Well, I’m not coming out goofy like the Fruit of the Loom guys
Just strutting like The Meters with the “Look-Ka Py Py”
‘Cause Downtown Brooklyn is where I was born
But when the snow is fallin’, then I am gone (oh weee)
— “Root Down,” Beastie Boys (1994)
Downtown Brooklyn is in perpetual motion. Home to Fulton Mall, the famous pedestrian thoroughfare—and New York City’s third most profitable retail strip right after Madison and Fifth Avenues—the neighborhood is a patchwork of old, new, and hasn’t-been-built-yet. A non-linear place with a complex pedigree. Its streets thrum with street vendors and small, immigrant-run businesses, plus the usual big-box chains. Rapidly gentrifying and forever under construction, the skies resemble Metropolis. Alien-looking cranes glint through the clouds. Down below, one- and two-story mom-and-pops cater to corporeal appetites, selling jewelry, electronics, teenage apparel, incense, church goods, Afrocentric history books, beauty products, pizza slices.
Rob Markman, a Brooklyn native and consummate multi-hyphenate—hip-hop artist, veteran music journalist, and Head of Artist Relations at Genius—grew up in ‘90s-era Fulton Mall, traveling to the strip from his family’s home in Flatbush. In those days, and even earlier, during the maximalist ‘80s, Fulton was a pivotal spot for hip-hop artists like Biz Markie, the Notorious B.I.G., and JAY-Z.
“When I was in high school, I used to see the late Sean Price on Fulton,” Markman recounts. “Usually me and my friends were cutting class, and he used to tell us to take our asses back to school. He was such a dope rapper, we were just happy that he acknowledged us.”
Fulton Mall and the surrounding Downtown Brooklyn area have played a profound role in cultivating idiosyncratic, only-in-Kings County characters and institutions, among them the three we’ll explore here: Junior’s Restaurant, Cookie’s, and Jide’s Dandy.
‘Cause what I’m delivering is straight talk
I usually drive to Junior’s, but this sh*t is a cakewalk
— E. Ness vs. Iron Solomon rap battle (2015)
“The fried chicken takes about twenty minutes.”
It’s a gauzy, uncharacteristically humid evening in late March, and I’m sitting in the main dining room of Junior’s, the landmark Downtown Brooklyn restaurant made world-famous by its cheesecake.
The elderly couple to my left is attempting to expedite their order, insisting they’re in a hurry to make a performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The wife nervously smoothes the cover of her brochure. The young waiter gently shakes his head. “The chicken is made to order,” he explains with a soft smile. “It will taste better, crispy.” The couple sighs, then the husband chirps, brightly: “Well, how about just the wings then?” We all laugh. They settle on the matzo ball soup.
Beveling like a plumaged showgirl on the corner of Flatbush and DeKalb, Junior’s is a lively cafeteria, a town hall, and people’s theater rolled into one. You can count on witnessing a birthday sing-along, a church group get-together, a romantic date, and local politicians pow-wowing at the counter, often at the very same time.
The luncheonette-turned-restaurant, with its blinking façade and vaudevillian light bulbs, has been a comforting presence in the neighborhood since its grand opening on Election Day in 1950. Inside, the space is sprawling but cozy, home to Jewish bubbes and Caribbean aunties. Every corner booth and swizzle stool feels like the best seat in the house.
Alan Rosen, Junior’s third-generation owner and the affable grandson of its late founder Harry Rosen, believes the place’s mythology is rooted in something real.
“It’s indicative of Brooklyn and indicative of New York as a whole, really,” Rosen says. “It’s one of the few restaurants where you can find people from every demographic and even economic strata in the same restaurant.”
Like anyone who came of age hanging out on Fulton, Rob Markman has a Junior’s memory. “I graduated high school during the summer. I had to take night school classes and summer school classes to get my diploma,” he notes. “I didn’t really get to participate in any of the ceremonies with the rest of my class. So, a bunch of us who graduated late all bought our own bottles of alcohol, smuggled it into Junior’s and ate. That day, the food hit different.”
Then there’s the cheesecake. When Junior’s first opened, there was no predicting it’d be the menu item that would put the restaurant on the map.
Rosen explains: “There were restaurants in Brooklyn—the Brass Rail, Lindy’s, Jack Dempsey’s—all these places that supposedly made decent cheesecake. My grandfather would go around town with his first baker, whose name was Eigel Peterson. They would literally would do these experiments, and they came up with the recipe. They started serving cheesecake, besides having just a great everything type of menu back then.”
