Culture Politics

New Brooklyn

Exploring the layers of race, privilege, and gentrification in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

This piece is written by Marley Shelby, one of Spicy‘s Guest Contributors. Marley is a journalism student at Fordham University. She’s originally from Austin, Texas and plan to pursue a career in fashion journalism.

One day, as some friends and I were driving through Brooklyn, up Lafayette Avenue, we passed a group of young white women entering a subway station and my friend said, “Do or die Bed-Stuy doesn’t mean anything anymore.” And the other friend shook his head in agreement and said, “Word.” Then they continued to talk about the way things used to be. I nodded my head, but didn’t say anything. Like my two friends, I am black, and I sympathize with their longing for the old Bed-Stuy that is depicted in Spike Lee joints and Jay-Z songs, but unlike the two of them who grew up in Brooklyn, I don’t personally know what it was like before gentrification began in neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant.

When I ask people in the neighborhood what comes to mind when they hear the word gentrification, many of them say “Change.” And while some long-time residents are happy with change and improvement in the neighborhood, they find that these changes are not for “us,” but are instead for the new, mainly white residents. Ebbie Newman, who has lived in Bed-Stuy since 1963 explained that he’s planning to sell his property and move soon, and he says that many of his neighbors are doing the same. “They’re trying to move us out of here,” he said, “and the ones that don’t see it and they don’t try to take advantage and do something about it, they’re gonna be lost.”

Another resident, Don Robinson, who has lived in the neighborhood for most of his life, about 50 years, explained to me some of the changes that he has noticed around his mother’s home on Stuyvesant Avenue. He said that the corner store where he used to get his breakfast growing up, is no longer there. And there are many other businesses in the area that have been replaced by new ones that primarily cater to the neighborhood’s new residents. He and other long-time residents told me that where there used to be bodegas, little restaurants, and small businesses, there are now juice bars, coffee shops, and yoga studios.

To me, gentrification has to do with privilege. Not just white privilege, which many of the gentrifiers exhibit, but a socioeconomic privilege.

Gentrification, which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents” is affecting Bed-Stuy. According to the article “An Economic Snapshot of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Neighborhood” from the New York State Comptroller (with census data from 2015), Bed-Stuy became one of New York City’s largest black communities in the 1930s and has remained as such. But the steady creep of gentrification in Brooklyn has had an impact on Bed-Stuy’s status as a black neighborhood.

The article states that between 2000 and 2015, the neighborhood’s black population decreased from three-quarters to about half. It goes on to report that by 2015 the average rent was about $1,230, a 77 percent increase from 2005, and the average household income for “new residents” was $50,200 and that of the “long-term residents” was $28,000.

Harron Walker, a freelance journalist who has lived in Bed-Stuy for about two years, said that she’s starting to understand gentrification as more of a systemic problem. “It’s the displacement of people a city doesn’t want to live somewhere anymore, so they can profit off of bringing in new people. And it’s the result of considered efforts politically and privately with developers,” she said.

Gentrification bears racial undertones when the low to middle income people being displaced are often people of color, while the higher-earning people replacing them are often white. Most of the new residents in Bed-Stuy are white. The New York State Comptroller article reports that they made up about one-quarter of the neighborhood’s population by 2015, and they are often the ones who are blamed for the neighborhood’s higher rents and less accessible business options.

Like many of Bed-Stuy’s gentrifiers, I grew up in a suburban, upper-middle class, predominantly white community in another state. But as a black person contributing to a system that is meant to get the people who look like me out of the neighborhood, I feel conflicted. To me, gentrification has to do with privilege. Not just white privilege, which many of the gentrifiers exhibit, but a socioeconomic privilege that allows someone like me, whose parents help out with the rent while I study at a private university in the city, to be able to live in this neighborhood, despite the fact that the rent in my building will continue to rise. Meanwhile, the people who were here before me are being forced to seek out more affordable neighborhoods. So I feel as if, with the privilege that I have to enjoy this historic neighborhood, I have to be aware of the fact that, while I am a part of the “us” to whom this neighborhood belongs, I am also a part of the “them” seen as creating the problem.

So I feel as if, with the privilege that I have to enjoy this historic neighborhood, I have to be aware of the fact that, while I am a part of the “us” to whom this neighborhood belongs, I am also a part of the “them” seen as creating the problem.

