The Last Mayor of Fifth Avenue

The Last Mayor of Fifth Avenue

Cabbad poses with Ed Koch, then mayor of New York.

There’s a shop on the corner of Park Place and Fifth Avenue that catches your eye when you walk past. It’s not a boutique or new restaurant, not a café with coffee drinkers and MacBooks row by row. Here, along Park Slope’s bustling commercial thoroughfare, is a shop that is unusually plain — it doesn’t scream out “Look at me” with typeface or tapestry. Customers are greeted by a simple light beige awning, and a window plastered with decaying decals. Inside, power lines and tools hung overhead and dust collects on stacks of plywood. A soft, comforting mustiness hangs in the air. Or perhaps that’s just the cigar smoke streaming in from the back.

This is R&A Hardware, one outpost of a retail empire Albert Cabbad — businessman, activist, and neighborhood fixture — built on this street in six decades of life in Brooklyn. Next door is R&A Cycles, run by Cabbad’s son Philip, a store a bit more updated than its hardware counterpart, with flashy bikes and accessories, perfect for a neighborhood filled with green bike lanes. Across the way lies what remains of R&A Discount Stores — Albert’s first business, opened in 1966.

The old R&A Discount Stores at Fifth Avenue and Park Place. Photo by Thea Goldberg.

Now the empire Albert built is an inheritance for his family. Two weeks ago, on February 18, 2014, Albert passed away at his home in Bay Ridge. He was 88. His death came just three weeks after the passing of his wife of 62 years, Ramona. He is survived by four children, ten grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren.

Their names remain in the signs that announce three stores they opened, including the discount store that is now closed: R&A for Ramona and Albert.

Those signs are bound to come down at some point. It could be in a generation or two or three, but it will happen. That’s the nature of neighborhoods. But the legacy of the man known as “the mayor of Fifth Avenue” will remain.

Albert Cabbad was born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1926. In his early twenties, he moved to Tucumán, Argentina, where he lived with the family of his uncle and learned to speak Spanish fluently. It was in Argentina that he met Ramona, an American woman from Michigan. They married and had two sons, Philip and Michael. In 1955, Albert decided to move the family back to Syria. Two more children, Debra and David, were born in Albert’s homeland.

“And then my father said, ‘Nope, I want to go to America! That’s it,’” Philip Cabbad, Albert’s oldest son, told me, offering his best imitation of his father’s boldness. Since 1976, Phillip has owned R&A Cycles — the self-proclaimed “world’s largest cycle store.” Until his father’s passing, Phillip and Albert owned the store together. Now, Philip runs the place with a different Albert: his own son. He still uses the old discount store across the street for storage.

At 61, Philip is thin and short, with graying hair and an accent inflected with tones of Argentina and Brooklyn.

“We went to Michigan because that’s where my mother’s from. So we stayed in Michigan for six months or so because my father had to come after with the visas,” he explained. “And then in Michigan, he worked for an uncle of ours at a Chevy and Buick dealership. And he said, ‘Nope, I want to go to New York.’” In 1958, the Cabbads arrived in Park Slope.

The family of six moved into a small apartment — the first of a few places they would call home before eventually settling in Bay Ridge — on Sixth Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues. Albert landed a customer service job at Pan Am. After eight years at the airline, he decided to strike out on his own. He opened R&A Discount Stores, then one of the few businesses along a mostly deserted Fifth Avenue.

“Well, back then, it was cowboys and Indians,” Philip said. “There was nothing here. You’d look down Fifth Avenue left and right, and you wouldn’t see nobody out there. It was a ghost town. People from around the corner never walked to Fifth Avenue — it was only a hundred feet away!”

He described a situation that now seems unimaginable in this stroller-heavy neighborhood: “There was a point where you didn’t have any kids out here.”

In Albert’s eyes, bridging the growing gap between cop and citizen was the first step to changing the feel of the avenue. He started to attend meetings for the nearby 78th Precinct community council, where he became friendly with the police captains in charge of patrolling Fifth Avenue. He advocated for community partnerships with the police long before the term “community policing” — a tactic embraced under Mayor David Dinkins — became part of the vernacular of urban politics. He also called for attendance by the NYPD at local community board meetings.

“The crime was there, and he wanted the police to be into it. Back then people saw things going on, and everybody shut their mouth,” Philip said, covering his face with hands to emphasize the point. “My father wasn’t that kind of a person.”

In 1984, Albert helped bring the Night Out Against Crime to the 78th Precinct. The Night Out (or National Night Out) is an annual event, held on the first Tuesdays of August in cities and towns across the United States and Canada, designed to improve police-community relations. In New York, it’s sort of like a block party, with barbecues and live music, as well as booths where police officers chat with local residents and provide information on crime prevention. At the 78th Precinct’s Night Out, Albert brought in a marching band and a troop of antique cars to take over Fifth Avenue.

Many precincts in New York now hold a Night Out, and the events have become essential stops for campaigning politicians. Park Slope has changed radically since 1984, but the 78th Precinct still holds its Night Out.

The Night Out was Albert’s vision of community engagement in action. Everyone was invited, everyone brought out into the streets. As his son explained: “They gave him the title of ‘Mayor of Fifth Avenue’ because he was trying to bring everybody here together. That’s what he was trying to do.”

On a recent chilly but sunny afternoon, I sat on a makeshift chair — a fluffy foam cushion placed on top of a paint bucket — in the back of R&A Hardware. Victor Cabbad rushed around the store, which he co-owned with Albert and now owns by himself. Between cutting keys and finding tools for customers, he reminisced about his brother (“He used to march down Fifth Avenue!”) and his own life in Brooklyn. A stocky man with thick glasses to match his thick Syrian accent, Victor is slightly tanned with leathered facial features. Nearly twenty years younger, he is Albert’s baby brother.