“I sometimes think that we get too much attention for the cheesecake and not enough attention for the quality Brooklyn comfort food. But that’s my own hangup, I guess,” he says.
On a 2002 episode of the MTV reality show “Making the Band 2,” Sean “Diddy” Combs, the hip-hop mogul, summons his group Da Band to trek across the Manhattan Bridge and back for a slice of Junior’s signature dessert—an odyssey so infamous it still gets referenced in tracks by the likes of Lloyd Banks and Meek Mill.
Much like Junior’s cheesecake itself, the much meme’d cameo was not premeditated; Rosen didn’t even know about it until after the episode had aired. We contemplate how Diddy was likely put on to Junior’s through Biggie, who, from what Rosen understands, used to hold court at the restaurant late at night.
Junior’s is now a proper empire, with locations in Manhattan’s Theater District and Connecticut, as well as a New Jersey bakery outpost. But its original location will span time as the perfect Brooklyn ambassador, as quintessential as Babs and Biggie.
“What happens is when you’re somewhere, when you’re real, and you’re there for so many years, you can’t help but become part of the fabric of the community,” Rosen says. “It just happens. Unless you have your head in the sand, how could you not?”
— Alan Rosen, on Junior’s colorful cast of characters throughout the decades
“There was this guy, Major Owens. He owned one of the department stores. He used to sit at the counter. Even today you got the same guys having breakfast and lunch there, mixed in with the other people. It’s just creatures of habit, which we love. And I’m the same way, by the way. Day in and day out, Junior’s is their place. Charles Hines, Howard Golden, Marty Markowitz. You name it, it was their place, plus hundreds of people. It’s just their go-to place.”
Cookie’s and the Albee Square Area
I fade them all, been havin’ fun
See, to me this mall is like Number One
And any other shoppers there that try to compare
There ain’t no way they could hang out with Albee Square
— “Albee Square Mall,” Biz Markie (1988)
A two-minute walk from Junior’s, just past the scaffolded Dime Savings Bank, are the hallowed grounds of the late Albee Square Mall, bull-dozered in 2007 to accommodate the palatial City Point shopping and residential complex. Where once stood an indoor shopping mecca—and an ornate theater before that, also named for the vaudeville icon Edward F. Albee—now lives an outdoor plaza dotted with pistachio green tables and chairs, a gathering spot for weary shoppers traipsing up and down Fulton.
Formally instituted in 1979, Fulton Mall has been rezoned and redlined, not uncontroversially, since the Beame administration. Visited by over 150,000 people a day, the strip is a destination for New Yorkers across the five boroughs. Buses shuttle in folks from Brownsville, the Lower East Side, Staten Island, Bed-Stuy, Far Rockaway, and Jamaica, Queens hourly. Veteran shoppers remember when the Macy’s was the venerable Abraham & Straus. They reminisce over when the toughest table to land wasn’t a picnic bench at DeKalb Market, but a corner booth at the bygone restaurant Gage & Tollner.
The area’s community of small business owners and shoppers, the majority of them from working-class African-American, West Indian, and Latinx backgrounds, have expressed a healthy skepticism over the dizzying changes sweeping the strip. Real estate agents and city suits’ plans to “upscale” the neighborhood—micro-aggressions poorly couched in market speak—have sparked necessary conversations about the cultural and economic value of black and brown dollars.
In Street Value: Shopping, Planning, and Politics at Fulton Mall, authors Rosten Wood, Meredith TenHoor, and Damon Rich write: “In spite of its incredible vitality, variety, urban design, and superlative rents, Fulton Mall has rarely been celebrated as a successful public space. For the last hundred years, the local business community, urban planners, and economic development consultants have considered its sensory and physical density to be a sign of blight.”
Despite the prejudiced mainstream perception of Fulton Mall, it continues to be a place where independent business owners see opportunity not just commercially, but culturally. Businesses on Fulton become a part of the neighborhood’s identity and parlance.
One business that has long been part of Fulton’s history is Cookie’s, the expansive department store specializing in children’s apparel, toys, and school uniforms. Like Junior’s orange and white motif, Cookie’s huge blue and red sign is recognized throughout New York. The store is often name-checked by big-timers like Rihanna, who reportedly shouted it out at her most recent concert at the Barclays Center. She said passing by Cookie’s brought her back to early New York visits with her family.
Established in the mid-’70s, the Cookie’s chain has multiple locations throughout Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. The business settled into the Downtown Brooklyn location, its flagship, in the late ‘90s. In addition to a multi-level retail center, the bright complex houses the company’s headquarters.
