Someone once told me that New York City itself is a temporary condition: it dons and sheds costumes like a stage performer, shifting its shape as it fills with the various cacophonies of groups coming in to make the city their home, for a short time or forever. Many come to pursue something — to be near to their “giants,” as EB White wrote in his 1949 essay, “Here Is New York”: “This excitation (nearness of giants) is a continuing thing. The city is always full of young worshipful beginners — young actors, young aspiring poets, ballerinas, painters, reporters, singers — each depending on his own brand of tonic to stay alive, each with his own stable of giants.”
When I moved to Brooklyn, first to the Dominican and Hasidic neighborhood of South Williamsburg, I did not feel very near to my giants — to the academics at The New School, with whom I was studying French poststructuralist Theory and contemporary social science, or to the legions of poets, authors, and artists that dwelled in my historical knowledge of New York City and made up its present cultural landscape. And I resented my distance from these giants, both current and past, as I lay awake nights, disturbed by the ongoing reggaeton being pumped from the sedan that sold drugs right in front of my second-floor apartment. I resented my own temporary condition, where my intellectual objects of desire were encased in some of the most expensive real estate in Manhattan. And I resented furthermore that the lofty ideas I engaged with in that institution known as the Ivory Tower provided absolutely no help to me as I tried to deal with my actual — not theoretical — situation, as a broke grad student, single, afraid of the future, and lonely, living in Brooklyn.
I ended up a few neighborhoods over, in Bed-Stuy, for three reasons: one, the rent was cheap; two, I had friends nearby in Clinton Hill and Fort Greene (both notably more upscale); and three, I liked that there was a large presence of middle-class families — of all colors. It felt like a regular neighborhood — compared to North Williamsburg, a short walk from my old apartment, which had always seemed to me like a weird fashion show, where everybody was simultaneously anorexic and yet always devouring things purchased from a taco truck. Bed-Stuy promised a bit of normalcy, and perhaps a place I could call home, for a while, as I felt around in the dark — working through my own confusion about what Academia meant to me, what it meant to be a writer, why I cared about ideas and knowledge — for who my giants were, and where they might be.
Amzi Hill’s Italian Neo-Grec designs, and Montrose Morris’s Renaissance-Revival apartment buildings and Parisian rooftops, are among the architectural gems that give Bed-Stuy’s streets the feeling of walking through the sculptural wing of a museum or along a street in Montmarte. Morris’s Alhambra, on Nostrand Avenue just north of Fulton, on the southern end of Bed-Stuy, was the first proper apartment building in Brooklyn when it was built in 1889. Each apartment had as many as nine rooms — including one for a maid — and the building had a croquet court in back. The exterior is decorated with terra cotta Viking faces that add a whimsical note to the otherwise stately appearance of the edifice. Across the street from the Alhambra is the building that held the first public girls’ high school in Brooklyn; actress Lena Horne and writer Betty Smith were alumni.
The neighborhood that is today known as Bed-Stuy (note that “Stuy” is pronounced like “sty;” the more official name is “Bedford-Stuyvesant”), was developed into farmland by the Dutch Lefferts family during the early eighteenth century — by which point New York had come under British rule. The Dutch had purchased the land that lay across Manhattan’s East River for a few hundred dollars from the Canarsee Indians in 1636, and named it “Breuklen,” after a riverside province of the Netherlands where many wealthy families lived in mansions at that time. As the Indians began to leave, the Dutch built plantations where they grew crops for consumption and tobacco for export, and some cotton. Slaves provided the labor. The Lefferts held much of the land in what was known as Bedford until the 1880s. But starting at the moment the Brooklyn grid was drawn up in the 1830s, potential developers were standing by, waiting for a chance to get their hands on land in what is today Bed-Stuy. During the 1860s, affluent bankers had villas constructed in the Bed-Stuy area, many of which are still standing today; in a way, Bed-Stuy then was to Manhattan what Connecticut today is to Wall Street. Financiers in the nineteenth century commuted to their homes in Brooklyn on the Long Island Railroad.
In the 1870s, as the first cornerstones of the Brooklyn Bridge were being put in place, the construction of brownstones began throughout the area called Bedford Corner, in anticipation of an influx of wealthy merchant families and middle-class civil servant families who would benefit from access provided by the bridge. When the Bridge opened in 1883 (despite skepticism by many), a building boom went into effect.
