Mott Haven Dog Boutique Challenges Traditional Gentrification Narrative

Sandwiched between an auto body shop and a commercial plumber, Little L’s Pet Boutique, with its bags of “savory salmon” dog food and locally-sourced treats, may look out of place.

But on Bruckner Boulevard along the Mott Haven waterfront, an area that has long struggled with crime and neglect, upscale businesses like Little L’s are becoming more common. 

Some, like the controversial Double Dutch coffee shop around the corner, are financed and run by development interests. Two Manhattan-based real-estate agents opened the shop in 2016 with help from Keith Rubenstein, the developer who gained notoriety for trying to rebrand the neighborhood “The Piano District” in a billboard advertising luxury apartment rentals. Rubenstein is also an investor in at least three other new business in the neighborhood, The New York Times reported last year.

Others like Lenny Forde’s pet shop are the creation of individual entrepreneurs taking advantage of cheap rent to bring something new to the neighborhood. Forde originally leased the space after hunting unsuccessfully in Brooklyn for an affordable space to house his growing business baking dog treats. But, after hearing Mott Haven residents complain about the lack of convenient pet stores in the neighborhood, the 43-year-old Trinidadian immigrant put up a wall in the front of his commercial kitchen to create a storefront selling healthy pet food and other essentials for local dog owners.

Mychal Johnson, a community organizer who leads South Bronx Unite, a neighborhood advocacy group, fears that businesses like Forde’s may attract wealthier tenants resulting in the displacement of local residents. The real estate speculation and the new businesses, some opened by developers, are leading to the potential for heavy gentrification,” said Johnson. “It’s really knocking hard on the door.”

But, Johnson does not object to giving new businesses like Little L’s a chance. South Bronx Unite has published a list of demands for entrepreneurs and developers seeking to do business in the neighborhood. “We’re looking at local job creation, local economic development, and paving the way for true growth and economic opportunities for existing residents. If businesses are willing to do those types of things, bless ’em. If they’re only here to service the needs the wave of new occupants coming in to pay higher prices for services, we’re not with it,” said Johnson.

Forde is currently the only full-time employee of the business, but he employees shift workers from around the city to run the kitchen and hired a saleswoman part-time last month. She lives in one of the many affordable housing complexes nearby.

Forde is also trying to reach out to Mott Haven residents who live outside the new Bruckner Boulevard developments. He has identified dog owners with local zip codes using an online service and mailed out advertisements.

But, he is aware it could be a hard sell. A 5-ounce bag of Krak’ems dog treats, his best-selling product, sells for $18 online. To help make his treats affordable for local residents, Forde has begun selling smaller bags for $10 and offers a discount for customers of the boutique.

On a Monday in early-September, Kim Holmes, who was out walking her dog Chica in the courtyard of the Mill Brook Houses just across the highway, said she hadn’t heard of Little L’s, but was willing to give it a try if prices were reasonable. She didn’t think $10 was too steep.

The reception among locals, Forde said, has been positive. “Everyone basically wants the same thing,” he said, “the wellbeing of their dog.”

Business to the storefront is not exactly booming. Forde said he gets five to 10 customers per day, mostly to purchase his flagship treats. Little L’s is still largely a wholesale business, distributing to local New York pet shops and shipping around the United States from its online store. 

Still, it’s too early to gauge the boutique’s success. Developers have told Forde that the area will become the next Williamsburg, referring to the rapid transformation of the once working-class Brooklyn neighborhood to an upscale destination. “Over the next three to five years, we will have a big jump in the residential density in that area which will support the small businesses,” predicted Michael Brady, executive director of the local Business Improvement District.

Money is already flowing into the neighborhood. A new 12-floor luxury apartment building, co-developed by JCAL and the Altmark Group, just opened this summer. Brookfield Properties, the development company behind Greenpoint Landing which encompasses seven towers on the Brooklyn waterfront, recently paid $165 million for the rights to a 1.3 million square-foot site two blocks west of Little L’s. It recently told TheRealDeal, a real estate news site, that it has plans to build 1,300, mostly market-rate, apartments.