Last week I attended a meeting for the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network (BAN), which is a network run by people of color that works to combat the effects of gentrification in various neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Some of the network’s core goals, as stated on its website, include stabilization of rents, protection of small businesses, and the creation of more accessible affordable housing. Although the network is led by people of color, many of the meeting’s attendees were white people who feel torn as well.

Maya Martin-Udry, an activist who works with BAN and who has lived in Bed-Stuy for a little over a year, told me that she feels as if the struggle against gentrification is a losing battle, but she has to help fight it. “I am living in the only all-white building on a black block,” she said. “We’re all white, we’re all new, this building was recently flipped and there’s just no amount of talking to your neighbors that makes it okay.”

Many of the long-time residents say that a sense of community that was once here is slowly fading. Some say that they no longer see their neighbors who they used to see all the time, and their new neighbors are not as neighborly as the old ones. There seems to be a distinct difference between “us” and “them” on an interpersonal level.

“With the newcomers, there is a lack of humanity,” said Michael Adams who has lived in Bed-Stuy since 1986. “Making eye contact, socializing. When you see someone ten times in a week, say hello. And that part I haven’t seen.”

Adams said it appears to him that most new residents of color make an effort to be friendly to their neighbors because “they know.”

The cold behavior that Adams was referring to and that a few others whom I spoke with described as well, is what the hosts of National Public Radio’s Code Switch podcast call “acting like a gentrifier.” In an episode that I listened to a few months ago, the hosts discussed the topic of being a new resident of color in a gentrifying neighborhood. After going back and forth on the issue and discussing some of the feelings that they have had in that position, the hosts concluded that in order to not be a gentrifier, one must not “act like a gentrifier.” I heard this episode not long after I had moved into my apartment and I had been looking for answers as to how to reckon with my existence in this neighborhood and I felt that this could be one method.

Because I am a new black resident of Bed-Stuy I try to be a part of the neighborhood. I say hello to the man who lives across the street from me that I often see on my way to class, and I stop in the bodega near my building just to chat with the owner. I mostly shop at small, community-oriented businesses and I work at one of those businesses myself. While my actions alone will not alleviate the neighborhood of the effects of gentrification, or make other newcomers follow suit, I do feel as if I am a part of a community. And I have felt that sense of community since I first visited Bed-Stuy and stepped out of the train station on Nostrand Avenue and someone greeted me, “Hello, sister.”

Since living here, I have come to love Bed-Stuy, particularly the characters of the neighborhood themselves. There is the African woman who I see walking along Nostrand Avenue selling her homemade fried fish treats, the man who my boss and I call “the mayor” because he stopped in the store where I work almost every day over the summer to greet us. And there is the young Jamaican guy who works at the restaurant on Fulton Street that many of the girls who eat at the restaurant joke is their “boyfriend.”

Along with that, however, there is a coffee shop near my apartment in which I do not feel quite as welcome as some of the white customers from the neighborhood. And I think that some of the residents in my building, one of the newly renovated buildings with predominantly white tenants, hesitate to hold the door for me when I’m coming in. But I do think that some of the old Bed-Stuy is still here and there are remnants of the way things used to be.

Adams hopes that the character and “gamut” of people within Bed-Stuy won’t disappear as well. “It was…it was nothing but black people. And good, bad, or ugly—you had the good, the bad, and the ugly. And within that you found hope,” he said. “I mean, yeah, I’ve got a junkie that lives down the block. But I’ve also got a congresswoman that lives on my block.”

Those on the side in support of gentrification do not understand why people who have lived in neighborhoods that are being gentrified are resistant to change. They do not understand why residents do not want lower crime rates, better businesses, and cleaner streets. Most of the long-time residents that I talked to are glad that the neighborhood is improving. Still, some people, like Adams, worry how much the neighborhood will change.

“The house I live in used to be my grandparents’ I’ve got a lot of history there,” he said. “A lot of the people in the neighborhood, I no longer remember or recognize.”

Residents like Adams fear that what is happening in Harlem, another one of New York City’s quickly gentrifying neighborhoods, will happen in Bed-Stuy too. I have heard rumors and sources like Huffington Post and the New York Times have reported that there is talk of changing the name of Central Harlem to “SoHa,” which can be interpreted as either a marketing strategy to attract more hip, young people to the area, or it can be seen as an attempt to erase the history and significance that exists in Harlem.

While I am not certain that the old Bed-Stuy will still be here 15 years from now or that most of the changes will prove to be for the better or for the worse, I am glad that I have gotten the privilege to be a part of the legacy of Bed-Stuy as it is. And I hope that, over the next 15 years, that this legacy will remain.