“Not everyone was pleased,” by the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, as Evan Hughes writes in his recent book, Literary Brooklyn, which looks at the experiences of writers like Walt Whitman, Henry Miller, and Richard Wright, who all made said borough their home. Basically, the bridge promised to bring in the riff-raff who were living in the slums across the East River — Manhattan at that time was considered the site of squalor and unruliness — as was, Hughes reminds us, documented by Jacob Riis’ book How the Other Half Lives, published in 1890. “People with lower incomes could now move to Brooklyn without giving up Manhattan jobs, a development not welcome by all the Brooklynites who were building elegant brownstones.”
But developers knew that not only would workers come to Brooklyn — their managers would, too. And they set out building houses for those people to live in. As brownstones went up, developers often used their wives’ names as a cover for their work, to avoid liability issues in case something went wrong — so that Suzanna E. Russell is documented as the developer for whole blocks in Bed-Stuy; it was more socially unacceptable to take a woman to court, evidentially. After the bridge was successfully constructed, Bed-Stuy saw hordes of German and Irish immigrants — generally well-to-do merchants — moving into its newly-built brownstones. Additionally, a small black community lived nearby, in a more modestly developed area known as Bedford Corners.
By the 1930s, as the A train was being constructed along Fulton Street, which today is one of the outer parameters of Bed-Stuy, the demographics of that area were changing. Black families who had previously lived in what is today DUMBO, near their jobs in the Navy Yard, moved into Central Brooklyn’s neighborhoods as those jobs began to disappear during the Depression. And the whites began to leave as the blacks moved in. Churches whose congregation had served European immigrant communities simply packed up and moved to Queens. The Gates Avenue Block Association even asked the Ku Klux Klan to come up from Georgia, to scare blacks away from moving into Bed-Stuy.
This was the time of “redlining” — when banks had maps with big red lines drawn around entire zones of New York City, where they would not offer mortgage loans to potential homebuyers. The lines were drawn based on “residential security maps” created in 1935 through a largely subjective process by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation at the request of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board; this was done for 239 cities across America. Often, blacks had to send white agents to buy their homes for them, unless they were light-skinned enough to pass as Latino. (Redlining was prohibited by the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which made it illegal to use discriminatory criteria in determining the riskiness of issuing mortgage loans.)
After the Second World War, white families began to pursue the dream of living in the suburbs, and Bed-Stuy became a fully black neighborhood. During the 1940s and 19450s, the construction of housing projects augmented the population — which today numbers around 130,000 — and also gave the neighborhood something of a bed reputation. Bed-Stuy, like other black communities in the U.S., saw a crack epidemic sweep over it, along with neighboring Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and other parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan — and soon after, racial tensions were heightened as gentrification began to increase rapidly. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, filmed in 1989 and set in the Bed-Stuy of the preceding decade, depicts explosive ethnic warfare between Italians, Jews, blacks, and gentrifying whites.
If you ask people who have lived here a while what they like about Bed-Stuy, most of them will tell you it’s the sense of community, the everyday friendliness. There was a guy named Joe, who looked to be in his 80s, and who would sit on his stoop, two houses away from mine, and say hello to me every time I passed by — regardless of whether he had just greeted me five minutes earlier. Joe would repeat, over and over, “Y’have a nice day, y’hear! A’right now.” He was often very drunk. One day he was gone, and I never found out what happened to him.
In EB White’s portrayal of New York, all of the city’s districts bear an internal sense of chumminess and familiarity that made its disparate elements coalesce into an actual neighborhood. “So complete is each neighborhood, and so strong the sense of neighborhood, that many a New Yorker spends a lifetime within the confines of an area smaller than a country village. Let him walk two blocks from his corner and he is in a strange land and will feel uneasy till he gets back,” wrote White.
Do people still — in fully-gentrified, real-estate-is-king, New York City — feel this way about their neighborhoods? Most Brooklynites feel so devoted to the lifestyle of the borough — riding bikes to the farmer’s market, sipping cappuccinos prepared by baristas with nose-piercings and wearing flannel shirts, enjoying a meal at a farm-to-table restaurant at a fraction of Manhattan prices — that nearly everyone speaks, only half-jokingly, with loathe of going into “the City.”