“Well, this was always a dream,” explains Jack “Cookie” Falack, the chain’s co-founder and president. “This street [Fulton] was a dream, but it seemed to be an unattainable dream, because it was just no space available ever, you know? In those days, business was great on this street, and nobody would want to give up the store.”
Falack took over the location from a friend who was then operating two department stores on Fulton Street and had decided to give up a career in retail for one in real estate.
He observes the neighborhood’s ebbs and flows with a time-tested confidence. He knows that what Cookie’s offers is unique. “We thought that when [City Point] opened it was going to bring a lot more people to the area. And maybe it did in certain ways, but not the customers that are shopping on Fulton Street. But I can say that Century 21 is a big draw, and Target’s a big draw. And we thought maybe that would also create a lot of competition for us, but it didn’t.”
— Jack “Cookie” Falack on a memorable day at work: the 2003 New York blackout
“We had a blackout. The last one was when? It had to be 15 years ago, right? Was there a blackout here in 2004? 2003. I was here. And I just remember having to get everybody out of the store. It was really dark, and we had the emergency lights on. So, we had to escort everybody out. And then, all of the sudden, there was one woman—after I got everybody out of the store—there was one woman on the floor, hysterically crying. She’d lost her daughter. And I have a very big weakness towards children, and this was a little three-year-old child that’s lost in my store. I had everybody looking, searching in the closets. And I ran. We had the battery rig, we had the radios. Everybody had a radio. And I ran down the block, and I don’t know what made me do it. There were crowds of people that were on the street. And I ran through these crowds. And three blocks down, I find this little girl by herself. I found this little girl. I said, ‘Give her to me!’ And I brought her back to the store. I was so nervous… This poor mother. She was fainting because she lost her… she was on the floor. And I know that feeling, because I remember that happened to me once with one of my daughters.”
Cookie’s has become an inextricable part of all the neighborhoods where it maintains a retail presence. Falack is proud of the relationship the business maintains with local communities.
“We’ve worked with children’s services… Immigrant children come to New York, and [organizations] have to supply them with clothes, and we help out with that,” Falack explains. “It’s not just in New York. When they had Hurricane Katrina… I sent a trailer of school uniforms to Jackson, Mississippi. They had lost everything. It was heartbreaking. So, at the time, it was right after back-to-school [season], and I had extra merchandise. I filled up a whole entire trailer. I just got carried away.”
He pauses. “This is what we’ve always done, you know? It’s just… it feels like the community’s been good to us. Why not be good back?”
We met right there, Downtown Brooklyn
I’m glad you called
I remember the day like it was yesterday
Mmm, you and me on the swings
Everyday on the A train
Going home, ay
— “Top Down,” Leikeli47 (2018)
There are vestiges of Brooklyn’s grand-dame history everywhere. Ghost signs of centuries-past capitalism—the Metropolitan Exchange Bank, J. Michaels Furniture, Pioneer Warehouse Company—remain on buildings that currently house today’s mom-and-pops.
Jide’s Dandy, at 375 Jay Street near Willoughby Street, caught my eye with its maroon awning and windows crowded with vibrant suits, patterned ties, and fedora hats. Calypso music plays throughout the store, making the browsing experience an especially buoyant one.
Owned and operated by Jide Omo for over 25 years, the shop specializes in natty menswear that Omo, who originally hails from England, sources from all over the world. “This is what keeps my customers coming,” he explains. “Because, each time they come, they see something different.”
I ask him why he settled on menswear. “The way that men shop is different,” he answers. “They see, they like, they buy.”
The day Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor showed up, separately, to shop is a particularly memorable one for Omo.
“They just came to Barclays Center to promote some fight they were supposed to have,” Omo recounts. “I don’t recognize people because I meet so many people. One came here ten minutes after the other one came here… McGregor’s manager came to pick up a belt. And Mayweather’s manager picked up a shirt.”
Omo cites Downtown Brooklyn’s diversity as a key reason for why the business thrives in this neighborhood. His customers are as eclectic as his merchandise: resident businessmen, Sunday church-goers, costume designers for Broadway and television shows (Empire), and travelers.
“It’s more diverse because we have more tourists from different parts of the world,” Omo posits. “Which makes it even better. Usually better exposure… I’ve been here for so long, and I always have a lot of customers from overseas. They shop here, and they tell the people to come and shop here when they come into the area.”
— Jide Omo, on what informs the menswear curation at his shop
“Fashion is something that one has [in them] naturally… Style. I’m European originally, so that might be part of it. I love to dress up, so it’s just I am told that I have a good eye. And I enjoy what I do.”
