New York's Little France blossoms

NEW YORK — Three years ago, after hearing about Brooklyn’s burgeoning Little France through word of mouth, Jean-Jacques Bernat relocated his bistro there. He said his new neighbors reacted to his arrival by revamping their own businesses — adding a fresh coat of paint here, replacing a crumbling light fixture there.

“We stimulated the neighborhood,” said Bernat, who described his Provence en Boite as a “neighborhood institution” thanks to a steady flow of customers seeking homemade croissants and crusty baguettes, comfort foods like crepes and quiches, or just to exchange a few words in their native tongue.

In this section of Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens, expatriates mingle easily with celebrities and non-French clients who live near Smith Street, the area’s central artery known locally as “Restaurant Row.” Before he died, Heath Ledger lived nearby and was a regular, said Bernat, whose bistro is part of an expanding list of businesses with names like Bar Tabac, Robin des Bois and Cafe Luluc.

“It’s rare in the U.S. to have a French neighborhood,” said the 52-year-old pastry chef. His display case, filled with fruit tarts, colorful macaroons and buches de Noel, a traditional Christmas cake, rivals that of any Parisian bakery.

Drawn to the village-like feel, comparatively affordable real estate and a 2-year-old, French-English dual-language program at an area elementary school, French families and businesses have flocked here in the last decade. A sizeable concentration of the more than 20,000 French people who call Brooklyn home have staked their claim to the unmistakably gentrified former working-class Italian neighborhood.

The annual July 14 Bastille Day celebration attracts sponsors like the spirits supplier Ricard and the bottled water brand Evian, said Bernat. Local politicians, French embassy officials and thousands of revelers take part in the festivities.

“Brooklyn is a little France,” said Jacques Melendez, a middle-aged Frenchman of Spanish ancestry from Burgundy, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than a decade. “I’ve never found anything else like it.”

A sign posted on a shop window advertised the services of a bilingual French tutor; another was from someone seeking French lessons. Similar interest seems to be driving demand for more language programs in area schools.

Starting this month in neighboring Park Slope, a first-of-its-kind after school program will allow 11- to 13-year olds to improve their French language skills and socialize with other French speakers. Education Francaise a New York, which was founded in 2005 to promote the language in the city’s public schools, is behind the effort, which will cost up to $375 for weekly courses until June.

“There’s a sense of family here” that is important to French people, said Melendez. “It’s not really the city and it’s not really the country.” The melding of the two is what gives the area its distinct flavor.

Though a robust housing market drove out mom-and-pop stores and the poorest residents, to Melendez’s dismay, he and Bernat say the streetscape helps keep the neighborhood of row houses and brownstones cozy: There are no high rises, which would mean more people, traffic and noise.

Bernat’s immigration success story is a familiar one. He arrived in the United States 13 years ago with next to nothing besides his pastry background, and slept on friends’ couches to avoid being completely homeless. Now, he and his wife Leslie own the bistro, a wine bar and a small bed and breakfast — all in the neighborhood where they live.

“That’s the American dream,” he said. “You can establish yourself more easily than in France.”

Bernat had stern words for his countrymen, especially in light of the spate of labor actions that swept France in December. In America, he said, when you lose your job, you go out the next day and look for another one.

He may not have five weeks of vacation per year, but Bernat said he was proud that his businesses help feed the families of some 25 employees. He spends the few days a year he takes as “vacation” visiting restaurants in small French towns and gathering ideas to take back to New York.

“If French people wanted to work, things would be better,” he said. “The solution is not in the street.”

Kouider Zioueche, another Carroll Gardens resident, echoed Bernat’s sentiments about his native country and adopted homeland. “Life is easier in America,” said Zioueche, who works in one of New York’s biggest French brasseries, Balthazar, “representing and selling France everyday,” while earning his living well.

A love story brought Zioueche to the United States. He eventually made his way to the Brooklyn neighborhood where he has lived since 1998 and still marvels at the area’s rich cultural diversity. Though the love affair ended, another began — with America.

“I love France and am proud to be French,” he said. “A lot of things I miss, but not enough to go back.”