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Michael de Zayas

Oral history interview conducted by Amaka Okechukwu

March 17, 2017

Call number: 2016.027.1.08

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DE ZAYAS: We-- I think we do have some control over that, over the temperature if you want to change it; those knobs in the front.

OKECHUKWU: That's OK. The temperature's fine. I'm just recording for maybe ten seconds. OK. So this is Amaka Okechukwu interviewing Michael de Zayas at CUNY School of Law. It is March 13, 14?

DE ZAYAS: Seventeenth.

OKECHUKWU: Ooh, March 17, 2017, and I'm excited to be here. So, beginning, can you tell me your name, your date of birth, and where you were born?


DE ZAYAS: Michael de Zayas, I was born in Miami, Florida, and I already forgot the question.

OKECHUKWU: Your birthday.

DE ZAYAS: Oh, yeah, [date redacted for privacy], 1973.

OKECHUKWU: Great, so can you tell me a little bit about growing up in Miami, any memories that you have?

DE ZAYAS: Yeah, I grew up in Hialeah actually, which borders Miami, and at that time was 100% Cuban. I feel, well, I guess it was 99% Cuban. It was totally a world into itself, and everyone spoke Spanish, and we-- I ate Cuban food growing up. My father is Cuban, and he came from Cuba in 1961, he was 16. He met my mother in New Jersey in high school, and then after they got married and had a 2:00baby they moved to Miami-- after my sister was born-- and I was born in Miami. My family had become Cuban. My mother learned Spanish, learned to cook Cuban food, and we-- That's what we ate every day, and when you go outside in Hialeah, those were the choices and the stores and the markets. So it was very much like having -- if I had grown up in Cuba in a town, in the city, maybe like Havana. So, it was a unique place and I went through -- I went to a public high school, Hialeah High, and very blue collar, lower middle class, immigrant 3:00community that I felt part of and also wanted to escape.

OKECHUKWU: What kind of, what kind of kid were you? How would you describe yourself? What were your interests?

DE ZAYAS: I don't remember too much about my early childhood to be honest. I start to remember things really in, like, high school. I rely on my mother to tell me what kind of child I was.

OKECHUKWU: What kind of teenager were you, then?

DE ZAYAS: I was a combination of rebellious and overachieving. I was sort of simultaneously overachieving and underachieving. My grades were very poor in school and yet I was a leader in some sort of write-- literary pursuits. So I 4:00was editor of the newspaper, and I worked for the Miami Herald as a writer, through internship programs, and the NBC affiliate there, and I guess the normal things like going to school really bored me, and I found challenges in doing debate. I guess some of these more intellectual pursuits that didn't have to do with school. I did a lot of sports, too. I wasn't good at any of it. But I did get five varsity letters in badminton, golf, tennis, wrestling, and cross country and I was terrible at all of them, but so was everyone else on the sports teams, so I managed to be part of it. I liked doing a lot of things. I led the Hialeah Youth Advisory Board which was part of the city council. I was 5:00the president of that.

OKECHUKWU: So what did they do?

DE ZAYAS: Not a whole lot. There was the talent show. There was battle of the bands and some, like, litter cleanup. It wasn't too impressive of an organization. In part, my fault, of course, looking back. But you know, when you're 15, 16, 17, it's really hard to get a sense, for me, of the world as it was. I wanted to be part of it and change it. But I didn't really know how, and I feel like the models for that were not really around me. So my escape into the larger world was through journalism, and there I could interview people 6:00and be part of the larger reality of the daily newspaper. That was thrilling for me.

OKECHUKWU: So, you mentioned growing up that there was this appreciation and this love for where you were from but also this desire to escape. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

DE ZAYAS: Yeah, I guess it's nothing I've ever really analyzed or thought too deeply about. Because I imagine so many of us are at that age wanting to escape parental control, rules, curfews, and to escape generally, to become your own person. It's hard to separate that from cultural elements, but I do remember thinking there was a lot of hypocrisy involved in the culture that I was a part of. There was a lot of -- I was never a big fan of the greetings, all the 7:00kisses that would go on when you said hello and goodbye to somebody, and people you didn't know, and the sort of forced intimacy. So, you know, if I -- when I go back now the culture is absolutely fascinating to me, and I love so much about it. There was also a component, I felt, of the-- I continue to feel today, is the car culture which happens in so many places, maybe except New York and San Francisco, very few places-- but the lack of connection to other people. It's interesting to think of it.

Gosh, I want to tell you a horrible story that I just thought of that occurred to me, for instance. To segue into it, there's a lack of real connection and 8:00interaction in this culture where there's no walking on the sidewalks; where everything's just far away. I grew up thinking of myself as a minority, and indeed was. But a kind of-- It's a kind of minority experience that actually, I suppose, most minorities have; which is growing up around people like yourself and not being able to have normal close interactions with a diverse array of people-- and that-- New York is really good for that. It also has its own 9:00replica of the segmented reality. But one of the things I enjoyed most about Crown Heights was the reality of the interaction. I don't want to get too far ahead, but I remember living in Fort Greene 10 years prior to that and it was nothing like Crown Heights for some reason but I haven't thought about that, I don't know if I can explain that offhand, and I've decided not to tell that horrible story. It's a good one, but--

OKECHUKWU: It's totally up to you. What did your parents do for a living?

DE ZAYAS: My mother is and was a teacher. She taught elementary school and gifted, and my father was in residential real estate in Hialeah for a long time. 10:00He had a small real estate office; it was a Century 21 office, and he sold houses near where we lived. So, yeah, they were both solid middle class jobs, and-- that they both enjoyed.

OKECHUKWU: With your dad being from Cuba, did you have other family members that were in Miami or were you guys just kind of your own little unit?

DE ZAYAS: No. On my father's side of the family there were a lot of people in Miami; his father, my grandfather-- who's 100 years old right now, yeah-- and 11:00his wife, my father's sister and her family, my sister, and cousins, my father's cousins, and some of his aunts and uncles. Some of them are still in Cuba. My mother's family was not in Miami so we didn't have as much interaction with them.

OKECHUKWU: So, let's see, you went to undergrad-- You were still in Florida, where you went to undergrad, correct?

DE ZAYAS: I went to undergraduate at Florida International University in Miami.

OKECHUKWU: Why did you choose to go there?

DE ZAYAS: I think it was my girlfriend was going there, and I was 17 when I graduated high school, and I hadn't done a good job of preparing for college. I wasn't really that interested in college. I wanted to do journalism, which is-- I did continue to do. Interestingly, I started the first day at FIU as the 12:00managing editor of the newspaper. So, you know, passionate about that was I. But I think that when it came down to it I just was in love with my girlfriend, Barbie Valdez, and thought that I should stay. Then we broke up about a year later. I burned through college as fast as I could; I did it in three years, and then came to New York.

OKECHUKWU: Did you always know that you wanted to be in New York or what brought you to New York?

DE ZAYAS: No, I didn't really know New York. My family did a lot of traveling, but it was closer to Miami. It was the Caribbean and, you know, Florida, and-- car drives mainly. So I didn't know the Northeast. But I knew I wanted at that 13:00point in my life to come to the Northeast and that, to me, Boston, and DC, and New York, and Philadelphia were synonymous with a more liberal culture. Also the weather was really appealing to me; cold weather, which I had never had, and was such a promise of a new life that-- When I applied for grad school, one of the schools I had gotten into was in New York and that was my top choice, but not for any specific reasons. I didn't really know, I just knew that it was the place to be.

OKECHUKWU: And that was Sarah Lawrence?

DE ZAYAS: Yeah, so Sarah Lawrence which is just half an hour north of the city and ended -- turned out it was a magical place; a wonderful school.

OKECHUKWU: Tell me about your time at Sarah Lawrence.


