City Journal

Kay S. Hymowitz
Bed-Stuy’s (Unfinished) Revival
Wine bars on one block, midnight shootings on the next
Summer 2013
Senator Robert Kennedy in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where he established the country's first community development corporation in 1965
The Granger Collection, NYC
Senator Robert Kennedy in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where he established the country’s first community development corporation in 1965

Of all the changes that I’ve witnessed in Brooklyn since settling there 30 years ago, none has surprised me more than the blossoming reputation of Bedford-Stuyvesant, now the fastest-growing neighborhood in New York’s fastest-growing borough. For decades, Bed-Stuy’s nickname, “Do or Die,” perfectly captured the spirit of the place: it was a neighborhood of entrenched black poverty, mean streets, meaner housing projects, and a homicide rate that had reporters using war metaphors. Nowadays, Bed-Stuy has become the latest destination for young professionals and creative-class whites on the prowl for brownstones, tree-lined streets, and express subway lines to Manhattan. Artisanal coffee, prenatal yoga classes, and Danny Meyer–inspired restaurants (one, called Do or Dine, serves foie-gras doughnuts) have followed close behind.

At least that’s the scene portrayed by the newspapers’ style, food, and real-estate sections, which sometimes add a dose of the white-oppressor-meets-black-victim, professional-meets-working-stiff, yuppie-meets-homeboy drama that often characterizes articles about gentrification. To a certain extent, these clichés are accurate: the formerly blighted black neighborhood has indeed seen an influx of white professionals and creative types, along with the designer cafés and restaurants that keep them happy. But on closer inspection, the anecdotes turn out to be a caricature of a far more interesting story.

Bedford-Stuyvesant sits in the middle of Brooklyn, with Williamsburg to the north, Clinton Hill and Fort Greene to the west, Crown Heights to the south, and Bushwick to the east. All those areas, once poor and working-class, are in flux today as professionals, artists, managers, and nonprofit employees, most of them white, move in, priced out of Manhattan and trendier parts of Brooklyn. Bed-Stuy was bound to be the next domino because of its proximity to these other rising places and its excellent subway connections to Manhattan.

The neighborhood’s biggest draw, though, is its legendary brownstones: architecture is to Bed-Stuy what oil is to Saudi Arabia. In the mid-nineteenth century, a growing German and Dutch upper middle class, wanting to escape Manhattan’s grimy tenements, began to build homes in what was then the rural village of Bedford. A few decades later, with the 1883 opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, middle-class Italians, Jews, and Irish arrived, and the original Brooklyn burghers left for the suburbs. In 1889, Bed-Stuy’s leading architect, Montrose Morris, built Brooklyn’s first apartment building, the Alhambra, at the neighborhood’s southern end. It was a risky venture: the aspiring middle class tended to equate apartments with tenements. But Morris’s extravagant Romanesque and Queen Anne pile boasted nine-room apartments with maids’ quarters, as well as a croquet court in the garden. Morris helped drive a building spree that erected block after block of single-family houses, adorned with riots of intricate masonry that still delight today, despite varying degrees of disrepair: Romanesque arches, Byzantine columns, Queen Anne pediments and gables, terra-cotta tiles, carved mahogany doors, turrets, cupids, flowers, and grotesqueries of animals and human faces. Metalworkers contributed wrought-iron fences, gates, and cornices. Add a wealth of shade trees, and you’ve got the backdrop for urban living at its best.

Or you would, if not for the troubled racial history. Perhaps drawn to Bedford because of the existence of a long-standing black community in nearby Weeksville, the first refugees from the Jim Crow South arrived as early as the 1920s. Then the New York subway’s A train, starting service in 1930, brought black Harlemites seeking better housing. As the nation’s Great Migration accelerated, Southern blacks unwelcome in many other parts of the borough found Bedford more hospitable. By the late 1930s, however, decline in the increasingly poor, black area seemed inevitable. Banks stopped lending money to mortgage seekers and businesses there. Over the next decades, as poverty grew entrenched, many brownstones, already scarred by the Great Depression, deteriorated further. To create lodgings for boarders, struggling residents mutilated gracious parlors and ornate bedrooms; windows rotted and stone washed away. Frequently panicked into selling by blockbusting real-estate agents, Jews and Italians fled to Long Island, Queens, and other points in Brooklyn. By 1950, Bedford was 55 percent black; ten years later, it was 85 percent.

