According to most trusted sources, Ralph Jawad’s South Portland Market doesn’t exist.
You won’t find it on Google Maps and you won’t find it on Yelp.com. The business’ name isn’t even displayed out front of the store.
And yet, if you walk to the corner of S. Portland Ave. and Lafayette, you’ll find a small, graffiti-tagged deli and bodega shouldering a red brick apartment building. Above the door, a giant hand painted and rust tainted sign reads:
"89 Lafayette Avenue – Meat Corp."
And that’s all that Ralph needs.
Pushed from Palestine to Brooklyn in the 1960s, for 41 winters and 42 summers the Jawad family has run Fort Greene’s South Portland Market.
“I grew up here,” Ralph told me, pointing at the market from a picnic table out front while speaking through a thick beard with a pungent Brooklyn accent. “Been working here since I was 14-years-old – 32 years now.”
The Jawad family bought South Portland Market in the days when families far outweighed freelance artists in Fort Greene, when Moe’s Bar was a fish market and, “when somebody passed away the streets would be empty.”
They were here when, in 1985, a Spike Lee employee was raped right outside their door on the concrete steps to the G-train and when, in 2001, “the gangs started hustling drugs on the street and shooting every night.”
“It got bad, man,” Ralph said. “This was a hot block from 2000 to 2005.”
And they were here when things really started to change, when barbershops became wine bars and gentrification crept in.
“It used to be families that did their shopping here,” he said, “suddenly it was just kids grabbing a six pack of beer and a sandwich.”
In Ralph’s opinion, this has eroded the community’s strength. And it’s something his store stands against.
“Everybody knows us,” he said. “We hold a lot of keys for the customers in case of emergencies, sometimes they’ll ask us tom move their cars, you know, that’s just how it is.”
In the winter, Ralph sets up a couple chairs inside for locals to sit and chat. In the summer, he ties the front door open and puts picnic tables outside.
“You come in, sit down and hear whatever you want to hear,” Ralph said. “It’s the gossip spot.”
Yesterday, I sat outside and watched as an old man bought ice cream for a little girl shopping with her dad. Baggy pants waited in line next to running shorts and a young man in a dress shirt laughed with an old acquaintance in overalls.
Ralph was everywhere at once, working the register, shaking hands and stocking cartons of Newport 100s.
Outside people laughed and talked.
“Here comes Jackie,” said a guy smoking cigarettes. Jackie crossed the street and smiled.
“Jackie, you just being here makes my day.”
Two dogs sniff each other as their owners discussed someone’s triple bypass surgery.
For Ralph, it’s important to maintain that sense of community, to watch out for neighborhood crime and build trust.
“I’ll keep an eye out for him,” he told someone’s mother.
In fact, just a few weeks ago Ralph was sitting at one of his picnic tables when he heard a young lady scream.
Next thing he saw was a 14-year-old thief sprinting down the concrete steps to the G-train holding her stolen iPhone.
Ralph popped to his feet.
“I chased him as he went from one end of the train station and came out the other,” he said. “Funny thing is, when I was chasing him I looked behind me and there was like 10 other guys chasing him, too.”
As the thief ran back up to the street, they grabbed him.
“I could see he was just a child so I let the kid go,” Ralph said. “I don’t know if the lady was happy about it, but she got her iPhone back and he apologized to her.”
“I mean he was 14-years-old,” he said. “Do you ruin this kid’s life or do you give him another chance?”
The community, I suppose, will just have to keep an eye out for him.