Crown Heights Residents Say New Bar&39s Name Is Racist

The owner of Crow Bar, a new bar on Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights, refuses to bow to criticism that his latest venture conveys a racial slur over its entrance. Crown Heights was known as Crow Hill in the 19th century, and although historians debate the origin of this nickname, at the time the word “crow” was used as a derogatory term.

“I mean, in a black neighborhood, of all the names out there, is that the name you would choose?” said Renold Griffith, 62, who was standing outside the bar on the corner of Union Street Tuesday night. “I mean, come on. I’m not against the bar, but that name brings back a lot of memories.”

Reading: Crow hill cafe

“why would you call it that if you want to attract your clientele from this area?” said Esteban Giron of the Crown Heights Tenants Union, which represents tenants who live above the bar. “Either you didn’t want to or you just don’t care.” El’s group has been vocal in its opposition to Raven’s Bar since last winter, when Giron raised concerns with the owner at a community board meeting.

Crown height is predominantly black, although its demographics have changed in recent years.

dan wilby, owner of crow bar and hollow nickel in boerum hill, doesn’t live in crown heights, and said he didn’t know much about the neighborhood before he started planning the bar. When he opens a new business, “I try to find out all the history within a neighborhood to see if there’s anything interesting to pull out and pay tribute to,” he told Gothamist this week. “Honestly, Crown Heights doesn’t have a lot of really rich history that I can find on record,” he added. what he did find were references to crow hill.

crown heights was known as crow hill for most of the 19th century, until crown street was built in 1916. from 1848 to 1907, kings county penitentiary, a prison for minor offenders also known as kings county penitentiary crowhill. —Standing on Carroll Street between Nostrand and Rogers avenues.

wilby adheres to a benign interpretation of the name crow hill. “The penitentiary was called Raven Hill after the ravens that perched on top of the hill,” she said.

Zaheer Ali, an oral historian at the Brooklyn Historical Society, said Wilby’s claim is a minority opinion. “Most historians suggest the name originated as a derogatory term in reference to the early black residents of the settlement, which would become Crown Heights,” Ali said.

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Wilby bristled when asked to comment on this interpretation. “If people get offended, I’m sorry,” she said. “Not the intention, but I guess it’s a free world.”

“even so, what would be my intention?” she added. “To keep out the people who are here right now?” Wilby, who is white, gestured around the room, where numerous black patrons were seated at high tables and low booths. “Like, really? So I don’t know what to say.”

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle was a frequent reference to Crow Hill in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and accounts of the name’s origins vary. in an article from August 1873, the reporter interviews a retired policeman. “How did the settlement come to be called Raven Hill?” he asks. to which the officer replies:

well, they [residents] had to live away from white people, and they settled in these woods. the forest was at that time full of ravens, and it was called raven hill, partly because there were a lot of ravens there and partly because people also nicknamed the dark ones ‘ravens’.

“The eagle itself had a clear racial bias,” said ivy gocker, manager of special collections at the brooklyn public library. “although if you’re looking at articles about eagles, it seems that the name definitely had racial connotations for people who used it in the late 19th century.”

Crow Bar isn’t the first local business to reference the Crow Hill legacy. Bar Corvo, an Italian restaurant on Washington Avenue, uses the Italian for “crow.” (The restaurant did not respond to requests for comment, though a 2012 New York Times review calls the name “a salute to Crow Hill, as the northern end of Crown Heights was historically known.”) Crow Hill Crossfit opened on Park Place in 2013, and moved to Dean Street in 2014. A manager told us this week that he understood the name to be a tribute to the neighborhood. “This could be good press,” he said, agreeing to forward our request for comment. “But it could also be a controversial issue. They may not want to get involved.”

evangeline porter, 83, founded the crow hill community association in the late 1980s. to her, the name isn’t loaded, it’s simply a nod to the history of the neighborhood she grew up in. “We went to the library to find out what that area was originally called,” she said. “It was called Crow Hill, and that’s how the group got its name.”

Many patrons of the crow bar this week said they were unaware of the controversy. “I just read about this online and decided to come here,” said a white man in his 30s who declined to give his name. “Since it was across the street from a hardware store, I thought it was a play on words.”

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a black woman from fort greene who also declined to provide her name was also unaware. “I had no idea what all that meant,” she said. “She knew that Crow Hill used to be the name of this neighborhood, but she didn’t know that Crow was a derogatory term.”

“There could be a benign origin,” said Amaka Okechukwu, an oral historian and archivist at the Weeksville Heritage Center. one of the first free black communities in the united states, next to weeksville, crow hill. “But I think the fact that there are so many racial connotations associated with the name is significant. It speaks to the persistence of racism and how people perceive the value of communities.”

on Tuesday, sean (he declined to give his last name), a 31-year-old black resident of crown heights, was standing outside the crow bar smoking a cigarette.

“It’s like I’m in a Caucasian neighborhood and I have something called the Cookie Killer Club. Got it?” Sean said, pointing to the sign. “That’s like I had the cracker killer in the suburbs. No one is going to accept that.”

In recent years, the northern stretch of Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights has become increasingly filled with bars, boutiques and new residential towers. the southern section, where the Raven Bar opened Monday, less so. But Crow Bar joined a small group, the third bar to open around the intersection of Franklin and Union since January 2012, after Butter and Scotch and Union Street Pub. “The amount of pressure being put on buildings on our blocks is insane,” Giron, of the tenants’ union, said this week.

Last month, the tenants’ union met outside the bar to discuss the plight of tenants living upstairs. “This is a 35-unit building,” said a 25-year-old tenant who identified herself as Marcia M. “There are about five units with old tenants, and these new tenants are paying up to $4,000 for an apartment.”

“It’s not about my bar. It’s about the tenants’ association,” Murray Hill resident Wilby surmised this week. the tenants’ union, she believes, is a small opposition cell. “They want to keep their apartments rent stabilized.”

“This is just one more chapter in the current challenges in a neighborhood that is undergoing rapid change,” said Ali, the BHS historian. “I’m just saying, whatever you choose to do, acknowledge the baggage you’re carrying.”

additional reporting by joshel melgarejo and erica siudzinski.

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