And it stayed that way, give or take a few percentage points, for almost half a century, even as it merged with next door’s Stuyvesant Heights. By the mid-1960s, 450,000 residents, most of them black, had crowded into the neighborhood’s nine square miles. Bed-Stuy had become Brooklyn’s most populous neighborhood and had one of the largest concentrations of African-Americans in the United States, second only to South Chicago. In both places, the city government turned its back; garbage pickup became apathetic, the schools dilapidated and disorderly, the streets dangerous. Around 80 percent of Bed-Stuy residents were high school dropouts. Many had lost jobs when the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the Sheffield milk-bottling plant on Fulton Street closed. About 36 percent of the neighborhood’s children were born to unmarried mothers, a fraction that would continue its relentless rise into the twenty-first century. Rates of venereal disease and infant mortality were among the nation’s highest. Juvenile delinquency, gangs, and heroin added to the misery. Shops on once-vibrant Fulton Street started to close. Blight so consumed Bed-Stuy that the journalist Jack Newfield, after a famous visit with Senator Robert Kennedy of New York, described the area as “filled with the surreal imagery of a bad LSD trip.”

Black poverty, crime, drugs, underclass misery—that’s the picture that most outsiders had of Bedford-Stuyvesant. But there was always another Bed-Stuy, one with considerable strengths that could eventually serve as the foundation for a revival. During the 1940s and ’50s, through luck, hard work, and penny-pinching, many of the community’s black teachers, mailmen, firemen, and nurses were able to buy and live in those precious brownstones. Some would hand down the houses to their children and grandchildren, who live in them today.

Bed-Stuy also had a tight-knit, neighborly, working-class spirit that lingers in the local memory and remains a source of fierce pride. Southern blacks had brought to Bed-Stuy not just hopes for better lives but the habits of friendly, slow-moving, small-town living. (To this day, residents boast, there are blocks where folks always say good morning to passersby and warm evenings when people sit on their front stoops, passing time and watching kids play on the sidewalk.) During those more mannerly times, adults weren’t afraid to chastise misbehaving children. In an interview in New York, former city comptroller and current mayoral hopeful William Thompson, Jr., who grew up in a brownstone on a shady block of Jefferson Avenue with his politician father and schoolteacher mother, remembered being scolded by a neighbor for “cussing” during a pickup football game. “I remember Audrey giving me what for,” Thompson said. “There was a sense of what was acceptable and what wasn’t.”

Even in 1965, as Robert Kennedy was launching the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation—the first community development corporation in the country—the ailing neighborhood showed signs of civic life. Unlike Harlem, where renting was the norm, Bed-Stuy had relatively high levels of homeownership. Nearly a quarter of the buildings in the area were owner-occupied, according to a study by the Pratt Institute; an additional 9.7 percent had owners living nearby. The neighborhood could claim, too, a lot of active block associations and other grassroots civic groups, as it does to this day.

Though redlined and abandoned by whites, Bed-Stuy forged its own culture. That culture may not have achieved the national reputation of the Harlem Renaissance, but it was nonetheless a source of solidarity, pleasure, and commerce, and it still shapes locals’ sense of themselves. Lena Horne and the master drummer Max Roach learned their art in Bed-Stuy. Jazz greats Freddie Hubbard and John Coltrane performed at local clubs during the fifties, as did singers Dinah Washington and Carmen McRae. Even today, venues attract up-and-coming jazz artists, thrilled to play for older aficionados who might once have heard Duke Ellington celebrate the neighborhood’s subway line in “Take the A Train.” By the 1940s, the area boasted dozens of restaurants and movie theaters, including one of New York’s largest, the 2,500-seat Brevoort, which entertained children at Saturday matinees and made a specialty of films directed by blacks or starring them. According to historian Clarence Taylor, black-owned businesses were commonplace. They hired black waiters, bartenders, managers, projectionists, and ushers, creating a lively, if poor, self-contained economy.

