In my ongoing quest to understand gentrification in Bed-Stuy and have a deeper understanding of this neighborhood’s historical demographics, I spent one of the most enjoyable Saturdays in recent memory on a walking tour with Morgan Munsey, an architect and architectural historian who is passionate about preserving Bed-Stuy’s beautiful brownstones.
Munsey filled me in on Bed-Stuy’s evolution since the seventeenth century, when it was farm land, owned by the Dutch Lefferts family, one of the biggest landowning families in New York, and also a slaveowning family. The Lefferts held the land until the 1880s. But in the fifty or so years before that, after the Brooklyn grid was drawn up in the 1830s, potential developers stood 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.
In Literary Brooklyn, Evan Hughes writes that “Not everyone was pleased [by the Brooklyn Bridge]…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.” Manhattan at that time was considered the site of squalor and unruliness–as, Hughes reminds us, documented by Jacob Riis’ book How the Other Half Lives, published in 1890.
By the 1930s, the demographics of Bed-Stuy were changing, as black families who had previously lived in what is today DUMBO, near their jobs in the Navy Yard, moved into Central Brooklyn’s neighborhoods once those jobs began to disappear during the Depression. Jitu Weusi, who I interviewed last year and who was a child during those years, told me that he remembered the whites leaving as the blacks moved in. Munsey confirmed this for me during our tour, as he pointed out a church whose congregation had simply packed up and moved to Queens as blacks began moving in, one of many that left rather than live among blacks. 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, Munsey told me.
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 crime and drug wave in the 1980s, and soon after, experienced racial tensions as gentrification began (for more on this, see Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”).
Munsey’s passion for architecture has him very active in campaigning for Bed-Stuy’s blocks to obtain official landmark status, which protects those buildings from alteration or destruction to make way for new developments. Amzi Hill’s Italian Neo-Grec terra cotta designs, and Montrose Morris’ Parisian-style apartment buildings and 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. Munsey and others worry that without landmarking status, and particularly because of the wave of foreclosures that hit Bed-Stuy after the financial crisis of 2008, these brownstones will be transformed or even replaced to reflect contemporary aesthetics.
As Munsey and I walked along, he explained to me that his great-aunt had lived in Bed-Stuy, and as a child he had been awed by the city’s architecture. I recalled a similar feeling when I would travel up to New York to visit my grandparents, who lived in Stuy-Town (which itself has a fascinating architectural history–it was the first middle-class housing project in the U.S., built for returning WWII veterans). To us suburban kids–Morgan Munsey and me–the city’s density and constant movement was a source of fascination, and not only for its contemporary offerings, but also because of its rich history.
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 seventy-year-old Weusi explained to me last year 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 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?”
Back then, I didn’t have an answer for him. I enjoyed the interview, despite some tension in the room. When I left, I experienced a more direct form of anti-gentrification aggression, for the second time since I had been living in Bed-Stuy.
I was walking home along busy, noisy Franklin Avenue that day after interviewing Jitu Weusi, when a well-packed snowball struck my shoulder. A group of teenage boys clustered on the stairs outside the library burst into laughter and disappeared inside the building as I turned to look at them. I was perplexed, though hardly fazed. At this point, I’d been living in Bed-Stuy for about four months, and no longer entertained the idea that it would ever truly feel like home, in the way I longed for a neighborhood to be.
Two older women, locals, walking beside me, asked me if I was okay. The idea of explaining to them how complex my feelings actually were about the boys – and about my interview, only an hour prior, with Jitu Weusi – simply exhausted me. I told them I was fine.
Looking straight ahead, but keeping astride me as we continued along, the women told me not to take it personally. “They’re just bad kids,” one explained.
I shook my head, and ventured to share my opinion. “No, I think they’re doing it because I’m white,” I said. But the women disagreed: “We don’t teach our kids to be racist,” one told me. “You can’t see it that way.” She shook her head sternly. “Racism isn’t something you’re born with,” the other added, “it’s something you learn.”
I said nothing but nodded, too tired to carry on the conversation, and skeptical that we would reach an understanding of each other’s positions. We paced together for a while, and one of the women asked me for money for bus fare, which I gave to her. As they went off, I brushed the snow from my shoulder where it had been hit, walked home, and wrote up my interview.
Prior to that, I had had one other minor injury, I’ll call it, inflicted upon me in Bed-Stuy.
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 website Patch.com. 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?” 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, though I was unable to get ahold of important religious leaders and found business owners reticent to talk with a white, American journalist. 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.”
One day as I ambled wearily down my street after a long day of reporting, I felt a light but substantial object hit me in between my shoulder blades. I turned to see a group of boys, young and black, wearing backpacks, laughing as the Styrofoam Nerf ball that had bounced off me rolled back toward them. Perturbed but unflustered, I kept walking. But then it came again, and the laughter grew. This time I turned around and gave the boys a long, hard stare. They jumped back a bit but made no sign of retreating. And sure enough the toy came flying at me again as soon as I had turned around. When the Nerf ball landed close to me, I grabbed it and threw it across the street, hoping that the boys would simply run after it and leave me alone. But the words the boys hurled at me next were far more injurious than the negligible weight of the toy.
“White bitch!” they yelled.
I turned away, chest heaving. Only a few steps from my stoop, I continued walking. Then the sound of glass, hitting pavement next to me, stopped me in my tracks. As I turned to look at the object that had narrowly missed my head, the first thought that crossed my mind upon seeing the broken bottleneck laying on the ground was that I did not have health insurance, and would have had no idea what to do had it reached its target, which was, of course, me – the white bitch.
I think that now, about fifteen months after moving to Bed-Stuy I might have more of an answer to Weusi’s question about why the whites are moving back here.
In E.B. White’s seminal 1949 essay, “Here Is New York,” he writes about the feeling of being in the big city and surrounded by one’s most revered intellectuals, writers, and artists. “The city is always full of young worshipful beginners – young actors, ballerinas, painters, reporters, singers – each depending on his own brand of tonic to stay alive, each with his own stable of giants,” he writes.
The whites are coming back to Bed-Stuy because the City has become prohibitively expensive to live in–and, these days, chances are our giants are in Brooklyn, anyway. The whites are coming back because, as long as we live here, in Brooklyn, we can distance ourselves from the suburban upbringings we spent eighteen years waiting to shake off. The whites are coming back because the towers and Yellow Cabs of Manhattan no longer speak to us in a language we understood, the way New York City once spoke to a generation of Americans with promises of success, dignity, and middle-class dreams. The whites are coming back because we want, very simply, a roof over our heads and a place to meet friends for coffee or a beer, where we can be ourselves, or discover ourselves, as close to our giants as we can get.
Bed-Stuy today is not quite the hotbed of tension that it was in Spike Lee’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. As for me, though I love how my relationship with Bed-Stuy is constantly evolving and deepening, I wonder if I will one day no longer suffer these minor injuries.