As I approached the corner of Throop Avenue and Van Buren Street in early summer 2013, I couldn’t help but notice the giant “Murder – $50,000 Reward” sign that loomed over the intersection, emblazoned with the photo of a dead businessman. The New York City neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, I’d heard, was still a little “rough,” but the sign was unlike anything I’d seen outside of Wild West movies. Almost comically, the image was plastered with a blood-red ‘Solved’ caption, as though calling out a fatuous warning: attention, would-be Bed-Stuy murderers – you might, eventually, be caught.
Walking down Van Buren Street I passed a high, metal wall topped with barbed wire. The wall hid several dogs with big barks and cast a film noir-like glow over the entire block. Next to this mystery lot, I quickly realized, was my potential new home. As I toed my sandal against the pavement and wondered what to do, I saw that on the street out front kids were playing basketball in a normal, very human-like way that I hadn’t seen kids do since I’d moved to Manhattan three years prior. They bounced and passed the ball and didn’t appear to be spoiled or neurotic; they even cast smiles my way as I watched. A couple of women standing outside my new building, a five story walk up, greeted me with open faces and hellos. When I decided at last to go inside, they held the door open.
For New Yorkers who were around during the 1980s, Bed-Stuy was synonymous with gang violence, guns, crack, and prostitution, and these associations still hold for many. Films like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing brought the area’s class and racial tensions into public consciousness while, some assert, simultaneously opening up discussions about race in America. Recent films perpetuate the crime stereotype. Broken City, a thriller released this year, opens with a murder in a New York City project modeled after Bedford-Stuyvesant. Bed-Stuy – Do or Die is a 2010 documentary that follows the efforts of a volunteer ambulance corps to service “the gritty streets of Bed-Stuy,” as the film’s PR describes. And Notorious, the 2009 film about the life of Christopher Wallace, aka rapper Biggie Smalls, provides a “flashback to an era of Walkmans, corner drug deals and rap duels,” as a New York Times profile recounts, rather than drawing on the “eclectic dining spots, wine shops and markets featuring organic items” that now pepper the area.
Those images of the old, embattled, crime-ridden Bed-Stuy were never the full picture, though, and there was a racial element to many white New Yorkers dismissal of the predominantly black area. The neighborhood was known then – and still is today– for its tight knit community, for people saying good morning on the street, and for neighbors sitting together on their stoops on warm evenings.
Bed-Stuy’s also famous – locally – for its beautiful residential buildings and tree-lined streets. Matthew Wills, a Brooklyn historian and nature enthusiast, recounted to me the lineage of the area over tea at Bedford Hill, one of the cute, new cafes on the cusp of the so-called “West Bed” gentrification wave, as one local blogged. According to Matthew, “The abbreviation ‘Bed-Stuy,’ marks a recent moment in the area’s social and cultural past, but otherwise compresses too rich of a history.” Matthew recounted that it wasn’t until the 1930s that Bedford joined with neighboring Stuyvesant Heights to become Bedford-Stuyvesant. For the preceding two hundred years, not to mention the time before that of Native American settlement, the area had been known by many other names, including simply Bedford, when it was a German and Dutch settlement.
The area had also housed diverse racial and class groups. It was home to one of the first communities of black freedmen in the 1800s, along with Westville in Crown Heights (now a historic place). When the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, middle-class Jewish, Italian, and Irish settlers arrived in Bedford, and the architect Montrose Morris began to create extravagant apartment buildings and single-family homes for the arrivals. Blocks of elaborately finished brownstones were built in the late 1800s; these were in turn taken over and bought by the Caribbean and African-American residents who started to move into the area in the 1920s and 1930s. Many of these residents handed the townhouses down through their families, giving Bed-Stuy a relatively high percentage of homeowners today (more than 20 percent), and creating a more static community than many other, mostly rental, neighborhoods in the city.
The warmth that’s resulted from this stability, and the “southern” character lent to Bed-Stuy by its numerous residents who arrived via the Great Migration, are often compared to the less friendly, “northern” character of Harlem, the other predominantly black neighborhood in New York City. Bed-Stuy’s friendliness was the key element that drew me in when I began room-hunting there last summer, so taken by the openness of people on the street. Unwittingly, I ended up moving from Upper Manhattan into the area as part of a wave of mostly white gentrifiers who are currently, completely rearranging the face of the neighborhood. It’s an understatement to say I feel conflicted about my role in this process. In some ways, taking part in the gentrification of Brooklyn seems inevitable, especially as an emerging writer and a migrant who requires cheap housing. There are few other affordable options. But as a politically conscious person with concerns for social justice, I am haunted by the fact I’m actively changing the character of the area – and I’m haunted by what is being displaced as a result.
The Bed-Stuy I’ve found in 2013-14 is a contradictory mix of barbed wire and wealth; a microcosm of the ills and gains of gentrification as a whole. The area has “emerged as a hotspot for arts and culture” in Brooklyn, and isa growing creative community that attracts artisans and artists, and yet, it is still a place of random gun violence and stray bullets.This mix of hipster and hip-hop culture has captured New York City’s imagination. In 2013 the neighborhood was declared “the new Williamsburg,” its eateries and bars called the hippest spots in Brooklyn, and young, white, “yarn bombing” residents installed crocheted installations on its landmarks. The New York Times Fashion blog calls the area’s convergence of styles “an inspiring mash-up of vintage, hip-hop and hipster motifs.”Meanwhile, the same paper reports that child poverty is growing in the neighborhood, and Bed-Stuy’s poorest residents are being forced out to nearby Brownsville as rents increase. As the Brooklyn Movement Center points out, gentrification is typically described in terms of “Black versus white,” and the displacement of “low income people of color with white, middle to upper income gentrifiers.” While this can be viewed as a disempowering narrative, as it positions the locals as victims, as the ‘conquered,’ the demographics offer one way to understand Bed-Stuy: The population of whites has increased sixfold in the last ten years, while the population of blacks has dropped by 15 percent. In the area west of Throop Avenue, what used to be the heart of the ‘hood, the original inhabitants are now a minority.