Even during the neighborhood’s bleakest days, African-American performers sparked feelings of local pride. By setting some of their most memorable work in Bed-Stuy, filmmaker Spike Lee and comedian Chris Rock helped it usurp Harlem’s status as the center of black energy and cool in the American consciousness. As the 1990s got going, the area became hip-hop’s Nashville, the birthplace and inspiration of Lil’ Kim, Notorious B.I.G., and the rapper-businessman Jay-Z, once the bard of the bullet-riddled Marcy housing projects.

Given this history, it’s not hard to see why some locals glower at the arrival of bike-riding, parent-dependent white musicians and creative couples pushing toy-bedecked strollers. These newcomers, priced out of Brooklyn’s Park Slope, Fort Greene, and Clinton Hill, have made $1,500-a-month one-bedroom apartments and $1.5 million houses the new normal in the once-cut-rate neighborhood. Unwittingly, they’ve pushed low-income locals out of places they called home back when no one wanted anything to do with their neighborhood. A lot of poor tenants have found themselves scouting the rental ads in far less genteel-looking East New York and Canarsie. Bed-Stuy’s white population grew by 633 percent between 2000 and 2010—“the biggest percentage increase of any major racial or ethnic group in any New York City neighborhood,” reported the New York Times. Even more alarming, at least for certain long-timers, was that black residents sank from 81.9 percent of the neighborhood population in 1990 to 64.6 percent in 2010.

Yet this isn’t the familiar story of gentrification’s dislocations. One reason Bed-Stuy was becoming less black was the rising number of Hispanics, whose portion of the population increased from 16.3 percent to 19.9 percent between 1990 and 2010. And so few whites lived in Bed-Stuy in 2000 that their big percentage increase by 2010 still made them only 10.9 percent of the local population, clustered mostly in several census tracts abutting Williamsburg. Walk along those streets, moreover, and you’re less likely to see hipsters and yuppies than women in wigs and long skirts pushing double strollers to kosher food establishments; to date, Hasidim make up a disproportionate number of Bed-Stuy’s white newcomers.

Also complicating the stereotypical gentrification story are the neighborhood’s numerous signs of black success. For one thing, older black homeowners who held on through Bed-Stuy’s worst times are now cashing in. A few years back, Clare Hussain, a half-Bangladeshi, half-Irish catering sales representative, and her Irish husband purchased a three-story brownstone from a black couple in their mid-sixties who’d lived there for more than three decades. After the sale, the former owners bought a big new house in Georgia, where their daughter and her family lived. Today, Hussain is the vice president and the only white member of her block association. She and her husband have befriended many upwardly mobile couples with young kids on nearby blocks—“almost all either black or mixed-race,” she says. Most have moved from other parts of the country, but some are prodigal sons and daughters returning to the neighborhood where they grew up.

In fact, black, college-educated men and women—“buppies,” as they’re sometimes called —are the underappreciated engine driving Bed-Stuy’s gentrification. In researching his book There Goes the ’Hood, Lance Freeman found a similar trend in both Harlem and Clinton Hill. “By the 1990s,” Freeman writes, “Fort Greene/Clinton Hill was a mecca for black creative types and entrepreneurs,” the minority counterparts of the white yuppies colonizing and upscaling Park Slope and Cobble Hill. These days, the buppies are drawn to what Freeman calls Bed-Stuy’s “neo-soul” aesthetic. One of them is hip-hop performer Santigold, a brownstone owner and 1997 Wesleyan grad.

