phaedra.

Cynthia said...

Phaedra, what beautiful words. My children and I will miss Bette tremendousky.

Marcia said...

Hi Katia,
Thanks so much for sharing the news of Bette’s death, but what a shock. And thanks for sharing her last letter to you.
In the last year, when I ran into her, I wondered if she’d been ill. She didn’t look her usual self but she still had the same sparkle.

In the long years I’ve lived here on Smith, I remember Bette from the start, when she turned the empty space two doors from me into a thrift shop to train women in sales. It was quite a success as both a store and a training center, I was told. I still miss that shop! And the Soup Tasting was such a great idea. I told her so and thanked her for some of the other events she created.

Her letter touches on ways the area is losing much of what made it great, much of it to her efforts. I’ve noticed how the new spots are all about drinking, not eating. But it wasn't until I read that she couldn’t get enough restaurants to participate in the Soup Tasting that I realized how much things had changed for the worse.

It’s hard to believe she’s gone. What a sad loss.

Justin said...

Thank you for this post -- I hadn't realized she passed. I've only know her about 3 years (as long at my restaurant has been open), and she was a wonderful source or support for us and the community and will surely be missed.

Margaret said...

Bette's email to you shows what a clear thinking articulate dedicated knowledgeable soul and communicator she was. I can't really look at the pictures - I can't really believe she is no longer with us. Rest in Peace, Bette. So great you posted her words, Katia.

Katia said...

I know, Margaret. I walked down Smith Street today with a very heavy heart. I can imagine that feeling will linger for quite some time.

Max said...

Here's a video I came across by Bette's Daughter Erica which perfectly illustrates Bette's lifelong dedication to her work and community. As a Smith Street business owner for over 9 years, and a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, I have seen the transformation of Smith Street first hand. I agree with her views on where Smith Street has been headed and why it's occurring, which is a shame. She will surely be missed.