Another Bed-Stuy narrative is that of the growing wealth divide. In the same year that ever-increasing numbers of families in Bed-Stuy were forced into homeless shelters, as the New York Times reported, a two-bedroom loft apartment on Lexington Avenue, one of the “rougher” streets running through the neighborhood, sold to a Manhattan couple for $1 million. They bought the place, they said, because they liked the area’s “gritty feel,” and it reminded them of the Lower East Side in the 1980s. The New York Observer reported in October that a Swedish supermodel paid $1.2 million for a townhouse in the neighborhood. This is not uncommon: more and more of Bed-Stuy’s famous, family-owned brownstones are selling for millions.
Despite the changes gentrification brings, many friends, both people of color and white folks, emphasize positive impacts. “I never thought Bed-Stuy would get gentrified. Out of all the neighborhoods in Brooklyn to get popular, I never thought Bed-Stuy would be one of them,” says Trevor Bayack, a filmmaker who grew up in nearby, as yet ungentrified, East Flatbush. However, the story of gentrification, asserts Trevor, is not as one-sided as the media likes to make out. “For creative kids growing up in these neighborhoods, gentrification actually offers access to artistic people. It can increase the diversity in an area, and give the creative or unusual kids somewhere to hang out.” Nozebleed Zee, a twenty five year old rapper who lives in the area, agrees: “On the plus side, a wealthier culture has brought a decrease in crime.” Zee’s hip-hop explores drug usage and mass-cash handling, but “I don’t really see a dangerous environment here,” he says. “Those old urban legends about the ghouls of Bed-Stuy have become history.”
There are strong pro-community groups working to preserve the unique heritage of the neighborhood. The Coalition for the Improvement of Bedford-Stuyvesant and The Brooklyn Movement Center are two people of color-led organizations working to empower local residents and move the discourse away from descriptions of the gentrified as ‘conquered’ and ‘victims,’ towards an understanding of locals as active participants in the process of gentrification. The Movement Center asks: “Is it possible to revitalize a neighborhood of color in a way that is sustainable for the residents who live there? How can communities of color evolve without ultimately being replaced?”
As Colson Whitehead so eloquently outlined post-9/11, living in New York requires a constant negotiation of the city’s flux. This is a place of dynamism, as well as a place of entrenched ideas, of parochialism, of myths and stereotypes. The myth of the “New York dream” – that success, fame, and luxurious living will come to those who seek their fortunes here – is one example, perpetuated by the place itself, with which almost every transplant must wrestle.
Also to be confronted are the cultural, class and racial stereotypes applied to neighborhoods within the five boroughs. Beneath stereotypes, the lines of race, class, and culture interweave like copper wiring. Early last year, my current roommates, white artists and radical lawyers, were “gentrified out” of their home in nearby Bushwick, where property prices are soaring. The landlord almost doubled their rent. Collectively, our apartment earns much less than the households around us. My roommates and my need for Bed-Stuy is, in part, driven by our income.
And yet, there’s this: While my white roommates and I might be living well below the poverty level, we have higher education degrees, health insurance, and when it comes down to it, more access to wealth than many of our neighbors. We have family homes and connections outside of the city, and we have lines of credit. We have (scraped-together, grant-funded) art and writing trips abroad. We also have the option to up and leave this neighborhood at any moment, with very little consequence – and no responsibility for, or investment in, its long-term development.
I took the room next to the high, metal wall topped with barbed wire. As the end of 2013 and deep winter approached, I found that the fifteen-minute walk to my closest subway station – an unreliable G train stop – was demanding. The cold – like the extreme heat in Lee’s Do the Right Thing – added pressure. Then, right before Christmas, some crucial part of the boiler in the basement of my building broke. The loss of heat coincided with three inches of snow. The Fire Department instructed my roommates and me to keep all our windows open, to flush out the carbon monoxide that had built up to toxic levels. By Sunday evening, after two days of freezing temperatures, the heat was back on, and the carbon monoxide was gone. We grimly smiled at our neighbors in the hallway as the place heated up. We didn’t suffer for a year, or even 17 years without heat and hot water, like some Bedford Stuyvesant residents have. But I spent the weekend thinking about that “gritty” stereotype. Like Brandon Harris in this essay about finding the real Bed-Stuy in a “mordant” food stamps office on DeKalb avenue, I felt like I’d come close to discovering something a bit more real in all of my own assumptions about the neighborhood. I wondered whether the couple who bought the $1 million loft were dealing with any infrastructure or apartment difficulties. I wondered whether, for me, this was just another interesting and exciting adventure in New York City, and whether my ability to leave at any time, by choice, really does afford me a privilege few of my neighbors have.
Melody Nixon, a New Zealand-born writer living in New York City, is the Interviews Editor for The Common.