Rob Markman now lives in Staten Island with his family, but his fond memories of ‘90s Fulton Mall—getting put on to new music at Beat Street Records (shuttered in 2006; now a shoe store), going on dates—are vivid. He spoke with me about Fulton’s character and listed some of his other New York favorites.
What are some memories you have of hanging out on Fulton Mall?
Me and my now-wife met in high school. I remember taking her to Fulton one day after school to buy her a pair of Air Force Ones. It was her first pair and it was such a New York fashion staple. I saved money from tips that I got delivering pizzas and took her to Fulton. That was the first time I ever bought anything for a girl. I’m pretty sure I was wearing a blue and yellow Ralph Lauren Polo jacket that I got from [the Fulton] Macy’s.
More recently, when I worked at MTV, I took Bobby Shmurda to Fulton to do an interview. We got him to judge a Shmoney Dance contest. This was before he got signed and before he got locked up. It was a fun day. After school, all the kids surrounded us to watch us film. I still have pics from that day.
What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever read about New York?
That’s tough. Off the top, there was a book by Ethan Brown called Queens Reigns Supreme, which detailed the rise of crack-era Queens drug kingpins like Fat Cat, Supreme and Montana. And then he explained how the streets in Queens connected to the rappers who came out of neighborhoods like Hollis and Southside Jamaica. I read it as an adult, but it confirmed stories that I would hear as a little kid.
There is a bit of controversy around that book, because the author, Brown, is a white guy and an outsider who was documenting things that maybe shouldn’t have been documented by an outsider. There are some folks who are very turned off by that book, but it does paint a very realistic view of how crack affected New York City in the 1980s and ’90s.
What’s your favorite New York-centric movie?
Paid in Full (dir. Charles Stone III, 2002) is hands-down my favorite New York movie. It just reminded me of how New York was growing up. Even though the character names were changed, that whole story was based on real-life events.
I remember being a kid and hearing about Alpo and Rich Porter and Azie from my cousins that lived uptown. I remember when they kidnapped Rich Porter’s little brother and found him dead—it was all over the news. I was little at the time, and it was scary that someone would do that to a kid.
What other New York places do you enjoy?
As a native New Yorker, there are certain places that are just still very New York to me and I love it. Stromboli’s on St. Mark’s and First Avenue is my favorite pizza spot. My mom loved that place; she used to take us as kids.
I still love to get a burger and cheese fries from Roll-N-Roaster in Sheepshead Bay. We used to go to the UA Theater over there when we had a girl who we’d want to impress on a date because it was so far from our hood in Flatbush. Then after the movie we’d go to Roll-N-Roaster to eat. If I really wanted to impress my date, I’d buy a bottle of Moët, too. That was the ultimate flex: to buy a bottle of champagne from Roll-N-Roaster.
I also love local sneaker stores. Flight Club is dope, but Sneaker King on Flatbush Avenue was my shit, and I still get kicks from Jimmy Jazz. That’s a New York secret: Jimmy Jazz has heat, low key.
Do you have any special city routines, traditions, or superstitions?
When I ride the train, I don’t sit in the seats on the end of the car. When we were kids we used to call those the bum seats, because that’s where the homeless people would sleep. It’s insensitive now, because as an adult you recognize how bad the homeless situation is in the city. But the superstition just stuck.
I also stand in the corner every time I get on an elevator. That’s because we used to play a game called “corners” when we were kids. If you got on an elevator with your friends, everyone picked a corner to stand in. If you didn’t stand in the corner, you’d get punched in your chest.
Do you still hit up Fulton Mall today?
I used to be on Fulton every day after school; at Beat Street looking for new records, at the mom-and-pops looking at sneakers, and in Macy’s looking for Polo gear. Sadly, I don’t go there nearly as often. Last time I was there was maybe a year ago.
Is there something you eat or buy only in New York that you just don’t in other cities?
Pizza. I will not eat pizza in any other city except New York. IT’S ALL TRASH!
FULTON MALL & DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN
Fulton Street between Borough Hall and Flatbush Avenue
Brooklyn, New York 11201
Restaurant Recommendations: Junior’s (386 Flatbush Avenue Extension), Amarachi Prime (189 Bridge Street), Forno Rosso (327 Gold Street)
Shopping Recommendations: Jide’s Dandy (375 Jay Street), Cookie’s (510 Fulton Street), Jimmy Jazz (520 Fulton Street)
As Seen In: The Warriors (1979; Hoyt-Schermerhorn station), She’s Gotta Have It (1986; Fulton Mall), American Gangster (2007; Kings County Criminal Court), Sex and the City (2008; Junior’s)