Whose Bed-Stuy is It Anyway?

We do not live in a fair or just world.

Nothing in the Universe supports human comfort, yet humans have always strived for it, even if it meant the submission, exploitation, and death of other humans (and animals, resources, and the environment).

You call it gentrification, I call it apathy, complacency, and entitlement.

My maternal great grandparents moved to Weeksville in the late 1920s.

My great-grandfather lost his house on Herkimer Street to eminent domain. The neighbors on that block were split in their support of the high school the City wanted to put there. The ones opposed argued about displacement and how it would affect the ecology of Herkimer Street. The ones for it saw progress, even though the neighborhood already had two high schools. He died a few years later, a few months before I was born. My mother will tell you that losing his house is what killed him.

Around the same time, my mother’s godmother owned a grocery store on Herkimer (lost to the same eminent domain that took my grandfather’s house) and another on Lefferts and Rogers, and my father owned a Laundromat on Nostrand and Monroe. I grew up with kids who lived in the houses their parents grew up in, and the grandparents were still alive for a few of them.

When my mother moved onto the block I was born and raised on, in the house of the last remaining Jewish family on that block, several of my neighbors had two or three brownstones in their name, outright. By the time I graduated from high school, all of them were down to one, losing them to property taxes and water liens they failed to pay.

I don’t know the circumstances that led to these losses, but I do remember that property taxes and water could be paid in installments, and everyone was working.

Almost everyone on my block had “good jobs”, you know, those civil service jobs that Baby Boomer black folks were proud to have, because they were stable, respectable, and provided a comfortable wage.

I’ve watched several black-owned businesses close because the owners never thought the landlord would raise the rent on them or sell the property, an expense they didn’t want to bear. It never occurred to me that they didn’t own the building; they’d been there for so long.

Others closed because they thought they were banks and not business owners, or their adult children didn’t want their livelihood locked in to the rollercoaster that is self-employment. And they didn’t have to. The City was always hiring, and offered good benefits.

I have a different relationship with the police, having spent my teenage years in the Youth Council. Every week, I went to the movies, plays, dinner dances, or amusement parks with police officers. I remember that none of my neighbors’ kids wanted to sign up.

My mother was block association president for several years. I remember that the only time the meetings were full was just before block party planning. I remember only a handful of neighbors working quietly and consistently to remove the drug element off Putnam and Tompkins. They succeeded.

I went to high school in Fort Greene and observed the neighborhood change. I remember Too Black Guys and Spike Lee’s shop that everyone complained was overpriced. I remember one of the first black-owned coffee shops opening on Lafayette closing within a year after having a fallout with their celebrity investor.

We keep talking about gentrification and disrespectful white folks, but the first wave of new folks to Bed-Stuy were black and brown. They were creative, highly educated, and wanted to be around their own people. And yes, they had been priced out of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill.

It was black folks who opened the first $3 coffee shops in Bed-Stuy, and black folks who complained about it. It was a black woman who opened a home goods and interior design shop on Tompkins, well before the avenue was ready for it, and it was black folks who mused that they could find the same items at Marshall’s downtown for less. Her shop closed a couple years later.

All my life, it’s been the same handful of politicians rotating in and out of City Council, Congress, and State Assembly. Some of them are very friendly with bankers and developers.

Several development corporations and old black Bed-Stuy families are sitting on properties in Bed-Stuy, vacant or underused mixed-used properties that are falling into disrepair. Who are they waiting for?

For years, Restoration Plaza has been falling apart. Nice to see the façade being renovated, and I have yet to hear anyone say that is for the “new” folks.  I hope the renovations also included repairing the elevator off New York Avenue and fixing the faulty heat in the offices.

There’s money for Bed-Stuy collecting interest at Restoration; do you know about it and who’s eligible to receive it? Nostrand Avenue is being repaired, have you heard about it? Do you know where the free computer center on Gates Avenue is? Do you know where to go if you’re hungry and can’t afford groceries? You don’t have to lose your home to foreclosure or water and tax liens; do you know where you can go in the neighborhood to get help?

My parents own their Bed-Stuy brownstones, and I enjoy a certain level of privilege that allows me to work when and how I please, but I have enough sense to know what property ownership means in this country and would do whatever I needed to do to keep these homes. And that just might mean charging a rent that I myself might not (be able to) pay.

I go to the community board and community council meetings and it’s always the same people. So when I say get over gentrification, it’s in response to a lack of support for what vested residents are doing, it’s in response to what folks are not doing on the ground, it’s in response to the folks who have voted to keep the same politicians in office for thirty plus years, it’s in response to the Brownstoners vs the tenants vs the housing project residents.

What are you actually doing, besides complaining about gentrification?

What is it that we think we deserve?

Do we need permission to do what we want?

What is it that we think we’re entitled to?

Why is it easier to bellyache over who is doing what to whom than to support the folks who are creating solutions?

Why aren’t the folks who are fed up coming up with solutions?