But, though I have taken well to Brooklyn, it has not been as easy as I had hoped to make Bed-Stuy my home. Beyond my block, where I’m friendly with Pedro, who owns the “Family Food” bodega one stoop away, my landlords, and the old man Joe, I have not felt particularly warm and fuzzy vibes toward, or originating from, well, anyone, really. In fact my experience has been quite the opposite: one time, a group of black schoolboys threw a Nerf ball at me and called me a “white bitch.” Almost every day, as I walk to my yoga studio, or the subway, or the grocery store, I am jarred from my thoughts — I am normally lost in contemplation when I am walking — by comments from older, black men—“Damn, sweetheart.” “Look at that ass.” “Girl, you wanna put on some heels and make some money?” No, I don’t. I want to keep on thinking what I was thinking.
A woman I know, a black woman who grew up in Brooklyn, who has owned a home in Bed-Stuy since the 90s, said to me that the thing newcomers don’t understand is that people here are “stoop people”; they sit on the stoops of their houses and chat with neighbors or passers-by — like how people do on porches, in the South. Another woman, white, who grew up in Flatbush and bought a house in Bed-Stuy in 2005, and plans to buy an “investment property” in the neighborhood soon, told me that she gets exhausted saying “hello” to people as she walks to the subway or the store. People “who have recently moved to the neighborhood” — particularly recent immigrants from the island across the river — need to learn to be more friendly like this if they want to fit in around Bed-Stuy, this woman told me.
Both of these women told me that I need to stop “playing the victim” and toughen up –become more of a New Yorker, in other words — when I told them that I was sick of men harassing me and groups of black children throwing things at me. They tell me, these women, that white people like me need to be friendlier. Except when the men harass me — then I should scream at them, “Fuck off!” and generally be a bitch. I picture myself, walking along Franklin Avenue, alternately smiling and saying, “Good afternoon,” and, scrunching up my face in a scowl, seething, “Shut the fuck up!” to passersby.
During my first six months living in Bed-Stuy, in the winter of 2010-2011, I slowly familiarized myself with the neighborhood and its history through journalism, working for the “hyper-local” news website Patch.com. In one of my assignments, I reported on a community discussion on the plight of black youth, in which kids from a local school stood up amongst an impassioned crowd of adults and asked, “Why do people see us as kids growing up without parents, on the streets, doing things we’re not supposed to do, when they could just see us as regular kids?” In another, I profiled formerly homeless people who relied on a housing voucher that had recently been cut by the state. I wrote a three-part series on the flourishing Senegalese immigrant community, which has established a firm presence on Fulton Street. I did stories about how nationwide budget cuts to programs like Planned Parenthood and Head Start could have an impact on the low-income Bed-Stuy community. I wrote about the “food desert” issue in Bed-Stuy, about low-income housing projects, about environmental matters.
Making my way through the neighborhood, I observed one abandoned building after another. In 2009, Bed-Stuy was ranked as the district in New York City with the second-highest number of foreclosures. Clinton Hill, right next-door, was ranked thirty-third. The bodegas in Bed-Stuy lacked fresh produce (though little by little, it began appearing, thanks to local food activists). Teenagers littered freely on the sidewalks.
People shuddered a bit when I told them where I lived, and asked me if I felt safe living across from “that housing project.” To be honest, I told them, not really. I still recall one night, soon after I had moved in, watching a helicopter patrol the skies, looking for a man who had committed an armed robbery. Buildings were cordoned off, and cops were everywhere. Over time, I got more used to that sort of thing. Cops kind of tip their hat to you as you walk by them in Bed-Stuy, as if saying, “Just another day on the job, ma’am.” If you ask them what’s going on, why the police tape, why so many NYPD cars, they inevitably demur with a comment like, “Oh, the usual.”
Bed-Stuy has seen waves of change ever since it was colonized by the Dutch, hundreds of years ago; the current gentrification is only the latest wave. But it may be the most controversial yet.
“I despise gentrification,” the approximately 70-year-old Weusi explained to me when I interviewed him in early 2011, in his office at the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium, which he helped to found, “because I remember the speed with which whites left outta here.”
When Weusi was growing up in Bed-Stuy in the 1940s, the community was just emerging as black families, outpriced from their previous homes near the Brooklyn Bridge, began moving in. At the same time, Weusi explained, whites were moving out. He remembered kids he used to play basketball with, white kids, who told him they were moving away, and wondering if he would ever see his friends again. He didn’t.