DE ZAYAS: Yeah, so I did a -- I was doing a masters of fine arts in poetry. In college, in undergrad I made a switch from my passion being journalism to being the creative arts, and fiction, and specifically poetry. I just ran across the right professors who encouraged me and told me about the existence of MFA programs, which I didn't know about. It seemed just the best and most worthwhile life a person could have would be -- was writing poetry, and sort of the most noble pursuit possible that I understood at that time. So to be able to just do that and nothing else and not have to worry about money because they gave you money; you just had to sign on the bottom line, whatever that meant, and to be surrounded by-- I think for the first time in my life-- a real campus. 15:00So, at FIU they had a very small campus; a commuter school. A very large university and a decent one but nobody really lived -- there wasn't that many people living on campus and it doesn't feel like a -- like Sarah Lawrence, which everyone lived there and it was so beautiful. You could interact in the way that living on a campus allows you to do. And so that was just a magical experience of being around other interesting people who cared about writing, and the arts. And so from -- for a boy who had come from a very different place, where I knew few people who were interested in the same things, it was a liberating and magical time.


OKECHUKWU: So after you finished at Sarah Lawrence did you move to the city proper?

DE ZAYAS: I did. I immediately moved into Manhattan, and I spent a number of years living in Manhattan; East Village primarily. I had some odd jobs. I worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a security guard-- which is, to this day, probably the best job I've every had-- and I got my art education through that job. I only spent three months there. But it was wonderful and immersive, and, you know, all the -- it was a fantastic gig because they had 300 guards, 350 I think, and you had to have a college degree, and so it was a great place for artists to work. They could be surrounded by other artists and art, and 17:00then hopefully work their way up into curatorial jobs, art handling. So it was just like another master's degree, it was a brief one. I taught -- I worked at John Jay College in some tutoring program and then basically I hit the road; traveling, and that's when I started my traveling life.

OKECHUKWU: Before we get to your traveling life, tell me about the first neighborhood that you lived in in New York City.

DE ZAYAS: It was random, because a friend who went to Sarah Lawrence had an apartment he loved, and he was leaving it. Even at that time it was impossible to get an apartment that you could afford. This was 1996, and he had an apartment; a studio apartment for $400 on the Upper West Side. It was 105th 18:00Street and Manhattan Avenue, a beautiful block, and you had no kitchen; that was the only -- that was not a problem for me because I ate pizza three times a day, and that's all I wanted to eat at that time anyway. That wasn't an issue but it was a beautiful studio and it was $400, which was super cheap, and I stayed there for-- I don't remember how long. But that was the first neighborhood was the Upper West Side, so I was sort of contiguous with the Columbia University area and it's right next to Central Park, and it was a lovely place to live. I think I spent most of my time just heading downtown on the train for my entertainment, but that was a great place.


And then I moved to the East Village and spent -- which was the place to be for writers, and had a series of awful, but wonderful apartments. My residential life in New York City began then, and I always thought that that was the New York way; where you have an apartment for six months to a year, and you pay as little as possible, and you have four brick walls around you and no window, and no venting, and a disgusting shower, and seven roommates, and you consider yourself lucky. And you bounce from one to the next and that was just part of being young in New York City. So I had about three or four different apartments in East Village over two or three years, and then after traveling, ended up at 20:00some point in Brooklyn. Still have to figure out the chronology.

OKECHUKWU: So, what did community mean to you at that point in your life when you were still in Manhattan? You were young and going downtown and all of that.

DE ZAYAS: Community didn't mean that much to me. It meant -- it would have meant your friends, and, you know, there was something about being a poet that's-- was for me-- a sort of a solitary experience. And so, my community would have been probably my handful-- not a lot-- of poet friends who were in 21:00New York, and my girlfriend, and her friends. I never -- I loved, passionately, I loved New York. I loved it, I loved the architecture. I was -- one of the odd jobs I had was double decker tour bus guide and walking tour guide. I was always reading the AIA Architecture Guide to New York City or some other book, and I was writing -- a few years down the line I was writing for New York City travel books for Fodor's Travel Guide. I loved the city and I loved the history of, especially, of artists having lived there, and the beauty of the culture, 22:00and places in it.

But thinking retrospectively, I never experienced neighborhood community in Manhattan; which is something that now I throw off as an aside as a, like a, obvious reality, you know. Something you just say in two sentences to a tourist, "Oh, you would never live in Manhattan. If you lived here you would live in Brooklyn, because Manhattan doesn't have neighborhoods and doesn't feel the same, and it's too busy, and, sure, it looks like chaos because-- You wouldn't live here, it's--" you know. There are-- the neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens create a totally different lifestyle for you. So, part of that may just have been living in Manhattan at that point, and not understanding what was 23:00possible living in a different borough, but there's also just the -- yeah. It's funny to think about, but there was no, there was no neighborhood vitality-- outside of nightlife-- for a kid in his young 20s living in the East Village. I think that's part of just being young and not being able to see too much -- not being interested in families, and older people -- is my answer to your question. I think about living now in a community as almost the foremost thing that you 24:00think about, when you decide where to live, and that wasn't the case when I was younger.

OKECHUKWU: So tell me about the life of a travel writer?

DE ZAYAS: It's a good one if you can get it, especially if you're not in a relationship, don't have children, and those things. When you are in a relationship or have children, it's very difficult, and it's not really made for that. For my -- in my 20s it was wonderful to be able to travel on -- in my case as a freelance journalist, where someone else is picking up the tab for your meals and your accommodation, and that being part of the deal. So you could-- A, it was possible because I could never do those things on my own. And 25:00so basically, I was writing for Fodor's Travel Guides and you would get a thousand dollars to write a chapter of one of their books, and that-- you would spend that and a little more while you were there. So you would have free things but you wouldn't be able to -- You had to pay for your own airfare, so that was a big chunk of it, and then sort of, all the incidentals. That said, you could live like a millionaire. You could visit all the places and stay in the fancy hotels that you would never be able to do on a normal person's budget, and you were able to do it for a long period of time, which was quite exceptional.

When I was doing -- reviewing hotels for Miami and for New York City, in Miami I stayed in 30 hotels in 31 nights. Thirty different hotels; [laughter] which must be some sort of world record. Because that's what, I was just interested 26:00in seeing new things nonstop, and I still am. But at this time, that job gave me the opportunity to do that, and the same thing in New York. I stayed in just about 30 hotels, and so you can live like a different person, like a lot of different people, actually. You can live, you can live many different lives at once or at least gain perspective into other lives. In the travel industry -- and this was sort of luxury travel so we're talking about that world. I always traveled on my own since, at least, I was 17 and that travel life is very different. It's the budget travel. But being a travel writer is, in this case was-- in this case, like an entre into the world of luxury travel-- which was 27:00amazing. It taught me a great deal, and I ate a lot of great food, and saw a lot of great places. So I had the advantage of being a fluent Spanish speaker and was able to write for a lot of guide books, and specifically off the top of my head I did Argentina twice, and Uruguay twice, and Chile twice, and Cuba once or twice, different parts of Mexico a few times, and St. Martin, and Anguilla, and Miami, and New York City I mentioned, and there's like a dozen other places I'm not thinking of right now, the Bahamas, and just like places that I had 28:00never been to before, I was quickly able to become an expert on.

I'm trying -- Bermuda. Lovely places; it was a wonderful period of my life, and it ended essentially when my daughter was born. My travel world-- was sort of at that time-- had transformed into giving tours in Cuba. I had just started that, and just to be away from my daughter was very difficult for me. I didn't like it. I'm an intense daddy, and like to -- well, I fell in love with my daughter and wanted to spend a lot of time with her. It was just really hard to feel like I was abandoning, even if it was for a week and also to feel both sides; that I missed her and didn't want to do that. That effectively decided 29:00to not do traveling anymore. I did it for about 15 years, I think, and it was awesome. I was able to do it also, while I was running a big business and also before that time when it was sort of all I was doing, and sort of scraping my way by in New York City temping, and subleasing, and so on.

OKECHUKWU: So, how did you -- how did you start your own business in the midst of this traveling? What made you do that?

