The storefront of a 25-year-old deli in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn has been given a yuppie makeover, its windows plastered with posters of rebranded, marked-up products as part of an “artisanal rent hike price sale.”
“Locally Sourced Vegetarian Citrus Fizz” (a liter of Fanta) for $5.99; “Foaming Goose Fat Beard Paste” (Gillette shaving gel) for $11.98; Seasonal AA Battery Medley (a two-pack of Duracells for $8.99) -- this is what Jesse’s Deli would have to charge locals to cover the 250 percent rent hike recently imposed by their landlord, Karina Bilger, who is raising the rent from roughly $4,000 to $13,000.
Palestinian-born Jesse Itayim, the deli’s founding owner, told The Daily Beast there’s no way he can pay that kind of money.
When this reporter arrived Friday night, Itayim was ensconced in a leather armchair near the register—the owner’s well-worn perch—sipping a deli cup of black coffee.
Regulars were concerned when, several weeks ago, they noticed that the deli was depleting its inventory. (They have to be out of the building by the end of July. Bilger could not be reached for comment.)
The tongue-in-cheek posters are part of a stunt by two locals, Doug Cameron and Tommy Noonan, to protest the rent hike that’s forcing their beloved deli out of the neighborhood. Cameron, a forty-something advertising entrepreneur who has lived in the neighborhood for 11 years, worked together with 36-year-old Noonan to design the posters in the hopes of galvanizing the community.
“New York used to have strong rent control and rent stabilization laws but somehow we’ve collectively decided to get rid of those,” Cameron told The Daily Beast.
He said he, Noonan, and others (1,200 people have signed a petition to keep Jesse’s Deli in its current location) “aren’t that knowledgeable on the policy side of things, so we wanted to try the Occupy Wall Street approach first and get people talking about this stuff.”
They certainly accomplished that goal. The posters went up earlier this week, and while the prices remain the same indoors, the “artisanal rent hike” campaign has attracted significant attention.
As of Friday evening, several news outlets were camped outside Jesse’s Deli to interview its owner, customers, and neighborhood passersby lamenting the loss of yet another New York institution to gentrification.
Itayim said Bilger has been his landlord since they moved in. “We’ve been on the same lease since 1989, no problems. She has a right to increase the rent. 20 percent? Fine. You have to give and take in business. But I cannot work for the landlord,” he said, laughing. “I have to make a living!”
Cameron is hopeful that people will propose “crowdfunding or legislative solutions” to keep mom and pop businesses like Jesse’s Deli alive.
“What’s happening to Jesse’s is happening all over the city,” he said, noting that with a re-emergence of the creative class, there’s renewed interest in saving small businesses that have been in neighborhoods like Boerum Hill for decades.
“Delis are an integral part of New York culture, and both the gentrifiers and the people who were here before the gentrifiers want to keep them,” Cameron said, referring to himself as an “early, self-hating gentrifier.”
Cameron is aware that he and Noonan are part of the reason businesses like Jesse’s are being driven out by Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and “artisanal” restaurants and boutique stores.
Cameron insists he doesn’t shop at Trader Joe’s, but he does frequent neighborhood restaurants. He also admitted that his salary was in the six-figure range—“it’s up there, as probably most of the neighborhood is”—and that he pays $2,875-a-month rent for his one-bedroom apartment in Boerum Hill.
Noonan, who works as an art director for Mother design and pays $2,950 for a one bedroom duplex that he shares with his wife, is even more of a hypocrite: he’s only lived in the neighborhood for three years.
He also shops at Trader Joe’s and the boutique-y Union Market (“every time we go there we spend $120, which is ridiculous,” he said, laughing at himself). But he insists he supports small businesses too, like Jesse’s and local fish and meat shops.
If Cameron and Noonan don’t succeed with Jesse’s, Cameron says the next step is to take on what he calls the “7-Elevenification” of delis. “We’re looking into starting an Independent Deli Association to pool resources for legal fees, real estate experts, etc.”
“The artisanal culture is the most viable alternative to corporate monoculture,” Cameron added. “But institutions like Jesse’s improve quality of life in the neighborhood, and these are things we really do want to support.”
As for the future of Jesse’s, Itayim foresees closure of the current premises because of the rent increase, and then rebirth. He hopes to stay local. “I don’t want to be a fish out of water!”