In a tiny restaurant with an impossibly small kitchen, two business owners are closing up for the night. The Islands, a neighborhood Caribbean restaurant near the intersection of Washington Ave. and Eastern Parkway, has become a staple of a rapidly changing section of Brooklyn and, in some ways, a reflection of Washington Ave. Yesterday, the doors closed on the famous location to make room for a new condominium. The owners, Marilyn Reid and Shawn Leitchford, plan to reopen a much larger location a few blocks down Washington.
“This street right here is the end of Crown Heights and where Prospect Heights begins. Washington is unlike any other street in the neighborhood.” Marilyn says, when asked about why they stayed on the same street when opening the new location.
For 16 years, Marilyn and Shawn have been cooking sumptuous Jamaican dinners in a restaurant only 220 square feet in total, and that includes a dining area upstairs which seats about 20. During past summers the front have doors remained open and a few tables were placed outside for additional space. The restaurants’ tiny size has, in part, lent to its word of mouth popularity, a factor which helped keep the doors of the establishment open for nearly two decades. I tell Marilyn that when I moved to the neighborhood several years ago The Islands was often listed as one of the primary highlights right behind Prospect Park.
“That’s how we survived.” Marilyn tells me, “One person would move into the neighborhood and tell their friends about it, and then when they moved out they would tell the people moving in about us.”
It’s not to say that the restaurant hasn’t enjoyed an unusual amount of press coverage. They’re often featured in places like Serious Eats, Village Voice and The New York Times, even if they’ve never actually courted it. When I bring up a few interesting pieces about the restaurant from the last few years, both Shawn and Marilyn seem completely surprised.
“You’re kidding? When was that?” Shawn laughs after I mention that the restaurant was featured on an episode of The Sporkful. “So many people come in here and tell us they’ll bring us an article they write but we never actually see it.”
I’ve been to The Islands multiple times since I moved to the neighborhood, enough that my face is recognized when I come in, if not my name. When I initially came in to inquire about the new location, Shawn asked if I was looking for a job. Having foolishly come at the start of the dinner rush, she told me to come back for the interview when they were closing up. As essential as the food is, owners Marilyn and Shawn are the true heart of the restaurant, creating an atmosphere of warmth and familiarity for everyone who walks through the door. During the interview, Marilyn and Shawn chatted with everyone. Some were regulars turned friends who talked about their upcoming vacations and asked if the women needed help packing up, some were first timers who asked when the new location was opening.
When I initially heard about the closing I assumed the worst: Another important, if unassuming, spot on Washington was being pushed out to make room for a condo. Washington has changed in the last several years, to the same familiar tune as many Brooklyn avenues – a street predominately composed of generations of an immigrant community that, as fresh out of college kids move in and drive up the rent, sees housing and business turnover and displacement. The neighborhood, especially its community, becomes a shadow of what it was only a few years prior, and those same kids, no longer fresh out of college, lament the loss of “realness” in the area. Washington Ave. hasn’t avoided this storyline, but it’s managed to slow the pace of change more than its neighboring streets.
“Washington is strange. It’s totally different from the big streets on either side,” Marilyn says as we talk about the changes in the neighborhood. “Vanderbilt is just two blocks over, but it’s a different world. Franklin is unrecognizable.”
“Franklin was scary only a few years ago.” Shawn adds, “They [real estate agents] kept showing me all of these places there. But with all of the action going on and police cars everywhere, I just remember thinking ‘it’s not worth it’. I looked at a place recently and the rent was $20,000/month.”
“So we figured we’re only going to make those [rent] payments if we serve food in the front and have a drug den and some dancing girls in the back,” Marilyn jokes, handing me a toffee-flavored hard candy.
How Washington has avoided complete gentrification, unlike it’s sister streets, is unclear. In terms of zoning it has all of the same laws as Vanderbilt and Franklin, and it’s certainly not without commercial value. The Brooklyn Museum and a nearby subway line ensure a ton of foot traffic, and residential prices (on both sides of Washington) have increased over fifty percent over the last five years.
Still, Washington Ave, is beset on both sides with shops that have been closed for several years with no indication of new ownership, or spots with the mark of soon-to-open butcher paper on their windows, yet the doors remain closed each passing season. When new Starbucks or artisanal mayonnaise shop (RIP) businesses came to the neighborhood, they skipped over Washington Ave. in favor of Franklin and Vanderbilt. Maybe, the construction of a high rise condominium where a beloved (if tiny) restaurant once stood is the signal of that eventual change.
The Islands is moving just down the block and that’s exactly the kind of change that Washington is comfortable with, a way for the neighborhood to grow without losing its authenticity. It’s also a move that Marilyn and Shawn are themselves incredibly excited for, one that they had been thinking of for years but the buyout forced to happen.
“We’ll be able to do so much more.” Shawn says, “Right now we only do dinners; once we have the space we’ll be able to do lunch, brunch and have a bar. It’s something we’ve been thinking about for eight years, this forced us to do it.”
The Islands will reopen at its new location on the corner of Washington and Prospect Place in about six weeks, two doors down from The Way Station, a bar popular among Doctor Who fans. Hopefully the street won’t change too much before then and Marilyn and Shawn can keep their doors open to the neighborhood that needs them.
Follow @KatyHartnett for more updates about Prospect Heights