DE ZAYAS: It was an accident, actually. I can only look back in time at my whole life and say, "Oh, I had all of these qualities, I just wasn't aware of it." It just so happened that I was always having ideas that were funny to me 30:00and interesting to me, but say, no different than a poetic idea. A poetic idea might be like an idea for a metaphor, an idea for a poem, and so an idea for a business might pop into my head and sort of be treated the same way, which is essentially to be ignored. Also, I was -- I had identified myself since the age of about, well I guess, 20 when I started my MFA, and became a poet. So, that's what I was and everything else was sort of a distraction. I also was very actively anti-money, and being a poet doesn't mean you're anti-money by any means, but in my case it was sort of part of my identity and reality.

OKECHUKWU: What do you mean by anti-money, can you describe that?


DE ZAYAS: Yeah, money is a bad thing. If you were spending your time making money, you were spending -- you were making the world a worse place. Your values are corrupted, and you're not being present to the real world, your not -- your aims are misdirected. Does that make sense as a basic idea of what I meant? And definitely anti-business even to the point I would feel like that having a job was selling yourself short, selling your soul short. So, very high minded-- perhaps impractical-- ideas of how to live in the world. But just part 32:00of me, not something I was wrestling with. I just was living my life to create art and experience the world. It so happens that I had an idea for -- the idea comes out-- came out my love of my neighborhood which was Fort Greene. I had been traveling, bouncing between neighborhoods in New York, and I ended up-- probably randomly at some point-- in Fort Greene. It was by far the most beautiful place I had been in New York, in terms of living. I wanted to make a sweatshirt that said Fort Greene on it, that looked great, and there was nothing at that time that had any neighborhoods on them for New York City, and this 33:00sounds crazy, doesn't it? It's just true. There may have been like a Soho or something, but some -- outside of like one. Maybe you could find "Times Square," I don't know, but the point is there was just nothing. I wanted one for myself. Because I was just bursting with pride of living in this amazing place, and had it -- found a way to have it made, and I found basically a sports uniform place, and I told them how I wanted it to look, and people loved it. I loved it and people loved it. It just said in white block letters-- three-inch block letters across the front of the sweatshirt, a zip sweatshirt in an arch, it said-- "Fort Greene." People were immediately asking me for them and saying 34:00they would give me money. I thought of a name for -- the name just sort of popped in my head, Neighborhoodies, and it was a good name. It was sort of like, oh, I came up with this great name. It's sort of like people are asking me for this, maybe I should try to do something. I made a website, and I made like three more sweatshirts. I took pictures of friends wearing them, and I put an ad in the print edition of The Onion-- which was all there was of The Onion at that time-- and it cost about $75, I did one ad and I sold about three through this website I had somehow taught myself to do. I put another ad-- because of that it, like, paid for the next ad-- and then it sold a couple more, and then I learned that I could bill me later for the ad, and then it somehow, 35:00like somebody -- it was a journalism student at Columbia who called me about it, and he did a thing for his class, and it ended up his teacher was at the New York Times, and they wrote it in the New York Times, and then everybody wanted to write about this. It was on all the TV shows, and I had no idea what was happening to me. This was just like a funny idea-- and because I was so anti-business in my personal philosophy, I really fought it every step of the way-- but it was enabling me.

In my apartment, I bought a sewing machine, and hired somebody, and I started making them on my own, and it just grew. It grew in, like, a crazy way that you almost never hear about; which is from like zero to a million dollars in sales in a year without any intention of it happening. It's unbelievable to think, 36:00but there were-- at the end of that year-- there was 40 employees. Saying that now, it's been a long time. I used to talk about this all the time when I had the company. It's been about seven years since I -- since that ended. I haven't talked about it in a long time. So it's just sort of crazy to say this out loud now about how fast that grew. But, clearly, in talking about it, I can recognize that I had those skills because -- and I turned out to be a rather pure entrepreneur. The ability to hire people just to -- even to hire 40 terrible employees is not easy, and to handle all those orders and so on. I 37:00basically, accidently discovered a knack I had for creating a business. I was able to take an idea that I had, which doesn't sound original now, but was actually mind blowing in its originality at that time; to be able to customize any garment, and basically had the American Apparel catalog, and then to choose any style of lettering, and to choose your neighborhood or anything you wanted to say. It was an empowering situation where you could create your own wardrobe. In fact, now that I've sold this company, they stopped doing what I was doing in terms of the quality hand stitching. You can't actually get it anymore, anywhere. You can get sweatshirts, but you can't get that quality.


So, now, all the time I want things and I can't -- I wish I'd kept a machine for myself. So, that happened, and then I spent the next eight years -- it took over my life, and it grew a lot. It grew in, just in terms of sales it went from one million, two million, four million to five million and then it grew too fast, and I had to -- I forget actually what happened. I've blocked it, but the sales started to go down after that because I couldn't advertise anymore and couldn't do a lot of things. It's -- Then it went down to like three million and then one million, and I had no interest in dealing with the financial problems. So, it went from massive creativity that was -- every day was a challenge and an 39:00exciting opportunity. We were doing crazy things that were way ahead of our time like daily videos that were called, "The Morning Announcements." This was like, before YouTube, and we had created a culture that was vibrant, and really interesting, and with like a hundred young people who were producing really interesting work, and we were coming up with 10 T-shirts a day of our own ideas. It went from really fun to financial problem solving. So I decided I didn't want to -- I wasn't interested in solving those problems. So my solution was to get out of it, and to sell the company; for far less than it was worth, in retrospect.

I had, also, retail stores. So along the way I learned to open retail stores. 40:00I had, at different points, about 10 Neighborhoodie stores across the country. They were very productive and had good sales volume. There was a massive education over the years, and I -- my identity had sort of been stolen from me. I was able to do about three months of full-time travel writing all that time; so three months of the year I was on the road which was sort of wild that I was able to continue to soulfully exist in that manner. But I was known as the Hoodie guy. I could, it was -- it was cool. Like I could go across the country and be in my demographic at a party in Seattle, and everyone would know-- not who I was by face, but-- if I said it then they were, oh. Because we were one 41:00of the first companies to advertise online in a big way and in the right places. It was a big deal for a while. But it took my identity, and I was really exhausted by that and wanted to be a writer still.

I ended up in sort of -- at the same time, this is 2012 -- no, 2010, ended up in Crown Heights, and I'm sure we'll talk about, sort of, how that came. Basically, my life continued from one apartment to the next and there was a time when I had nice apartments. There was a three or-- [laughter] there was a 42:00little stretch there when, when Neighborhoodie was just doing really well. But essentially, the short story of 20 years in New York is going from apartment to apartment being priced out and moved along to the next neighborhood that was affordable, and I ended up in Crown Heights. I was married and my wife was working at Brooklyn Botanic Garden and this was closer. We were living in Clinton Hill and our landlord sold the building, and we were forced out. So we ended up coming into Crown Heights, which was geographically convenient. I knew nothing about the neighborhood. I had never been there before. But it was affordable, and it was convenient to my wife's work, and it was part of a long process of just living and moving from one neighborhood to the next in New York; 43:00which, again, is something that I loved. I loved learning about new neighborhoods, and being thrown into a new neighborhood and learning just like that much more, that many more miles of square footage in New York City and getting to know the city that way. But I was exhausted with the Internet, and I was exhausted with Internet marketing, and I hated it.

It felt false to me in a way that was, you know, just in terms of dealing with -- not dealing with people. I did have the retail component, but the company was so busy that basically my job was to run the-- well, not run the whole business-- but run the Internet portion from our headquarters in DUMBO. I just basically vowed that I didn't ever want to do Internet again and that marketing 44:00was soul sucking, and I didn't want to ever do that again. What I really wanted to do was open a social business that I could interact with people and make connections, and that's how my time in Crown Heights started. Original idea was to do a wine bar that would function as a coffee shop in the daytime and the wine bar license took a long time to get, and so it opened up-- sort of accidently just in terms of timing-- as a coffee shop first. It was named--my daughter had just been born, my first daughter, so she was born in Crown Heights, and her name is Zelda de Zayas-- and so we named the place Little Zelda 45:00because it's super tiny. It's like 200 -- it's like 180 square feet, actually, I think, so it was little and she was little and that rhymed. I wanted to create a really comfy looking coffee shop that-- people would talk to each other or read in and not be on their laptop. My experience was that, when I moved into Crown Heights, there was a bagel shop. It was a, it was-- it's still there.