In the early 1950s, Weusi was one of nineteen black students at the prestigious and selective Brooklyn Tech High School. He lasted there only two and a half years, he said. Though the school didn’t charge tuition, Weusi’s family was destitute, and couldn’t afford the supplies that the school constantly asked its students to purchase. Moreover, the “social atmosphere” at Tech made the young Weusi uncomfortable.
When I asked him if he’d tried to explain to his teachers how hard it was to buy supplies and pay for field trips, a tired look came upon his face. “New York City as a whole was insensitive to the plight of blacks at the time,” he explained. Weusi finished his secondary education in a different public school, where he didn’t feel as ostracized because of his race. He went on to study history and education at Long Island University on a basketball scholarship, and there he was again one of few black students.
As he told me about his time as a student, Weusi’s voice grew vulnerable, echoing years of feeling lonely and out of place. He had intended on going to law school, but a mentor told him that only people with money could do that, and suggested that he become a teacher instead. Later, while working as a social studies teacher in Bed-Stuy, Weusi grew even more frustrated by the homogenous nature of the education system. “The curriculums were very dry, very white,” Weusi explained. “We weren’t in ‘em.”
In the early 1960s, Weusi began taking trips up to Harlem, where he connected with his African roots through the black community there. He brought history books, photographs of Africa, and charts of African symbols back to his students in Bed-Stuy. “They wanted to know: what are those symbols, what do they represent, where’d they come from,” Weusi recalled. He had finally found the element that had been missing from his own education: a sense of identity.
Growing excited at the memory, Weusi recounted how he had gone to great lengths to organize a class trip to see an African dance troupe at Cooper Union. “Man, they’d never been exposed to anything like this before. It really opened their eyes,” he said, proudly.
Bed-Stuy, in Weusi’s time, became a center of black pride, as well as a focal point for the growing black Muslim movement, which was centered at Masjid al-Taqwa, on Fulton Avenue, the mosque attended by hip-hop artist (formerly known as) Mos Def and his family, residents of Bed-Stuy.
I asked Weusi, who is now a father of eight as well as a grandfather, how he thought that today’s youth experience life in Bed-Stuy. “I came up in that era when Bed-Stuy was becoming a solidly black area,” he replied. “But my kids,” he continued, “they only see the bad things. This solidly black area is experiencing a lot of crime, a lot of craziness. So they say, why do we have to live around here? It’s kind of dangerous.”
“This was the ghetto,” Weusi told me. “The whites, when they left, they never said they were coming back.” A silence, uncomfortable in its salience, ensued.
And Weusi repeated: “This was the ghetto. So why the whites comin’ back?”
Why are the whites moving back? There are too many answers to that question; not a single one alone will suffice. Some are moving back because the rent is cheap but also because the neighborhood is colorful. Many are students, artists, and writers who hold down side jobs while pursuing their passions; a decade ago, their not-too-distant artistic predecessors staked a claim in the now-pricey neighborhood of Williamsburg. Others, of an older generation and with more means, see Bed-Stuy and its stately brownstones as a golden real estate opportunity. This last group is the contemporary rendition of the first wave of “brownstoners,” a reputably artsy and eclectic bunch, who bought and fixed up homes in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Clinton Hill and Boerum Hill in the late 1960s, when those areas looked — to white urbanites, at least — like a veritable slum.
In LJ Davis’ 1971 black comedy, A Meaningful Life, we find a perverse, though surely not totally inaccurate, representation of the brownstoner movement in the novel’s tragic hero, Lowell Lake. Bored with his mundane, petty bourgeois existence — a dead-end job, an unloving slightly subservient wife, evenings spent holed up in a small apartment with said wife consuming vast amounts of liquor and watching televisions — Lowell gets it in his head that he will buy a house in Brooklyn and fix it up. He’s not even particularly interested in the value of the home — never does Lowell mention renting out the rooms, for example — but rather he is entranced by the opportunity to experience life in a raw sort of way, through thinking about tangible problems and transforming things with his own hands.
