Satya (née Heather) Britton lives and works a stone’s throw from it all — from the glassy high-rises going up on Flatbush Avenue with their million-dollar condos inside, the Beaux Arts halls of the BAM cultural district, the new hotels that serve Barclays Center crowds and the tourists flocking to Brooklyn in record numbers. There’s a shelter across the street where men recently released from prison make a fresh start, and a playground next door where K2 addicts sleep off their highs while the neighborhood’s toddlers swing ever higher. Four floors below her living quarters, in the basement of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, is Govinda’s, the vegetarian Hare Krishna restaurant Satya started nine years ago.
Walk past the smiling greeter at the door, the bells tinkling from the midday arati service, and down the striped set of stairs, and you’ll find her there, cheerfully dishing out samosas and kitchari, nutloaf and eggplant Parmesan, vegan cupcakes and fresh-baked bread. An industrial-size fan keeps the room cool in August, and a colorful mural on the Kelly green walls and devotional music praise Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The food is healthy, plentiful and cheap, and it’s all been blessed. “A lot of our customers are not vegetarian,” Satya says. “It’s just they understand the food is fresh. They understand it’s good. That’s really important to me. You want people to be happy. We’re helping nourish people, you know what I mean?”
Satya’s road to ISKCON New York, as the Krishna Consciousness building is more commonly known, was a winding one that began in a parking lot in Baltimore in 1975 when a stranger handed Satya’s mother, Lalita, a copy of Back to Godhead: The Magazine of the Hare Krishna Movement. Satya was four when she first visited the temple there. “I didn’t like it. It was scary, it was incense, I had to take my shoes off.” But soon she made friends, “and then that was where I wanted to be.”
Her mother was drawn to the religion — “the philosophy, it just answered all her questions” — but what really attracted her was the cooking. Lalita learned to make the three dishes that would become her specialties: sweet rice (similar to rice pudding), pakora (made from fried chickpea flour and potato), and laddu (a sweet of chickpea flour and powdered sugar). When Satya was eight, they moved to Gita Nagari, a 350-acre farm in Port Royal, Pennsylvania, where a community of 100-plus Hare Krishnas grew their own food. That’s when Satya’s culinary education began, peeling potatoes in the kitchen, picking carrots and strawberries from the garden. It was Amish country, and she learned from her neighbors how to churn butter with a crank. She made fresh yogurt and “our own cream, our own incredible milk.” She baked apple pies all summer long from the farm’s orchards. By the time she was 12, she was cooking meals solo, although “my mother would sort of shadow me and make sure I had it.” It was, she says, “an amazing way to grow up.”
Meanwhile, 100 or so miles to the east in downtown Brooklyn, the building at 305 Schermerhorn Street was undergoing its own transformation, and not for the first time. The address, once known as Odd Fellows’ Hall, spent the first half of the 20th century as a meeting house for a procession of spiritual concerns, from the Knights of Pythias to the psychic mediums of the Cosmopolitan Spiritualist Church. Congregation Mount Sinai had the structure next, buying it in 1951 after its first synagogue on State Street burned down. In October 1982, another reincarnation: The congregation relocated to Cadman Plaza, on the edge of tony Brooklyn Heights, and ISKCON bought the vacated space for their new temple.
The Sri Sri Radha Govinda Mandir Hare Krishna Temple of ISKCON New York opened its doors in 1983, and in 1990 Satya arrived. The once-thriving community on the Gita Nagari farm had dwindled, and the Brooklyn temple needed help in the kitchen. Satya was 20. “If you can imagine Schermerhorn Street in 1990.… I didn’t walk out of the building probably for two months alone because it was just so scary.” It was only one block from the temple to the Key Foods at the corner of Bond and Schermerhorn Streets. To get there, Satya rolled her dolly cart past an empty parking lot, homeless men sleeping outside the drop-in center, feces on the sidewalk. “The first time I walked to the grocery store by myself, I was like, whoa, I did it.”
Two blocks away from the temple, Fulton Mall was still a vibrant shopping district, a center of hip-hop and sneaker culture, “but you went off the mall and it was just desolate,” says Andrew Kalish, the director of cultural development for the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, a not-for-profit local development corporation charged with revitalizing the area. High crime rates (18 murders in 1990 alone) drove away businesses and residents alike.
The neighborhood was food-poor, too. At the high end of the price scale, there was the historic steak house Gage and Tollner on Fulton Street. (It would close in 2004.) Otherwise, the pickings were slim. “There was still the pizza place on the corner, on Livingston,” Satya says. “Pretty much nothing else. The same pita on Atlantic Avenue. Vegetarian-wise, nothing.” “Brooklyn is known for food,” Kalish says, “and the fact that downtown Brooklyn [didn’t] have that same association [was] a huge problem.” One thing was for sure: The neighborhood needed Govinda’s more than ever.
“Govinda’s means a name for god, one who gives pleasures to the cows and the senses,” Satya explains, sitting at one of the large round tables in the basement cafeteria on Schermerhorn Street. It’s the end of the lunch rush and she is tired and flushed, her auburn hair tucked under a blue cotton cap. Many Hare Krishna temples, from Los Angeles to Budapest, also have a restaurant named Govinda’s. ISKCON New York opened its first in 1998—a smaller venture, “just one little steam table” in the back of the lobby serving perhaps 20 customers a day. It closed shortly after 9/11, when the cook couldn’t get his visa renewed to return from a trip to India. In 2007, Satya was ready to try again.