OKECHUKWU: Pulp and the Bean.

DE ZAYAS: Pulp and the Bean, and that was-- that's basically a to-go place. Then there was Breukelen (spelled the Old Dutch way) coffee shop which was 46:00basically the only coffee shop. And the -- I --not as a resident but after -- I mean, sorry. Not as a customer, later on I met one of the owners, Frank, who is a lovely, lovely guy. I didn't know him at that time. I was going as a customer and I hated it. I didn't hate the business; I hated the atmosphere that you would sit, and you would sit at this table and you would open up -- and there would be somebody sitting right next to you, and you sat, and you would sit down, and they wouldn't look at you. They wouldn't say hello. It bothered me so much. I had experienced -- I have great empathy for kids in their 20s in 47:00New York who come from other places or come from anywhere-- but I think especially come from other places-- and just like the experience of loneliness in New York is a reality, and it's really hard to meet people.

I was sort of -- I mean, I was, how old was I then? I came to Crown Heights. I was probably 30 -- I was in my late 30s; I can't remember, 36, 37. I didn't have to -- that was not my reality anymore but I just -- I'm passionate about friendliness, and I've come to use the phrase -- when I later created organizations, I promoted the phrase "radical friendliness" as a way to combat the silence that you get from your neighbors. Because there's this -- I don't 48:00ever hear people talking about this either. There's a -- you want to, sort of, not be the person who looks, A, uncool, B, bothering the other person, and there's also a C and D. There's all these reasons. Basically, you're not allowed to -- as a young person in your 20s, you probably are under a lot of pressure not to speak to people. That was the reality in this coffee shop and it was just -- I was like -- I can't -- I couldn't do it after a few times. If you say hello to somebody and they have their headphones on, and they don't look at you, and it's like we're all zombies here. I had been wanting to create a social reality for myself as a way to exist. I wanted to create a business, let's just say, that would be a social outlet.


So, I took the lessons learned-- that I was learning from living in Crown Heights and not, and being invisible-- to create a coffee shop where it was intentionally constructed to avoid the use of laptops without banning them, which is another rule that -- you know, without creating rules that would be uncomfortable to use laptops, and then there's also subscriptions to literary magazines, the New York Times, and a way to create a experience of community through engagement. It was also, to begin with, a very small space. So there was an intimacy created just -- you couldn't help but have to really get to see your barista and the people next to you, and you're rubbing elbows literally. 50:00What -- at the beginning we weren't sure if this was going to be too uncomfortable physically -- oh, sorry, did it fall?

OKECHUKWU: No, it's fine. It's just a little--

DE ZAYAS: Sorry. At first, when we were designing this coffee shop, I wasn't sure if this was going to be too uncomfortable. You'd sort of have to really squeeze and turn sideways, and the tables were so close to each other, and they were little tiny round tables, and they are, and it just worked perfectly. The stories of people who have made all of their friendships in the neighborhood through that place at Little Zelda, and marriages, are inspiring. People have to meet somewhere and so everyplace you go there's someone who met there and is going to get married there. But this is, was an active culture that was 51:00intentionally created to create community, camaraderie, and conversation between people in this space. There were other components to it that would add to that; the outdoor seating -- indoor, outdoor seating, the greenery, you know. I spent thousands of dollars on flowers, on plants, to create this place of comfort and ease in relating to the person-- who you don't know-- who lives next to you.

OKECHUKWU: So this idea of radical friendliness --

DE ZAYAS: -- and while you're talking. I would need to go to the bathroom.

OKECHUKWU: Yeah, go ahead.

DE ZAYAS: In short, bathroom break.

[Interview interrupted.]


OKECHUKWU: Okay so, again, this is Amaka Okechukwu, Michael de Zayas part two. You had mentioned this idea of radical friendliness, and it seems in some ways it's very much connected to your ideas about community?


OKECHUKWU: When did -- when did you start, I guess, embracing that? Because you mentioned in your 20s you were kind of your typical young New Yorker. So when did this -- the idea of this radical friendliness and the importance of that become more present in your life?

DE ZAYAS: It was when I had my daughter. It was a radical transformation in my life, an unexpected and unplanned one. I found myself different, extroverted for the first time in my life. And it sort of just overcame me. And I found -- I was a stay-at-home dad and, so basically, my wife was home for three months 53:00and then she went back to work. And I stayed with Zelda and it was a wonderful experience. It was very intense, overwhelming experience. But one I embraced and found myself instantly connected to other parents, specifically other parents. It has a peripheral effect in, of relating to other people, as well. But it was sort of a joyful instant connection to everyone else who had a family. And I went around talking to everyone who had a baby in my neighborhood because I was walking all the time; had the sling and she sleeps when you walk, so. Basically, I gave myself permission-- it was more like permission was 54:00granted to me from on high, but-- to speak to everyone. Basically, I was like "Hi, who's this? Who's your baby? This is my baby." You know, "Who are you? Where do you live? Let's get together," and I started a neighborhood parents group. Eventually became a list and that list exists today; Crown Heights Parents Group or something.

And, but it was -- more importantly, it was this connection that I had and so literally every person with a child I spoke to; a young child, too. Because at that age the difference between a four year old and a six month old is like, you know, the difference between an 80 year old and a 20 year old. It seems like 55:00that way for the parents, anyway, for me it was. So, people who I could connect to having young children, I thought we should all, like, share in this experience, and I would send emails to this group that were sort of philosophic in nature and would encourage -- when somebody new came in, that's what it was. When I met somebody new and I said, "Hey, do you want to join the parents group?" And "We get together every Tuesday at somebody's house," and I said we have the opportunity here-- in this very special neighborhood-- to assert values 56:00that we believe in, that is impossible in other neighborhoods.


DE ZAYAS: In-- When I would walk across Flatbush Avenue into Park Slope my child would disappear, no one would say hello. You would become invisible as a parent because of a few reasons; the most important one being there are so many kids in Park Slope. It's nothing new to them. In Crown Heights, there just weren't a lot of stay-at-home parents, and there was a uniqueness about it. There was an existing flavor to the neighborhood also, from its existing residents that were -- that was friendlier. So, anyway, the short story is that 57:00as a new parent, I felt such pride to announce my child to the world, to say, [laughter] you know, "Lo and behold, here is a child that's new to the world. Here's a spring bud, everyone look at this flower, and look at the flowers all around us. Isn't this an amazing place? Let's celebrate life and the values we believe in."

The first value that I wanted to assert was communication with each other, so just being able to say, "Hello, how are you? My name is Michael, what is your name?" There was-- There were some architectural notions behind this about what makes a good community. They came from Jane Jacobs and the interaction of people and shops. The shopkeepers looking out for the children's security. 58:00There was Ray Oldenburg, I believe is his name, had a book that influenced me, The Good Great Place. The ideas were fomenting in my mind and there was an active laboratory, so to speak. I didn't think of it that way, but I was just walking around passionately meeting people and saying, "Let's form a community here; where we are super nice to each other, where we respect each other, where we look out for each other." I think that I was right in that it was a special moment in time. I was coming in blind to the neighborhood, but the people that 59:00I was meeting were super friendly. And, like I said, I didn't necessarily experience that in other places.

