Photographed by Eric T. White

Meet the entrepreneur whose shop and restaurants are transforming one of Brooklyn's most underappreciated neighborhoods.

“YOU GO UP CORTELYOU, make a left on Argyle, and then turn right on Albemarle...should I just draw you a map?” Ben Heemskerk, the kind-eyed, trim-bearded, and sleeves-rolled proprietor of three Brooklyn businesses, is providing directions to his favorite block in Ditmas Park: a quiet stretch of Buckingham Road that’s dotted with freestanding Victorian mansions, classic English Colonials, and a Japanese Pagoda. It’s the true “filet of the neighborhood” in an area famously described as “the other side of the park” in Noah Baumbach’s film The Squid and the Whale“I don’t know how it was zoned, but it’s an amazing walk—almost like a house museum,” says Heemskerk, 31. It’s also the exact opposite of the traditional image of this otherwise bustling, brownstone-lined borough. 

Seven years ago, Heemskerk was running an after-school pro- gram for homeless children and sharing a tiny sixth-floor walkup on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “I was so uncomfortable, and it was such a struggle to make the rent,” the New York University grad says. So he started explor- ing Brooklyn, treating the city’s sprawling subway lines like a spinning globe. “I got off the Q train at Church Avenue and was like, ‘What the hell is this?’” he says. He walked along Stratford Road until he saw a FOR RENT sign, introduced himself to the Guyanese owners, and signed a lease to rent their attic on the spot. “When I moved there, I was ready...not to settle, but really to breathe and make a life for myself,” he says.

Mission accomplished: In just three years, he’s opened The Castello Plan, an eatery fre- quented by some of the nabe’s most recognizable residents— Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National and Sufjan Stevens, to name three—as well as a home- goods store called Collyer’s Mansion with his fiancée, Mauri Weakley. It’s named after the firefighter term for a hoarding situation—“a little morbid, yes, but there’s a certain romance in the Collyer brothers’ collection of, like, 13 grand pianos,” he says. Equidistant between the two is his latest venture, an as-yet-unnamed bar.

Perhaps most surprised by this turn of events is Heemskerk himself. “I never had a lemonade stand or anything,” he says, seated in the corner booth of The Castello Plan, his hands gripping the rounded edges of a zinc-wrapped table he made with the help of his father, a freelance craftsman. His mother, also self- employed, ran a dance studio out of the family’s New Jersey home, a Baptist church renovated by his dad. “I never saw my parents wake up and put on a suit, you know?” Heemskerk says. Even though entrepreneurship ran in the family, it still took him a long time to accept “businessman” as his identity. “But I eventually realized that I could make beautiful places and find creativity and imagination in business,” he says.

And he’s drawn from the skills he learned in the nonprofit world—how to achieve a lot with limited resources—in growing his mini-empire. “When you don’t have a million-dollar investment, but you still want do something amazing, you just figure it out as you go,” Heemskerk says. And creativity, innovation, and family ties are all visible in the bright, geometric-print pillows available for purchase at Collyer’s Mansion. Weakley sources the material locally and ships it to her mother, a third-generation seam- stress in Nashville, to craft the final product. They’re displayed, along with jars of Dutch licorice candies, on shelving installed by Heemskerk and his father—the refurbished china cabinets and cheese boards for sale are the handiwork of the father-son team as well.

While Heemskerk’s businesses obviously need customers to survive, there’s a part of him that wants to keep the neighborhood a secret—the part that would one day like to buy a house in the area, he half-jokes, but also the part that wants to preserve the unmistakable sense of discovery visitors experience upon arrival.

“There’s something special about the surprise of Ditmas Park,” he says, sketching a map on a piece of scrap paper, asterisks marking the Mexican restaurant that sells “the most amazing chicken soup” (Cinco de Mayo), Top Cafe Tibet (“hit or miss, but always an adventure”), and,
of course, the “house museum” on Buckingham Road. “It just adds another layer to the New York story.”