“I worked with him here since 1969,” Victor said. “He established his business, and after that, his son opened a bicycle shop. And I’m here. After he died, he left it all for his family.”

Victor arrived in Brooklyn from Syria in 1969, settling in Bay Ridge, not far from the home where Albert and Ramona spent their latter years. By the time Victor arrived, his brother had already opened the discount store, so he had a job on arrival. Victor has been working in the R&A stores ever since. I asked Victor about the neighborhood, how the landscape outside the windows of the stores has shifted these many years.

“Oh, it’s really changed,” he said, eyebrows raised. “From a real estate point of view, the neighborhood has improved: an increase in new populations, but not as many people who lived here before. The quality of life has improved, but we miss our old customers — that’s not something to be forgotten,” he said.

“It was those big boxes coming around — those are the ones taking a lot from the small guys like us, these mom-and-pop stores — that my brother was against. The neighbors opposed the high-rises with him.”

Victor Cabbad at R&A Hardware. Photo by Thea Goldberg

Albert’s advocacy for small businesses landed him the first of two formal positions that would define his informal mayoralty: founding member of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a community group created in 1978 by residents and business owners who sought to revitalize Park Slope and its environs.

He played an integral role in the committee’s successful effort to bring a block-long supermarket to a large abandoned lot on Fifth Avenue between Park Place and Sterling Place. The supermarket, a Key Food, was the first major grocery store in the area. “Key Food came here in the eighties, and then everything turned around,” Philip said, laughing. “Finally people came down here and said to me, ‘Hey, where have you been?’ and I said, ‘I’ve been here all along!’”

When Brooklyn Union Gas (now a part of National Grid) bought an abandoned building on Berkeley Place as part of “Cinderella,” its effort to encourage local economic development (and the use of its gas lines) by purchasing and renovating abandoned buildings across the city, Albert pitched in, offering his own paint and sweat equity to the project. He wanted to beautify the neighborhood he considered his home even though he retired to Bay Ridge each night after closing up shop.

He wanted other people to want to come to Park Slope, to appreciate all the neighborhood had to offer, to move in and fix up and stay. He fought for that on the Fifth Avenue Committee and in his other official role as a member of the economic development committee for Community Board 6, which encompasses Red Hook, Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Gowanus, and Cobble Hill. Appointed by former Borough President Howard Golden in the late 1990s, Albert served on the board until 2007, when he and eight other members were denied reappointment by Golden’s successor, Marty Markowitz, reportedly as retribution for their opposition to the Atlantic Yards development.

Craig Hammerman, who has served as district manager of the community board for the past 24 years, called Albert a rarity on the board. “Business owners don’t usually serve because they’re either not from the area or too tired after work,” he said. “Albert was the exception.”

As the district manager, Hammerman worked closely alongside Albert. They watched the neighborhood change together. He still holds fond memories of Albert’s heavy accent and “extremely booming voice,” one that let him “speak to the last row” at meetings and conferences. “Especially with the power in his message, I imagine very few people could forget the meetings he spoke at,” Hammerman said. “I will never forget meeting him.”

Hammerman said he believes Albert’s outlook stemmed from his own history as an immigrant, grateful for what America provided to him and his family in the six decades he lived here. “He took his citizenship very seriously,” Hammerman said.

With his powerful voice and commitment to bringing people together, Albert was a diplomat of sorts. Like any diplomat worth his mettle, he spoke many languages — seven before he passed away. He also had his favorite diplomatic tool: the parade.

When he came to the United States, Albert brought with him a tremendous pride in his Syrian heritage and Arab roots. But he felt that the Arab community in New York was splintered, with each group more or less keeping to itself. He wanted to change that, so in 1985, he founded the Arab-American Parade Committee, seeking to unite the community across borders.

“The Arab community didn’t want to be together,” Philip said. “Those people, they all go separate ways. But my father brought ’em together. His parade was for all the nationalities; nobody else did that. And everyone else, including myself, said, ‘Dad, you’re crazy,’ because nobody wanted to help him.”

Philip turned on his Albert impression again, emphasizing his father’s thick accent: “I don’t care!” That had been Albert’s response.

Albert applied a similar ecumenical outlook to his work with the annual Columbus Day parade, for which he served as Community Board 6’s de facto ambassador. “He said we all came here like him, so we should all get along,” Hammerman explained. “He actually had a float in the parade that was a globe with all the countries’ flags sticking out and encouraged community board members to ride on it with him.”

Cabbad marches under the Arab-American Parade Committee banner at a rally for a free South Africa. Photo courtesy of the Cabbad family.

“Al wanted justice and equity for all. These were important issues to Albert,” Hammerman said. “He didn’t like the notion that money had influence and longevity in the neighborhood. He felt that businesses should be able to live in their own communities and be proud of them.”

I asked Philip if he had further insight on why his father cared so deeply about Park Slope and why he remained so active even after he moved out. As snow fell outside on yet another bitterly cold day of a bitterly cold winter, just weeks after his father’s passing, he genuinely looked stumped.

“Honestly … I don’t know,” he said, shrugging. “He was always out for somebody; he would do something for you more than he would do something for himself. He would always help somebody.”

“It was in his heart,” he continued slowly, pausing to think for a second. “It was in his heart to help somebody and try to get people together.”

John Surico is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice, and BKLYNR. He lives in Crown Heights.

Thea Goldberg is a freelance photographer and native of Brooklyn. She grew up in Ditmas Park.

Also in this issue

Heat Seekers

An interactive look at the New York households who had trouble staying warm this winter. Visualization by Nilkanth Patel

Winter’s Edge at Green-Wood

Among the catacombs, mausoleums, and monuments at Brooklyn’s most famous cemetery. By Will Ellis