Now, if two dads are anywhere in the United States and have-- or two moms and they have-- babies of the same age and they run into each other, there's likely to be a nice conversation there. That isn't so unique. But the phrase "radical friendliness" came up in this context where when I met a new young family; young meaning it was their first child or there was a young child involved. I think I responded especially to the concept of new families, because your second child and your third child is actually quite a different experience. It's less terrifying for sure, which I can attest to now. So, you know, here we are and 60:00we have a community and we have a great neighborhood, and let's try to foster radical friendliness, and so what does that mean? It means -- and this is like specific, written down -- when you see somebody who has a child, say hello to them and introduce yourself by name, and ask them their name, and where they live, and say something nice to them. [laughter] The other thing about having a new child, especially a first child, is it's very isolating. There's a lot of -- by definition, there's a lot of times when the baby's asleep. You don't have -- there's a lot of, there's a lot of confusion, sleep deprivation, and so I saw 61:00the magic happening where-- especially for moms, it's true-- being able to connect to another mom in the same situation was psychologically uplifting and relieving.

Eventually, I developed this into a physical space. So, again, I was coming into Crown Heights with -- I had already opened, I don't remember how many, but-- about 10 stores previously. And, so, that was -- that was so easy for me. I know how to open a store. I know how to sign a lease. None of it's easy, but it's just steps that you take. So, I had this -- we're many families strong and I had the idea to have a physical storefront for families that they could 62:00just go to and hang out, and there would be toys, and books, and there would be yoga classes, movement classes, soccer, whatever -- things to do. I came-- well, responded to the idea of "it takes a village" and named it that-- because it was available actually-- and with other parents developed a little website, and I found the space, and I put some money on the line, and basically got a space and handed the keys over to other parents who wanted to do it. The idea was a dollar a day would allow anybody of any income to be able to enter. Because when something is just free, it's not as special. Things can happen. So, sort of a nonprofit idea and eventually did literally become a nonprofit, 63:00but that took a while.

We opened this storefront called It Takes a Village and the first week, like the sign-up weekend, I think there was 60 families. It was a-- so it was a huge success in terms of initial engagement. I felt that I had really connected to a mission in life. The response was overwhelming. People were just so full of gratitude and it solved a problem; a series of problems. It was another big moment in my life; where having my daughter opened me to the outside world, 64:00created an extroverted personality in me, and then I was able to coincide that with a mission. Forming It Takes a Village really signaled to me that I had -- that there was something deeper in my life that I connected to. I became passionate about this organization, but also, sort of, having this public-minded mission in my life. It Takes a Village itself shuttered after a year and a half, and the main reason is that I didn't step aside. There were logistic operational reasons. I just didn't step aside cleanly enough to let somebody else be in charge, and yet I wasn't doing -- I was, I didn't have enough 65:00attention. That's sort of a different story.

It's something that can be resurfaced and in--interestingly, one of the reasons I ended up going to law school, is that experience taught me. I had an experience with a person that I will call a bad landlord, one who is not interested in assisting -- was not at all interested; the difference between a Subway franchise and what we were doing. If I had known a little bit more about the law, it would have been very useful and empowering, and the whole thing would have still been alive to this day. I try to draw specific lessons from failures in my life, and that one was that -- one of them was that I felt that 66:00without a more powerful grounding in the world, I couldn't affect larger changes. So, specifically, I now wanted to create change in the world and felt that I was going to sort of -- that I didn't have the power to do it. That's one of the reasons that I ended up in law school which, in fact, is a very empowering experience.

OKECHUKWU: So, did It Takes a Village come first or what -- how far apart were Little Zelda -- were you doing those at the same time?

DE ZAYAS: Yes, yeah. I can't remember exactly, but I think that I had actually opened a business next door to Little Zelda and this was at that time. It was either before or after the second business. Little Zelda was opened probably 67:00six months before It Takes a Village got a storefront, yeah.

OKECHUKWU: So, what motivated you, after Little Zelda and even after It Takes a Village, to open up more businesses in the neighborhood?

DE ZAYAS: Yeah, so when I opened -- The idea of opening Little Zelda was actually to have -- in part, I didn't mention this before -- but to have a simpler life was part of my goal. I mentioned the social component of it, and the simplicity of it was highly appealing to me at that time. But basically the answer is that my entrepreneurial instincts kicked in. People were -- the great thing about a coffee shop is that you have unending conversations. You can have 300 short conversations a day or 50 longer ones. People were always saying, 68:00"This is a great place, what we need here is X. Will you open Z?" That's true today, too. People are always, sort of, coming up to me with things that they'd like to see in the neighborhood. Basically, it was a combination of; it made -- there were things that needed -- that the neighborhood -- that I experienced that I was lacking in the neighborhood. At the time of -- well, at that time, I was traveling a long way to get -- what was at that time the largest vice in my life -- which was a baguette, and I could not get a baguette in Crown Heights. I actually had to cross over Washington Avenue to Bklyn Larder. Is it on 69:00Washington, yeah, right? So, technically I had to leave the neighborhood for it, and it was not an easy walk either. It was like 15 minutes. That was like, "OK, if I need this, [laughter] if I want this convenience, there is certainly lots of other people who want that."

That was sort of an experience of what, what did I -- I guess I'm -- I'm driven by food. I never really thought about it, but I also wanted bagels. [laughter] So, basically, there was an entrepreneurial line of thinking, which is very practical. It's like, OK, we don't -- in this neighborhood there's not this, there's not this, there's not this. I don't want to wait around for somebody to 70:00open it. I actually want these things myself, and it's something that I know how to do and can do. Another factor is just curiosity. I want to learn about that field. I want to learn about cheeses. I definitely didn't want to learn about bagels, though. That's not something I'm interested -- but I'm interested always in, like, a new challenge and business provides that. It's like a real world moment of testing yourself against certain odds. It's scary, it's risky, it's -- you're doing things that you don't know how to do, and that's sort of just an interesting part of being alive.


So, I took a lot of those challenges, and that's the main reason at that time; I was taking ideas about and opening new businesses. Of course, the bookstore was just a moment where that's not about money. I can promise you, it's not about money. That's a big money loser. But I feel as like, you know, in part -- It's like so good for the neighborhood, and I think it just is the difference between living in a neighborhood with a bookstore and one without is huge for me, if I was living here. It's different when you're -- you own it. It's actually not as pleasurable. [laughter] But I know that it's a great thing. So, that's a moment where, there're -- for opening a bagel shop, you want to be able to get 72:00$30,000 profit and that would be a great thing and it helps you provide for your family and live, aspire to financial goals. The bookstore was not that. But also, it just feeds that part of me that wants to learn, and grow, and delve into passions. So, a combination of factors, I guess.

OKECHUKWU: In your experience both with the businesses in Crown Heights but also Neighborhoodies, what would you say are some important skills or instincts that entrepreneurs -- like, you know, good entrepreneurs should have?

DE ZAYAS: Yeah, I'd love to talk about this. You know, you can take -- These 73:00tests are very accurate; these, like, personality tests. Like, if you're an entrepreneur, you're a certain set. We idolize entrepreneurs in this country, I think totally unnecessarily, because it's just sort of -- it's just a personality type. [laughter] If you have the personality type, you do this. Anyway, so the answer is you have to be able to be OK with risk. I think it's probably a genetic flaw. It's like taking risks is probably a bad idea evolutionarily. I think it's probably a flaw that is -- shields me from a reality of consequences of risk or it's sort of like a lack of consequential 74:00thinking. The other way to phrase that is you're a go-getter who is courageous, and unafraid of risk, and takes chances, and learns from falling short, which is certainly the side that we celebrate. So, A, is happy to take risks.