Conditions had improved dramatically since she first arrived in the neighborhood. Crime was down, paving the way for the construction of nearby MetroTech, an urban office campus, which opened its last building in 2004. That same year, the City Council approved zoning changes to downtown Brooklyn in an effort to spur new development for cultural and educational institutions, ground-floor retail, and office and residential space. These factors, along with the post-9/11 relocation of the financial industry’s back offices from Lower Manhattan, brought more workers to the area, and all of them needed to be fed.
With encouragement from the wider ISKCON community — a couple who ran the Los Angeles Govinda’s gave her a pep talk, and the Govinda’s in Tucson opened up their recipe book — Satya decided to open her own Govinda’s with an Indian fusion menu. But who would come? A trip to the L.A. restaurant, just off Venice Boulevard, provided some clues. “I saw people in their suits come in, and I was like, what’s gonna happen when we open?” Would her customers wear wingtips or sneakers? Would they live in a brownstone or an SRO, or work nearby? Would they be mainly members of her congregation, or other Indians? Only time would tell.
Today Govinda’s is the neighborhood’s worst kept secret. It serves a hundred people a day, give or take, and the clientele reflects the racial and socioeconomic diversity of downtown Brooklyn. “You get everything,” Satya says. “Some government workers. People who just live nearby. You get people who come from far. Young people. There’s police across the street who come, and detectives, and there’s lawyers from the courthouse.”
Some people find their way by word of mouth; some use Yelp. Others are intimidated, at first, to come in. For many, Govinda’s is as much a culinary frontier as a spiritual one. “A lot of people have said to me, I never used to eat vegetables before I came here,” Satya says. It’s also affordable. To call the portions generous would be incorrect; they are heaping. A full plate of food, at $7, might well stretch into three days of lunches for a struggling writer. A samosa costs a dollar, a feasible sum for the men who live in the shelter across the street. High-end dining is making a comeback, too, of course. The owners of Gage and Tollner are looking to bring it back to its former glory, and a block away from the temple, Brooklyn’s only three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, charges $330 a head. But Satya’s spiritual beliefs have taken her in the other direction. She works for free; most of the kitchen staff does, too. “So much of food is so costly. We give people good food for not a killing.”
Nine years after the restaurant’s opening, downtown Brooklyn finds itself in the midst of a construction boom. Though the 2004 re-zoning was enacted primarily to open up new office space for the Brooklyn Tech Triangle, so far almost all of the expansion has been residential. When you count Dumbo and Fort Greene, about 24,600 units have been built or are in the offing in the larger downtown area. Once the temple was one of the tallest buildings on the block. Now it squats in the shadow of the colossal 55-story Hub and nearby 300 Ashland Place, where Apple and the New York Public Library will be ground-floor tenants. These days Satya shops at Trader Joe’s on Court Street; a closer location of the popular chain will open next year at City Point, the new shopping center on Fulton Mall. The Key Foods she used to frequent is long gone, replaced by a Goodwill. On the sidewalk outside, men lay out blankets and set out used DVD players, children’s books, sweaters, records, and lamps, eking out a living off the neighborhood’s cast-offs in the gleaming economy that’s emerged.
And there’s the rub. Ironically, the gentrifying forces that have made the neighborhood so desirable to live in have also made it difficult for Satya to stay. As real estate prices have skyrocketed, it’s clear the temple is worth more, at least monetarily, if it’s sold. “This building isn’t going to stand for another 50 to 60 years.” Or, she clarifies, “it may, but it’s gonna take millions of dollars of renovation, and we just don’t have that kind of money.” And unlike other historic churches in the neighborhood, the temple isn’t landmarked. “History is not just the physical, right?” asks Kalish of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. “It’s the ethereal.” It’s a useful idea to cling to, given that the potential buyers plan to convert the building into more condos.
The congregation is divided about leaving — some hesitant to uproot their lives, others worried the sale’s proceeds won’t be managed wisely. Satya’s husband, temple president Ramabhadra, envisions a beautiful new temple and cultural center (and another Govinda’s) in Queens, where much of the congregation lives. For Satya, who pays all the temple’s bills, the move makes sense. Govinda’s covers some of the overhead, donations the rest, “but nobody wants to give a donation for an electric bill.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of ISKCON, the 10th anniversary of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, and over 40 years in Satya’s journey as a Hare Krishna. Perhaps it’s her spiritual grounding that allows Satya to weather the uncertainty around the sale of the temple. “If it’s meant to be, then it’s meant to be,” she says. If and when the congregation does leave, it will be a loss for the neighborhood. There will be other places to gather, of course — the new library, the steps of the BAM opera house, the pedestrian plazas along Fulton Mall, where Big Daddy Kane gave a free show this summer — but none quite so nourishing as Govinda’s.
Animated gifs by Mike Houston, Daniel DeGraaf and Naoko Saito