This new black gentry often takes its business to the four-block corridor of Lewis Avenue between Halsey and Decatur, one of the area’s several pockets of gentrified commerce, much of it black-owned. Walking south along Lewis, you first see the old Bed-Stuy: a mini-mart or bodega anchors almost every block, with signs in the window announcing WE ACCEPT FOOD STAMPS. Once you get to Halsey, though, up comes Saraghina, a brunch and pizza café that exemplifies gentrification, Bed-Stuy-style. Though owned by two Italians, Saraghina couldn’t be further in spirit from Sal’s, the family-run pizza joint in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Instead of walls adorned with pictures of Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra and a scowling, racist cook behind the counter, Saraghina has retro icebox doors, vintage glass bottles, long picnic-style tables, free Wi-Fi, and hipster staff, as though it had arrived straight from Portland. One weekday at around 11 AM, the café’s occupants include three black women in their twenties and thirties and an older, mixed-race couple. All five sip coffee while working on laptops and regularly checking smartphones. One of the three black women is a yoga teacher and former Ohioan; another is a media producer from Michigan; the third runs a local wholesale distributor of food and groceries.

Melissa Danielle, the food distributor, is a blunt, sharply observant third-generation Bed-Stuy resident whose maternal great-grandparents arrived in Weeksville in the 1920s; she herself grew up in her mother’s nearby brownstone. She remembers first noticing signs of gentrification in the late 1990s in Fort Greene, where she went to high school, and then a bit later in Bed-Stuy, when a new population of twenty- and thirtysomething blacks moved there from college or from time spent abroad. “You want to re-create the experience you had in college,” she says, explaining their mind-set. “You socialized in bars and cafés; you want something like that where you live.” Contrary to the conventional wisdom, “it was black folks who opened up the first $3 coffee shops—and black people who complained about it.”

Though not mentioning any names, she could have been thinking of local celebrity Tremaine Wright. A University of Chicago–educated lawyer and onetime city council candidate, Wright opened the “fair trade” Common Grounds café on Tompkins Avenue in 2007. In an interview in Black Enterprise, Wright remembered that, like most students, she had survived law school on strong coffee. When she returned to Brooklyn, moving into her grandfather’s brownstone and taking over the mortgage, she couldn’t find a decent cup of joe outside her friends’ living rooms. Borrowing against the brownstone, she brought university coffee to Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Anthony Williams, co-owner of the Therapy Wine Bar, tells a similar story. Williams, a Bed-Stuy native, opened the bar four years ago, after he and his partner noticed that to sip some pinot noir, they had to leave the neighborhood. They found a local space unrented since 1985 and renovated it in an upscale style inspired by black music. Therapy has stylish glass globes hanging over its long, polished bar; on the exposed brick wall opposite the bar are framed jazz and hip-hop album covers. Williams says that most of his clientele consists of college-educated, upwardly mobile blacks. He’s been surprised by the number of tourists who stop by. They may be staying at the nearby Akwaaba Mansion, a bed-and-breakfast opened in the mid-nineties by a thirtysomething editor at Essence.

On the next block, a restaurant called Peaches distills Bed-Stuy’s black and white strains of gentrification. Its owners are Craig Samuels, an African-American born and bred in Bed-Stuy, and Ben Grossman, a white originally from the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Samuels trained at the haute Philadelphia restaurant Le Bec Fin, and Grossman at La Grenouille, New York’s classic French eatery. The menu also reflects the hybrid nature of the establishment, enumerating Brooklyn-foodie-style sustainable sources but also listing Southern favorites like grits and jambalaya. The clientele is integrated, too: I sat next to a white, tattooed, black-booted couple speaking Italian and another white couple with a toddler asleep in her stroller; at the bar, several women with Afros chatted animatedly.

For all the bustling commerce of Lewis Avenue and the encouraging signs of black upward mobility, the changing Bed-Stuy continues to experience real tensions. White gentrifiers sometimes raise hackles when they tell longtime residents that the neighborhood is “coming back” or when they frown at “stoop culture.” Stoops—and noise levels—remain a cultural divide between whites and local blacks. Locals orient themselves toward the street; new white homeowners tend to eat and socialize in their backyards and to complain about the street noise.