I think that another important part is -- I'm going to phrase things in both ways, because I think I'm coming up with a book idea on the spot. Short-term thinking. So, one of the reasons that I was able to be OK with short-term living with apartments -- bad apartments in New York City for 20 years -- is that I sort of have a short-term mode of existence. I don't understand how to 75:00plan for 10 years naturally, and so I can think about, "Oh, this would be great for the next six months to live in this place, and I'll get to see this neighborhood, and learn." Same thing with a business; "Let's see if this works, and if it doesn't, oh, well, that's OK, we'll move onto the next thing." An inability to forecast and an inability to structure long term, looked at in a different way; courage and taking chances, trying out new concepts, an experimental mode is really helpful for entrepreneurship. Being, I guess, 76:00self-motivating and goal orientation -- even if it's short term -- is essential. I've taught some, sort of, dinky entrepreneurship and achievement classes. When I say dinky, I mean I'm not a college professor. Although I would love to teach in any setting. The first thing I say -- after I think about some -- "I'm going to talk about all these things that you can do to achieve things that you want to achieve. But the precursor for that is that you have to be a really motivated person, because if you don't do these things because you want to, and 77:00you get up -- It's OK to feel unmotivated the first hour of the day, but if after your coffee you don't feel motivated and don't return to your goal, then there's -- all of this is going to be -- you're not going to be able to do any of this stuff. Someone who is self-motivated, and goal oriented.

I've been talking for a long time about how I came to, sort of, this point in my life, and I mentioned the community intimacy exhibited in my original Crown 78:00Heights business, Little Zelda, which is consciously and intentionally created as an intimate setting where people can speak to each other, and there's an environment of engagement. I've spoken about community in terms of working to create a space, a physical space, an organization dedicated to new families getting to know each other, and that served my vision and my purposes for a long time, and it no longer does. What I have learned in Crown Heights after five years -- where I am about to open my eighth business in Crown Heights, and I have one in Bed-Stuy and one in Lefferts Gardens -- what I learned in five years 79:00in Crown Heights is that that vision is good for a certain segment of the population and is -- which is, I want to say, [laughter] -- far beyond what 90% of business, of entrepreneurs ever think about. Like, I'm certainly proud of what has been accomplished in terms of focusing on what the business means. But I feel that what business needs in Central Brooklyn is an especial attunement to 80:00issues of gentrification, and race, and that business as usual should be frowned upon.

It's a very high bar to set for business owners who are generally selfish, self-serving, and interested in only furthering their pocketbook. In America, we have a right to do that. It's well established. It is unfortunately modeled by our president, and we will have 50 million boys and girls who think it's OK to be selfish, and to hate, and to exclude. The kind of thing that New York City, and Brooklyn, and Central Brooklyn should be models of is the concrete opposite of that. What I want to try to do is create businesses that are 81:00centered around a core of reflecting the neighborhoods they're in, of delegating power within the business structures; meaning employment, managerial positions, career creation, to reflect the diversity and, frankly, to correct a lot of the injustice that has taken place from our country's -- What can I say? -- our 82:00country's history of disempowerment of minorities. So, I'm in the process of -- well, first I want to say that I'm grateful to everyone who pushes back against the grain. We have a grain that is self-serving, and unjust, and it -- What is this called that I'm doing with my hand? -- it gravitates towards consolidation 83:00of power in ways that aren't cool.

My vision originally, besides the things I've talked about, was that businesses can't do too much to counteract gentrification because landlords raising the rents are what creates housing problems, and businesses generally have to fend for themselves. The majority of businesses out there aren't necessities; they're ways that people use to make a living. So, my solution to that -- because I have not heard a valid, viable solution; a solution that would give me an answer on how I could counteract the problems -- was this; that the real 84:00thing that we could do, that I could do is keep out, was to create a network of stores that promoted community and neighborliness in keeping out, from their success, the Starbucks where there is no owner. The Subway where there's a franchisee who maybe lives in not the neighborhood; New Jersey or Florida or Staten Island or somewhere else, and are not there to meet the people and create the "hello, how are you, my name is." Of course, there are employees, but it's not the same. To create a network of mom and pop shops that would keep the 85:00franchises out, and the Verizon stores, and that was my vision. I'm in the process of, sort of, creating a different vision that is centered instead around -- Well, you need to have the stores to exist. But now that I have 10 stores, my particular answer is to share the power of employment of the stores and the other components with managers, employees, and decision makers who better reflect -- and can better integrate into the stores -- the neighborhoods that we operate in.


OKECHUKWU: So, what in your personal experience brought you to this particular vision? Like, were you receiving pushback the more businesses you had? Did you just start to think differently? What brought you to this point specifically in your own experience?

DE ZAYAS: I have no single answer. I'm a big believer in personal development and change. It's something that I have done. I'm one of these guys who reads the books, and who gives every, everybody a chance who's on TV -- like a Tony Robbins, to --that's talking about personal growth. I just listen. I think 87:00that there's -- it's really easy and often right. But easy to be cynical, and instead I just -- I'm a big believer in therapy. I'm a big believer in goal setting, and looking to progress and change, and think about how you can change the world by changing yourself. So, the first thing I want to say is that I spoke a little bit about how I ended up here at law school; in a very progressive, justice-oriented public service law school, the City University of New York. Part of that is being surrounded by people at my law school who have 88:00very different experiences, and ideas, and are passionate about justice from very different angles, and so we're always talking about that, we're always thinking about that. Part of it is being -- learning and being exposed to constitutional law, and history of injustice in our nation, an arc of progress; as difficult that is, as that is to talk about in today's political climate.

I also want to say that living in Crown Heights and having great neighbors and living with -- Because I've lived in Crown Heights for five years. I'm now in 89:00East Flatbush but I lived for five years, and it was the longest stretch of time that I've lived in any one place, outside of growing up in Hialeah, Florida, where I could really -- and, again, as a father and as a family man, from a different perspective, connect with neighbors and really come to understand different perspectives. The world moves fast, and it takes some sitting down and being with people for a long time to really grow trust and listening. Maybe that's a bit abstract.


OKECHUKWU: That's good. Can you speak more specifically about your decision to come to this law school and how that may figure into this larger vision?

DE ZAYAS: Yeah. It's a really exciting place to be because there's people getting a lot done. I have begun my work in -- with the community economic justice group -- in figuring out how both to transition power in my companies to the employees; which is about profit sharing, possible cooperative models, and also really honing and developing language that talks about how we hire, the kind of people we're looking to hire, and connecting through the law school to 91:00other organizations. So, I am really interested -- this is not a reality yet -- but I've been connected to, in the recent days and weeks, to some organizations that work with formerly incarcerated people, and that kind of employment opportunity is something that I really want my companies to be about. When I -- what excites me, now that I have 10 stores, is not about having more stores. In fact, my impulse is to really not have any more stores [laughter]. But -- just 92:00because the challenge of that is sort of gone. What really excites me now about growth is about how to grow a company, and in this case I'm thinking one that's easily replicable. So, in this case, Nagel's Bagels, which I think we have a great market niche. I think there's nothing out there like us, but we could have 60 stores in New York City. What excites me is not having 60 stores. It actually sounds -- I do not want to be known as the bagel guy, but I'm sort of writing my own epitaph here.

Is -- what excites me is, to have 60 bagel stores, is to start with this vision of who we employ, who we are as a company, how that reflects a vision of economic justice, what kind of good we can do in this world, what good can we do if we have 600 jobs to offer. That's exciting to me now, and so, formulating 93:00that philosophy and the reality of it. So that's essentially partnering with the right organizations, as we have with our new store which opened this week. The majority of our workforce is coming from Seedco and they have a program that -- they work with 36 kids from Central Brooklyn, ages 18 to 24, and they work with them for a two-year period, and it's about not just getting them a job but really getting them in a place that they're interested in, and they think they can grow. And it's exactly, you know -- this is thrilling for me to be able to be a part of that. So, that's something that -- being in law school is great because there's a, kind of, there's a legitimacy about talking to other 94:00professors or the clinics here. Well, the legitimacy actually comes outside of the university community but -- So I can work with people here who can recommend programs, and then I'm coming from the law school and it just makes everything more official, and you can probably skip a lot of unnecessary delays, and there's a power behind it that's compelling.

OKECHUKWU: So, can you tell me about -- gentrification is a very loaded word, right? Can you tell me about how you understand, I guess, that word and perhaps your experience of it or how you witnessed it in the neighborhood of Crown Heights?