When Lowell begins moving forward with the project, taking on the home of a classic 19th-century robber baron aptly named Darius Collingwood, his wife attempts to leave him; she cannot believe that the promising Stanford boy she chose to marry has brought her not up in the world, but rather down, to the nastiness of Brooklyn. She (we never learn her name, part of Lowell’s obliviousness to the fact that she is an actual human being beyond her wifehood) goes back to her parents’ home, in Flatbush. Her father is a racist and her mother is a quintessential Neurotic Jewish Mother who has always despised Lowell. When Lowell comes, albeit halfheartedly, to reclaim his wife — she being one of the few things that reminds him that he does in fact exist in the world — his mother-in-law decries his move to Brooklyn as lunacy: “A falling down roomhouse in Bedford-Stuyvesant!” (Even though the house is technically in Clinton Hill, everybody labels it as Bed-Stuy, and at work Lowell earns the nickname “the guy who bought a house in Bedford-Stuyvesant.”) Lowell’s mother-in-law tells him, seething, “Our people moved out of that neighborhood 20 years ago,” to which Lowell responds, betraying his own underlying skepticism toward non-Aryans, that “their” people weren’t ever allowed to live there. His nameless wife goes back with him, if only because Lowell is marginally preferable to her parents.
Lowell’s quest to fix up the house continues, and seems hopeful, until, one night, in a drunken stupor, nearly sleepwalking, he violently kills an intruder in the house when he is there alone. For days, Lowell anxiously checks the papers, expecting to see an announcement of the crimes; he awaits the police or detectives who he is sure will accuse him of murder. But no police visit him, no death or crime is reported. It is only some bum Lowell has killed, likely a black one — he isn’t even sure, having done the deed under the cover of darkness — and no one minds his absence or reports the appearance of his dead body.
Whereas in Richard Wright’s Native Son — which Wright penned down the street from Lowell Lake’s brownstone, often while sitting in Fort Greene Park — when the black, male protagonist accidentally murders a white woman, the whole criminal infrastructure chases him down, in A Meaningful Life, the death of a destitute man in Brooklyn yields no punishment for Lowell Lake, a white homeowner. In the end, despite pouring his energy and money into renovating the brownstone, Lowell’s life is just as meaningless as that of the nameless, faceless man he has killed. Though Lowell envisioned himself becoming like Darius Collingwood, the original home owner — an army officer, adventurer, remorseless swindler, and womanizer — or perhaps, like his Manifest Destiny-emboldened ancestors, pioneering a new frontier, that of black Brooklyn –Lowell is, in the end, afraid of all that surrounds him and unable to interact with it. He stands alone in his empty house, lacking the integrity, the social means, and essentially, the cojones, to fill it with anything meaningful at all.
Bed-Stuy today is not quite the hotbed of tension that it was in Spike Lee’s — or Lowell Lake’s –day, but there is still not yet peace around the question of gentrification. There is, however, a palpable dynamism in the streets of Bed-Stuy, as new businesses appear and create fresh social spaces. The yoga studio I attend around the corner from my apartment opened just last year; it is the first to appear in Bed-Stuy, and is a site of incredible diversity of every kind. More specifically, it is the first and only place I have practiced yoga where cookie-cutter, white people, usually women, are in the minority. There are still, of course, smooth, highlighted-blonde ponytails whipping around as we go through sun salutations; but there are also Afros, Mohawks, head coverings, braids, dreadlocks, and lots and lots of tattoos — most of them quite good.
I still get harassed by the guys standing outside the bodega on my corner, and I alternate between yelling obscenities at them (they yell back), ignoring them (they continue unabashed), and, when I’m feeling clever, saying something like, “Yeah, well too bad it’s not for you,” which kind of makes me feel like a 17-year-old at a high school dance, but is by far the most effective response — they usually chuckle and say, “yeah,” and then turn away.
“New York provides not only a continuing excitation but also a spectacle that is continuing,” wrote EB White. “I wander around, re-examining this spectacle, hoping that I can put it on paper.”
I wander around my neighborhood, examining all the changes — the new wine shop on my street, the fancy buildings going up all the time, the artsy couples pushing babies in strollers on every block — and wondering if we’re all that much different than Lowell Lake, who was so ignorant of how he privileged his desire for a certain kind of lifestyle over the situation of Brooklyn’s blacks. I wonder if Bed-Stuy will ever feel like home to me. And I wonder, despite all the changes, if things in Bed-Stuy will ever really change at all.