GOOD BYE BED-STUY
“There does tend to be this Christopher Columbus mentality, this glimmer of discovery in the eyes of many of our new neighbors. A blind entitlement that allows them to arrogantly ignore the deep footprints they now nestle their feet into. But we’ve been here and it’s the lack of acknowledgment of that that’s problematic.”
Spike Lee on gentrification in Brooklyn
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Gentrification hits Bedford-Stuyvesant, the neighborhood in central Brooklyn that traces its African-American roots to the early 19th century and has been the borough’s black cultural capital for decades. Bed-Stuy carried a trumped-up, nasty stigma, birthed from the plague that infected every black community in America during the eighties and early nineties. The backdrop of Spike Lee's cult movie “Do the right thing” was then nicknamed Bed-Stuy “Do or Die”. So many people, most of whom had never even been to Bed-Stuy, imagined the community as a slum, overrun with drunks, junkies, and Wild West shootouts in the middle of the street. Ghetto tales of dilapidated project buildings and crack deals woven by artists like Jay-Z, that permeated every corner of pop culture, had reduced Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood of over 150,000 people, to the infamous Marcy Projects.
Nevertheless, there was Bedford-Stuyvesant’s intrinsic value—its rare architecture of brownstone houses and ideal location, less than fifteen minutes by train from Wall Street. In the end, all that buffered the neighborhood from real-estate mania— that kept a nice townhouse as low as $200,000 into the late nineties—was its felonious reputation, along with a general reluctance among white home buyers to dive into an identifiably black neighborhood. But as the brownstone craze crested, crime fell throughout New York. In the 81st Precinct, which contains the eastern half of Bed-Stuy, the tally of murders, robberies, rapes, and felonious assaults plunged 64 percent between 1993 and 2003. Bed-Stuy, so long reviled, happened to become the last best chance for the urban version of the American Dream. The median price for homes in the hardscrabble Brooklyn neighborhood skyrocketed in the past year — from $425,000 in the second quarter of 2013 to $630,000 this year. The median asking price in Bed-Stuy jumped to $895,000 in June, a 50-percent hike over the same time last year.
When gentrification is typically discussed, it refers mainly to a turnover in real estate in a particular—usually black—community. Words like, “rebuilding” and “renewal” are dished to describe the process that typically ends in the “removal” or displacement of the current residents of the community. In the case of Bed-Stuy (and almost every other major city in America) the “removed” are, indeed, black people. From 2000 to 2010, the white population soared 633 percent — the biggest percentage increase of any major racial or ethnic group in any New York City neighborhood. Over all, the neighborhood is now barely 60 percent black — down from 75 percent a decade ago. But in the western Bedford section, according to the 2010 census, blacks have become a minority of the population, dropping to 34,000 from 40,000 in the last decade. Meanwhile, the number of white people grew to more than 18,000, up from just over 2,000. New money and new people brought different types of services and stores and more police protection. Homeowners are doing well but tenants have been seeing their rents rising beyond their capacity to pay and are continually being hit with schemes of greedy new landlords using any means to get them out of the buildings.
What happened to the Blacks who got displaced out of Bed-Stuy? Some African-American homeowners have sold their houses and returned down South with the ability to improve their quality of life from a space standpoint or are moving to other parts of Brooklyn and to the suburbs. As gentrification hit Bed-Stuy, the poorest people simply moved to neighborhoods that had many landlords who took government benefits with little to no vetting of tenants. These neighborhoods, East New York, Brownsville, Cypress Hills, Canarsie became even poorer as a result. Gentrification in big cities doesn't move poor people out of the inner city. It does displace them from the urban core, which is more valuable because it's close to areas where people with money want to work or socialize. Many of these run down areas close to the urban core are former industrial neighborhoods and the real estate is often underutilized.
The area has undergone dramatic racial and socio-economic change, but at its core Bedford-Stuyvesant remains Bedford-Stuyvesant with a proud history and tradition infused with African-American culture and a palpable creative energy of black life. Spike Lee in a recent interview, pointed out that “there does tend to be this Christopher Columbus mentality, this glimmer of discovery in the eyes of many of our new neighbors. A blind entitlement that allows them to arrogantly ignore the deep footprints they now nestle their feet into. But we’ve been here and it’s the lack of acknowledgment of that that’s problematic.” Some white residents are involved in local block associations and community-based advocacy groups but there are also a number of white families and single hipsters moving into Bed-Stuy, as renters and owners, who seem to be disconnected from, unaware of, and oblivious to Bed-Stuy’s rich, historical legacy of social capital, community networks and its politics.
Bed-Stuy doesn’t need fixing because Bed-Stuy is not broken or unsteady. It doesn’t need to be renewed or rebuilt or even rebranded. It just needs to be respected. Bed-Stuy and its inhabitants challenge everyone new to the "hood" to try to hear its heartbeat. Attempt to respectfully learn its rhythm, its language. Let your palette adjust to its flavor. Appreciate it for what it already is—special and dynamic. Sit on the stoop. Speak to your neighbor and, for God’s sake, dance at the block party!