DE ZAYAS: So, I think gentrification is something that I'm not quite smart enough to think about or to understand. I say that because there's a guy, maybe you know, named Nick Juravich, do you know him? He's in Crown Heights, and he's now in grad school at Columbia. I met him at Little Zelda's as a customer, and he's just one of the smartest people I have ever met, and he is -- he thinks about these things, and he talks about these things, and he writes. I am sort of humbled by his intelligence and feel like it's something that's sort of -- it's so complex that I, the answer, and I will -- I'm going to give you an answer from my perspective the best I can. But it is -- when this topic comes up I'm sort of, you know, it's daunting. It involves a lot of people's emotions 96:00and preconceptions, and it all rises to the surface. I'll give you an example of that. One of our customers at Little Zelda -- I think the first year we were open -- was a head honcho at the Department of Transportation, and he said, "We're doing this new thing with bike corrals, and do you want to do it?" And I said, "Absolutely, the more bikes the better." And so they put the metal circles on the street where a parking space would have been and so that it fits like 12 bikes instead of one car. I just had to sign that I wanted to do it, and I would have to pay for plantings, and keep it clean, and sweep it every day. So like, a no brainer; absolutely. Positive for the environment, positive 97:00for the greenery that would go instead of just this asphalt, positive for biking, for a lot of reasons that I think are quite logical, and I think the values behind it are ones that I really support.

Then there was a flare up about -- there was one woman, there was maybe a few other people that saw that bike corral as a symbol of gentrification, and I'm sure other things too; race, class. Things that would have never occurred to me and were not part of the decision-making process. So, I use that as an example 98:00of -- and so it got very complicated. It involved me personally and the business, and in that respect I -- it's very complicated. It's complicated, again, I think primarily because emotions are involved, and then there's not a lot of clear thinking about it. That said, the fact that these things would never occur to me also mean that, on my end, I'm not privy to a lot of things. So, and -- At that time, I was certainly not interested in listening to -- what 99:00I thought of was just sort of -- crazy talk. I was like, "Oh, this is a crazy woman, and she's saying crazy things." The reason that it would have occurred to me that way was because it was coming through emotion. There was not a good medium for communication about it. I'm daunted by it because there's such complexity and so many issues all the time when you're in a neighborhood that, and so -- What gentrification means to me as I understand it, and I don't claim to understand it in any intellectually profound way, is the process of money 100:00coming into a neighborhood through new residents and forcing out previous residents because of rising rent, new development at a higher cost, and basically displacement of old residents for new residents, and all the issues that come with that.

OKECHUKWU: So why did you move to -- I mean, I think we talked a little bit about this off the record. But why did you move to East Flatbush?


DE ZAYAS: I think that -- I think I -- I feel like that's almost too personal.

OKECHUKWU: No, that's fine, that's fine.

DE ZAYAS: Yeah, just because it involves money and --

OKECHUKWU: That's fine.

DE ZAYAS: OK. We could talk about it for a second off the record and then we could think about it and then start over if you want.

OKECHUKWU: OK, let me jump to something else. You, let's see, you first came to Crown Heights in 2010, is that correct?


OKECHUKWU: So, thinking about --

DE ZAYAS: Approximately.

OKECHUKWU: -- about when you came to the neighborhood in 2010, thinking about it now, how has it -- how has the neighborhood changed for you?

DE ZAYAS: So different, so different. You know, I started to talk before about when I moved in, and my daughter was born, and I felt like a new man, and I felt connected to my neighborhood in a new way. I felt extroverted and extremely 102:00connected to everyone in the neighborhood. Then, when I would leave the neighborhood and go into Park Slope, I would have a totally different experience; and it was an experience of invisibility, and lack of friendliness -- right, which was big on my mind -- and I thought was the basis of working towards a new community. I thought what we basically have to do here is prevent Park Slope from happening in Crown Heights, and I wasn't saying that in terms of -- well, let me think about it affirmatively.

I basically -- I'm of a personal opinion that people with money are less 103:00friendly. I base this on experience in -- as a business owner where my experience of dealing with tens of thousands of people tells me that people with less money are more willing to engage, on -- more quickly on a personal level, and more deeply. I guess I could speculate as to the reasons, I have some ideas. But this was -- this is basically my experience. And, so, having wealthier White people come into the neighborhood was something to be avoided, 104:00because my experience told me, A, they were not as friendly; and, B, not as interesting. [laughter] That's my personal bias as a result of thousands of conversations with people. What was the question? [laughter]

OKECHUKWU: No, it was more just about how the neighborhood has changed over the --

DE ZAYAS: Ah, yes.

OKECHUKWU: -- past few years.

DE ZAYAS: Our neighborhood has gotten a lot richer. It has gotten a lot whiter, and it has -- I'm trying to decide whether I should say it's become a 105:00lot less interesting. It might be on that cusp. I've had this conversation 200 times where people ask me, "What's going to happen to this neighborhood?" I used to be a lot more -- I used to have a different answer years ago, two years ago, I had a different answer. Then it started to change and I feel like -- well, I decided about two years ago that it was not going to work out for the neighborhood; that all I was doing to prevent -- to create friendliness and intimacy was powerless against what was happening. There's lots of examples of 106:00that, whether it's commercial rent costs, right? So, like if the space right next door to me, next door to 728 Franklin Avenue, is renting for -- because I was there while it was being built and so I got, you know, I'm interested in renting the space; it's really, it's going to be awesome space -- thinking that it would be like $6000, which -- Going back two years the highest rent that was paid was $6500 for a commercial space. And this rent -- so I was first in line and they called me, it was not advertised, so I thought I would have a good opportunity here, and I was told $12,000. I said, "Well, that's not for me," 107:00but frankly I don't understand how any business could make money with $12,000 rent here, you know, good luck with that.

All the new spaces that are that size which are like 1200 square feet with a backyard; there's another one that's $10, $11, $12,000, so that's what it is. So, what -- can afford -- you basically have to have a bar there. You have to have a bar/restaurant that does extremely well because you can't sell any products. And so what happens, you saw this on Smith Street, is that the rent -- You've got people coming in from outside to put expensive businesses, which could be cool as like a destination. Like, you're going out and you want to have a fancy dinner. That could be fun; I'm sure the food will be great, and the drinks will be expensive and delicious but that, it just is a different 108:00neighborhood. Unfortunately, it's too late for Crown Heights; for Franklin Avenue, anyway. Nostrand Avenue has so many commercial -- it's all commercial spaces all the way down from, well, probably -- for sure, from Atlantic to Eastern. It is literally on both sides of the street, little storefronts. When there's so many availabilities that sort of keeps the price down for a while. Franklin Avenue has fewer storefronts and so it's, sort of like, the fancier street. Of course, it's closer physically to the wealthier neighborhoods, so it was the first to develop. It's going to be really hard [laughter] for Crown Heights to maintain its authenticity and the clock is running short on that. I think that happened -- I could see that flip about two years ago. Until that 109:00time I was really optimistic. The neighborhood has changed a lot. There's a lot of people who land there now as renters, who would have previously ended up -- it's like there's no distinguishing now, almost, still not true -- but somebody's going to rent in Fort Greene versus Crown Heights or Park Slope. There's sort of -- I guess Crown Heights is still more interesting than those other places. But there's not a lot of difference in the rents, they're about the same. That's all happened really recently. I guess in the last few years.


OKECHUKWU: So where do you see the neighborhood in 10 years?

DE ZAYAS: In 10 years Crown Heights will be -- will be -- Can I ask you what you're thinking when you say that?

OKECHUKWU: I don't think I --

DE ZAYAS: You're saying, what do you think it will look like?

OKECHUKWU: Yeah, or how do you think people will experience the neighborhood in 10 years? Some people respond to that in a similar vein as you've just been talking about; like it's just too late for the neighborhood, it will be Park Slope.


OKECHUKWU: Officially in 10 -- you know what I'm saying? But other folks feel 111:00differently. People who've lived there for a long time sometimes say, "I'm still going to be here," you know. So, you can respond to that in whichever way makes the most sense [inaudible].