Most of the gentrifiers are in their twenties and thirties, giving rise to generational tensions as well. Danielle says that a lot of old-timers oppose giving liquor licenses to restaurants: “They still think of bars as hangouts for drug dealers and down-and-out ‘winos.’ ” Some residents who came of age during the black-power era simply object to the skin color of some of the new arrivals. Unfortunately, these naysayers include some influential people. “The Community has an identity and that identity is black,” Bed-Stuy’s city council representative, Al Vann, has warned. Vann does want to see the neighborhood develop—so that it can hold down the fort against outsiders. “We have to have the economic institutions to make sure that we are protecting the culture, protecting the people,” he said in a 2010 interview with Our Time Press, the local paper. “All of that goes to strengthening the black community.” (Vann also wasn’t enthusiastic about the influx of black Caribbeans following the immigration reforms of 1965, objecting that they didn’t appreciate the struggles of Southern blacks.)

But the biggest problem facing Bed-Stuy is that it remains a ghetto. The numbers should make style-section reporters pause. According to NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, 30.7 percent of the population was below the poverty line in 2010; that represented a decline from 35.2 percent in 2000, but it’s still very high by regional standards. In April 2012, the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York reported that 47 percent of kids in the area were poor. Bed-Stuy families with children under 18 had a median income of $28,000 in 2010, compared with a citywide average of $61,000. Neighborhood residents suffer from an obesity rate of 63 percent, 7 percentage points higher than the New York City average. Reported levels of child abuse are twice the citywide average. Bed-Stuy’s unemployment rate stands at 15.3 percent, also well above the rest of the city’s, and fair-trade coffee shops and designer pizza joints, however welcome, won’t do much to bring that number down.

Nor are gentrifiers likely to improve the educational prospects of the area’s children, which don’t look markedly better than they did 50 years ago. According to the Administration for Children’s Services, 60 percent of Bed-Stuy students don’t read at their grade levels—12 percentage points worse than the Brooklyn average. Community Board 3 has described Bed-Stuy’s middle schools as “in a crisis state”; graduation rates are so low that 15- and 16-year-olds are common there. One of the area’s best-known high schools, the community landmark Boys and Girls High, is among the bottom 5 percent of schools in New York State in terms of achievement, with a dismal 39 percent four-year graduation rate in 2012 and an attendance rate worse than 98 percent of the state’s schools. At Paul Robeson High, just across the border in Crown Heights, one in eight students is homeless or in temporary housing, according to the Daily News; 64 percent are chronically absent, and the graduation rate is abysmal. The city’s Department of Education has deemed the school so hopeless that by 2011, it was no longer accepting new students. It will shut its doors for good next year.

The final and most serious threat to the neighborhood’s well-being is crime. Articles on Bed-Stuy nearly always tout its large crime drop, and the numbers are indeed impressive: murders in the 79th Precinct, which covers the area’s more dangerous sections, are down 78.3 percent since 1990, for instance, and robberies are down 82.5 percent over the same period. But the precinct’s crime rates nevertheless remain among the city’s worst. As of mid-June, it had seen five murders for the year, 12 rapes, and 179 felony assaults. (Park Slope’s gentrified 78th Precinct, by contrast, had no murders, one rape, and 37 felony assaults during all of 2012.) Headlines about shootings are frequent. On Internet chat boards, people considering moving to the area list apartment addresses, asking whether it’s safe to move there. Commenters draw elaborate maps of the best routes to shopping areas and subways and list no-go zones for the uninitiated.

Bijoun Jordan, an African-American high school teacher originally from Georgia, and his wife, a publicist, enjoyed the Bed-Stuy vibe at first. But last year, after being awakened by shots one night shortly after the birth of their daughter, they wasted no time in studying crime statistics in nearby neighborhoods and moving to Kensington. “We were paying the rent of an upper-echelon neighborhood but had none of the security,” Jordan says. As I write, Bed-Stuy is in shock over the shooting of an 11-year-old girl by a 17-year-old boy, out on bail from a separate gun-related charge. Doctors say that she will be paralyzed for the rest of her life. The shooting took place about three blocks from Hussain’s house. Only one block away is the playground where the police caught the alleged shooter. Until now, she tells me, she and her friends used the park regularly.

“You have a right to live in Bed-Stuy and not have bullets whiz past your head,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a press conference after the shooting. Will Bed-Stuy’s middle class give up on that hope and follow Jordan to safer terrain? Or will it continue to join block associations and hang out at Therapy Wine Bar? The answer may decide the future of this storied neighborhood.

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