Park Slope lost a longtime advocate for small businesses when Albert Cabbad passed away on February 18, 2014.
A Syrian native who made his way to New York City via Latin America — becoming fluent in Spanish there may have been just one of the qualities that helped him be a unifying figure in our area — Al set up shop on 5th Avenue in 1966, and has been behind the counter of the R&A Discount just about every day since. As an octogenarian operating this, and subsequently other businesses across the street as well, he saw a lot of change during his life on the avenue. And at times when others didn’t have much faith in it, he certainly did.
“This is my country and I am confident things will change only for the better,” he told the New York Times in 1984, in a piece describing the struggles of revitalizing 5th Avenue after so much crime and vacancy in the ’70s. “There are problems, but some day there has to be an upswing.”
Of course, there’s been quite an upswing since then, and it may be due in some part to Al’s efforts. During some of the more challenging decades in Park Slope, he worked on what would become the Fifth Avenue Committee, was a member of Community Board 6 for a time, and did a lot to keep the 78th Precinct connected to the community.
“He worked very hard to keep the 78th Precinct Community Council afloat,” says Pauline Blake, the current Community Council president and a longtime friend of Al’s who also worked with him durning her time at CB6. “With the drugs, the prostitution, you didn’t want to be on 5th Avenue after four in the afternoon back then. Working with the community and the precinct, he helped make the National Night Out a success.”
The annual National Night Out is an event to bring the police and neighbors together to meet and to show criminals that they don’t have a hold on the streets, and Al was an enthusiastic supporter of it from the beginning. Starting in 1983, he would invite every elected official possible to the event — including the mayor, the governor, and the President of the United States, according to a 2002 article in the Brooklyn Paper. No Presidents ever made an appearance, though he did get letters of support from them.
“He still had those, and more, hanging up the last time I visited him,” says Pauline.
As part of his efforts to unify the community, he served as chair on the CB6 Unity Sub-Committee. District Manager Craig Hammerman remembers him as a consummate diplomat and a very passionate speaker.
“Between his heavy accent and booming voice, you always knew when he was in the room,” Craig says. “And when he spoke, people listened because he treated everyone with respect and dignity, and expected to be treated the same in return. Our community lost a very special man.”
Each November Al would request a moment of silence at the Community Board’s general meeting to observe Kristallnacht, in hopes that neighbors would not forget those atrocities that targeted Jewish-owned stores, residences, and synagogues. A man of deep faith, he was not, however, Jewish.
“We are Arab Christians,” Al said to a customer once, as quoted by the Times in 2004. “But we were also Jews, 200 years ago. Then we converted.”
He was the perfect fit for the CB6 position, as he was “so completely ecumenical and humanitarian,” says Stephanie Twin, former chair of the Community Board. She remembers him as a man who loved Syria and U.S., and who always spoke empathically about the perspectives of all religions and sides.
“Every single year (until just a few years ago, in fact) he’d send Happy New Year cards at Rosh Hashanah to his Jewish colleagues, such as myself,” Stephanie says. “For the first few years, I assumed that meant he was Jewish, but in talking with him, I learned he was not. He said he sent cards to friends of other religions to show respect.”
His shop was another way he tried to unify the community — he built something familiar and useful on a street that suffered through some difficult times, but he stuck it out, promoting harmony. He stayed through threats after the Oklahoma City bombings, and continued to support the Arab-American Parade Committee through continued conflicts in the Middle East. And through it all, he was still working on 5th.
“Al’s store on 5th Avenue was a classic of his generation of immigrants,” Stephanie says. “It was filled with everything and anything. It’s the kind of mom-and-pop shop that used to characterize most of 5th Ave.”
The waves of gentrification that made their way through the neighborhood may have had some impact on his store, and his work in the community. In 2007, Al, along with eight other members, was not reappointed to CB6, in a move some felt may have been a response to the board’s opposition to the Atlantic Yards project. That project did, of course, continue on, and if you stand in front of his 5th Ave shop today, you can just about make out the Barclays Center down the street.
Though the Bay Ridge resident’s first Park Slope shop may have dwindled in supplies — the 2004 story in the Times notes how, during a stint in the hospital after breaking his hip, his grandsons sold off most of the stock — he continued working, selling mostly lotto tickets and acting as a notary public, able to sustain this slow business because he’d purchased the building (and the ones across the street, home to R&A Houseware and R&A Cycles) long ago. And if you didn’t have the chance to stop in to chat, you missed out.
“Occasionally, the conversation will be broken by someone coming into the store,” One More Folded Sunset wrote in 2011. “It might be a son, coming in to check on him, perhaps, or an old Yemeni friend, hanging out for a bit, and just every so often, and rather beside the point, it might be someone actually looking for a ticket.”
A passionate man, his life in business on 5th Avenue touched many, whether it was friends who knew him for decades, or those who just stopped to say hello every once in a while.
“When you give of yourself, you give a lot, and Al gave one hundred percent of himself,” Pauline says, “not only to his god, but to his family, and to his community. I am very proud to have called him a friend.”
We send our condolences to his children and grandchildren, and all those who knew him.
Services will be held at St. Nicholas A.O. Church, 355 State Street in Boerum Hill. Visiting hours are Sunday, February 23 from 2:30-5pm and 6-8pm; the funeral will be held the same day at 8pm; and a morning prayer will be held on Monday, February 24 at 10am.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be given in Al’s name to St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church, 355 State Street, Brooklyn, New York 11217; or St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, 501 St Jude Place, Memphis, TN 38105.
Top photo by CB6: Taken at Grand Army Plaza during National Night Out, August 1, 2000. From left, Craig Hammerman, District Manager, CB6; Pauline Blake, President, 78th Precinct Community Council; Albert Cabbad; Iris Weinshall, then-DOT Commissioner, representing Mayor Giuliani; Irene Lo Re, Chair, CB6; and the Commanding Officer of the 78th Precinct.