DE ZAYAS: In 10 years Crown Heights will be some mixture of where Fort Greene is today and Park Slope. I think that there's a vast -- there'll be a vast coverage of wealth, that includes Crown Heights, that extends from the East River, Downtown, Brooklyn Heights, and goes through Lefferts Gardens, and 112:00basically without -- I don't know how to describe the geography. I think, 10 years' time, there'll be -- it'll be impossible to -- there certainly won't be any affordable rent in Crown Heights, you know, assuming that Donald Trump does not totally destroy America; meaning war or tank the economy.

Then-- So if things continue in a normal economic cycle, then homeownership will be only for those who were lucky enough to own previously and held on or for extremely wealthy people, and renting will be the same. There's been such an 113:00interesting -- the people who have rented in Crown Heights in the last five years have been a really good bunch. It's been such an amazing -- because I've lived now 23 years in New York City and lived in a lot of neighborhoods, probably 20, and there was nothing to compare with Crown Heights in terms of a combination of friendliness, maturity, and interestingness. There's a ton of writers, there's a ton of musicians, and when I say "mature;" it was never like Bushwick or Williamsburg where there were kids just out of college, and figuring themselves out, and in bands for, sort of, fun. It was like professional 114:00musicians who were 25 years old and were, like, really happy to be in the neighborhood, had an appreciation for the uniqueness of it. I just feel this is true. [laughter] I wish I had some stats about this. But just having lived in so many neighborhoods, Crown Heights was so unique and it was so easy to celebrate. Everybody felt it. Everybody still says it's special, but there's that, like, tone in your voice, like, but it's not going to be for much longer. The funny thing is, like, how do you talk about that without disparaging, like, who is this White guy who's moving in who's so uninteresting and unfriendly that he's the one who's ruining the neighborhood. He doesn't really exist, except in 115:00so far as I think that wealthier people are less friendly and less interesting. [laughter]

Less friendly is somehow easy-- more easily measured than less interesting, but somehow I guess they're tied together for me, and for-- I can't speak, to somebody who's been in the neighborhood for 30 years, what it must be like. Because for somebody like me, who came in six years ago and saw from my end so many improvements in terms of, like, silly things. But things that make a neighborhood vital; book store, diversity of high quality coffee shops, places 116:00you could go in and meet people. That's something that I -- from my perspective, you know, adds value, and then I can also experience, the sort of, the tanking of the neighborhood because you -- There's the, there's a lament in the air from those who have had to leave. I don't know what else to say about that. I sort of finished my sentence, yeah.

OKECHUKWU: So one more question; so what is-- What has Crown Heights taught you about community? What have you learned about community living in Crown Heights?


DE ZAYAS: Everything I've learned about community has been taught to me in Crown Heights. A, that community is possible. That community exists before you arrive and after you leave. That community changes; it changes with you and while you're there. That people identifying as community is a very powerful and rich human experience. In Crown Heights, I found that the richest part of living in New York City is community; is the forging of neighborhood ties with 118:00people like yourself and not like yourself. Community seems to be bigger than anyone, or at least I, can grasp. I think I want to speak for my community. I can't explain to you why that is. I think it has to do with being a parent and someone who cares so much about the place he and his family lives, and yet I find it impossible to speak for the community, because it is so large and 119:00diverse in its manifestations. The community speaks quietly, and loudly, and simultaneously in different venues, and so it's impossible to speak about the community and to hold community in your hand and speak about it. So, no one speaks for the community, truly, and that makes it challenging to work for the community or together as a community.


OKECHUKWU: Is there anything else that you'd like to say or express before [inaudible].

DE ZAYAS: Yeah, yeah, I guess I want to say something about listening. In terms of, I guess it's part of the same-- I haven't been able to -- I thought that just by talking I somehow would be able to articulate something that I haven't been able to articulate, and it's tied to your last question. So, it's very hard to work towards individual or even group community goals and listen to 121:00other voices at the same time because it's distracting. I used the bike corral example as an illustration of this. But if there's something that is a perfect synthesis of the things that you're fighting for, it seems impossible that that thing will not bring some dissent, and so it's hard to act with certainty [laughter] and it's hard to act while listening at the same time. But Crown Heights is -- the voices that are speaking are very powerful on all ends and to 122:00be able to be part of that for so many years is -- has changed who I am and has changed my ability to listen and -- What's the end of my sentence here? I was going to say, enact a change. But it's such an ongoing process. Maybe one of the things community's taught me is that you can never stop listening and 123:00thinking when there's so many voices speaking at once. That doesn't make any sense. Maybe it does. I'll have to think about that.

OKECHUKWU: OK, well, thank you for sitting down with me and taking the time to sit down with me, [laughter] I appreciate it.

DE ZAYAS: Yeah, I was excited about it. Because I know that this is a learning process for me and being able to talk about the questions that interest you. It's just really helpful for me. I'm a verbal processor and so it's how I think and learn rather than just not speaking, I have to speak it, so thank you.


OKECHUKWU: [inaudible]

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Michael de Zayas

Forty-three at the time of the 2017 interview, Michael de Zayas is a business owner from the Miami, Florida area. His father is Cuban-born and his mother is a White woman from New York. He moved to New York in the 1990s, became a travel writer, and then a business owner; opening Neighborhoodies, which had stores across the country. After selling that business, moving to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, and becoming a father for the first time, de Zayas opened the popular Little Zelda café. Several more businesses in the area followed, including Nagle's Bagels (also in the Bedford-Stuyvesant and Prospect Lefferts Gardens neighborhoods of Brooklyn), Hullaballo Books, Two Saints, Jewel City Yoga, Simple Syrup, and Linden Salon. He had relocated to the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn after five years of living in Crown Heights.

In this interview, Michael de Zayas begins with growing up in Miami and his journey to New York. He relates that he first moved to New York to attend graduate school at Sarah Lawrence College, where he received a master's degree in poetry. He became a travel writer and speaks about his experiences traveling, as well as his relationship to community while being a young man in New York City; mainly in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan. Major turning points discussed include: founding his Neighborhoodies business, becoming a father, moving to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, and his business ventures there. He prides himself on constructing his businesses around the concept of "radical friendliness;" in order to counter much of the anti-social behavior that exists in coffee shops and other kinds of stores in New York City. He is committed to being part of and building community in Crown Heights. He is also trying to rethink how his businesses can better serve the needs of all community members, not just new arrivals, in the area. Interview conducted by Amaka Okechukwu.

This collection includes oral histories conducted by Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS), Brooklyn Movement Center, and Weeksville Heritage Center beginning in 2016 and collected and arranged by BHS in 2017. Each organization's interviews form a series within the collection. This oral history is one in the BHS series. The assembled collection was part of broader programming efforts by the three organizations to commemorate and examine the transforming Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn a quarter-century after the August 1991 conflicts and unrest sometimes called "the Crown Heights riot." The oral history collection features a broad range of narrators; educators, community organizers, activists, entrepreneurs, artists, bloggers, and longtime neighborhood residents, who describe the changes they have observed in their neighborhood over decades.


de Zayas, Michael, Oral history interview conducted by Amaka Okechukwu, March 17, 2017, Voices of Crown Heights oral histories, 2016.027.1.08; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • City University of New York. School of Law at Queens College
  • de Zayas, Michael
  • Little Zelda (Restaurant)
  • Neighborhoodies, Inc. (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)


  • Business enterprises
  • Clothing trade
  • Community development, Urban
  • Community identity
  • Economic development
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Gentrification
  • Housing
  • Parents
  • Restaurants
  • Storefronts


  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Clinton Hill (New York, N.Y.)
  • Crown Heights (New York, N.Y.)
  • East Village (New York, N.Y.)
  • Fort Greene (New York, N.Y.)
  • Manhattan (New York, N.Y.)
  • Upper West Side (New York, N.Y.)


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Voices of Crown Heights oral histories