Meanwhile, the city is soliciting proposals for development on top of a 12.8-acre railyard directly behind the shop. One $700 million submission includes apartments, retail space and a 25,000-seat soccer stadium, reported YIMBY, an online publication covering new development in New York.

Development advocates dispute the notion that these projects are at the expense of current residents. “These are vacant, underutilized brownfields that are being turned into housing,” said Brady.

Around half of new units being built in the neighborhood in the next five years will be rented at below-market rates, according to statistics compiled by Brady.

The South Bronx badly needs these new apartments. The city’s Department of Health reported three years ago that 79 percent of rented homes in Mott Haven and surrounding neighborhoods have maintenance violations, the second highest rate in the city.

In the meantime, a new pet store may be a welcome addition to the neighborhood. According to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, there’s only one pet shop for every 369 registered dogs in the Bronx, the lowest rate of any borough outside Staten Island.

In St. Mary’s Park to the north, James Mack said he appreciated the idea of a local store within walking distance. He currently pays for a cab to take him to Target where he buys 50-pound bags of dog food for his pair of Rottweilers.

Purchasing premium dog food simply isn’t an option for many residents of Mott Haven, which lies in the poorest congressional district in America. According to census data, 45 percent of people in Little L’s zip code live under the federal poverty line.

Residents are already feeling the impact of changes brought on by gentrification. Delkys Baez, 25, said he now pays $10 for the same sandwich that used to be $5 not long ago. Baez, who grew up in Mott Haven, earns $13.50 an hour working at a nearby Chipotle.

Luis Rodriguez used to visit Bruckner Boulevard, once known as Antique Row, to purchase cheap furniture. “I haven’t been down there lately but I hear it’s more higher end,” said Rodriguez, a longtime resident who manages the 138th Street Community Garden. “Basically, they’re catering to a different demographic.”

Even though many locals never go down to the waterfront, the influence of its development ripples outward in the form of higher rents. Rents have already risen 15 percent in the last year alone according to the real estate website Zumper. Local affordable housing advocates worry that the spike in rents pose a dire threat to many families. According to census data, 49 percent of households in the South Bronx are “rent burdened,” meaning they spend more than 35 percent of their income on housing.

For the developers, however, higher rents mean higher profits and they’ve been eager to work with small businesses like Little L’s that cater to wealthier tenants. Rubenstein’s development company, Somerset Partners, has consulted Forde in the creation of a new dog park tucked behind Somerset’s headquarters, a recently renovated commercial building on the western end of Bruckner Boulevard. It’s spotless, with shade trees overhanging benches and water bowls. A maintenance man comes by every day to fill the doggy pool and clean up trash.

But, a local activist warned that partnerships with developers come with a cost. “Ultimately, they displace first the community that these entrepreneurs purport to serve,” said Elliot Liu, a member of Take Back the Bronx, a community advocacy group dedicated to fighting gentrification.  “And then the entrepreneurs themselves.”

Forde, however, believes he’s helping to revitalize the community. “We’re not here to push you out, we’re here to help you up,” he said.

Forde has seen quite a few changes in his own life. He grew up in the countryside of Trinidad and Tobago. There weren’t other kids around, but his grandmother kept dogs. “We did not have house dogs, they were literally in the backyard,” he said.

Ever since, Forde and dogs have shared a special affinity. When a friend with two Maltese-Shih Tzu sisters moved in to a smaller apartment, Lenny stepped in to adopt them. Little L’s is a reference to their names, Lily and Lulu, and Krak’ems the result of months in the kitchen experimenting to find a food they’d eat.  

That experimenting has paid off. Little L’s has been profitable since Krak’ems’ first year on the market, and Forde now has big plans for the business. He hopes to expand Little L’s into a lifestyle brand covering the breadth of dog owners’ needs like bowls, leashes and even parks.

The decision to set up shop in the South Bronx might have initially been a practical one, but Forde admits the neighborhood has grown on him. He used to tell friends he’d rather meet up in Manhattan. “Now,” he said, “I’m telling my friends, come, let’s hang out around here.”

Lenny Forde holds up his company’s flagship product, Krak’ems dog treats, inside his new storefront.

Leave a Reply