A Bed-Stuy State of Mind: Gentrification Shaken and Stirred
My first morning in Bed-Stuy was the most amazing morning of my life. I sat on the stoop and watched as the neighborhood stretched and yawned. The sun peeked over the brownstones, as weed smoke wafted through the air like the smell of breakfast bacon. Rastas swaggered up the block, their hair stuffed into stockings, crowned high on their heads. Little boys in blue pants and untucked white shirts, chased little girls in princess dresses down the sidewalk, laughing. Their mothers strutted behind them, shouldering heavy purses and gripping tight to bibles. A shirtless man banged at something underneath his car.
Every few minutes he’d stand up, stare at the innards under the hood, take a few drags from his cigarette, shake his head in frustration, and then get back down under the jalopy. Soca music blared from a window across the street. An elderly woman with hair like cotton, watered her plants and swung her hips to the beat. A skinny guy with a muscular pit-bull came from the house next door. He nodded. I nodded back. His dog turned his big bowling ball head toward me, and flashed a sloppy smile. I took it as a sign, and knew I was home.
To me, Bed-Stuy was brimming with the perfect blend of edge and charm, but whenever I told anyone outside of the neighborhood where I lived, I was met by looks of worry and sympathy, as if I was a soldier on my way to war. Though the community was indeed far from perfect, it wasn’t some bubble of barbarism that people who lived there were working to escape from.
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. So many people, most of whom had never even been to Bed-Stuy, imagined the community as a slum, overrun with drunks and 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, who’s permeated every corner of pop culture, had reduced Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood of over 150,000 people, to the Marcy Projects.
So when I said that I lived in Bed-Stuy, people either offered me pity or some sort of imaginary badge of courage for braving the “savage wild.” But I was okay with it, because I knew the truth — a well-kept secret.
Today, I’m sitting on the same block, and the people who once considered Bed-Stuy a jungle, lazily walk their tiny dogs past me. Apparently, the secret got out. While they were cooped up in cramped Manhattan apartments afraid of Bed-Stuy, many of us in Bed-Stuy were living in beautiful, spacious brownstones. While they were wading through the torrential waves of tourists, we were strolling down tree-lined blocks, laughing with our neighbors, playing cards on the sidewalk.
And they had no idea.
They didn’t know about the block parties, or the man with the barrel grill who makes jerk chicken on the corner all summer. They didn’t know about West Indian Day Parade preparation, when steel drums ring out down Fulton street, melodic and bright. They didn’t know about the palpable creative energy of black life, bubbling over. They didn’t know about any of these things, because as far as they were concerned, Bed-Stuy was a frightening zoo. A zoo in desperate need of gentrification.
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. That generally defines the process. Nothing new there. The gentrification conversation has been had a million times, and I don’t want to even go into the complexities and layers of the phenomena. It’s been happening for decades, and I could make assertions about where the onus lies and pontificate about why it occurs, but I’d much rather talk about what the word, gentrify, actually means.
The root word, gentry, according to Merriam-Webster, refers to “the qualities appropriate to a person of gentle birth.” And gentle birth refers to civility or elegance. So to “gentry-fy” a community would mean to make it more “civil” which would infer that it was seen as less civil beforehand. And as ridiculous as that is to me, there are several people—those that grimaced ten years ago—now living in Bed-Stuy who did not find it a civil place to live, until recently.
By no means am I saying that their intentions were to come “tame the beasts.” No. I don’t think that at all. I actually think they’ve moved to Bed-Stuy because it was one of the last affordable places to live in New York. More bang for your buck (“bang” as in bargain, not gunshot.) But in doing so, Bed-Stuy suddenly has been rebranded as some kind of “hidden gem” in Brooklyn.
Only now has it become a place on people’s radars for good reasons, and that isn’t because good didn’t exist there before. It’s because... well... white people didn’t exist there before. And white people, in this country, seem to somehow always represent civility. As if the beauty and character that I experienced on that first Sunday morning, the different people, each carrying their own version of cool, each comfortably nestled into the jigsaw history of this neighborhood, each understanding the nuances, codes, and rules of this community, needed civilizing.
Make no mistake about it, the people who have been in this community for decades... decades! have made Bed-Stuy a flavorful stew, comprised of equal parts, ups and downs. Definitely imperfect, it’s a neighborhood that prides itself on being fully human. And that’s the only kind of “civilized” I need.
To paraphrase Spike Lee from his recent interview at Pratt (yes, that interview), 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. 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.
It’s changing quickly, and the truth is, I embrace that change because it is inevitable. But I challenge everyone new to the "hood" to try to hear its heartbeat. Attempt to respectfully learn its rhythm, its language. Let your palette respectfully adjust to its flavor. Appreciate it for what it already is—special and dynamic. Sit on the stoop. Speak to your neighbors. And for God’s sake, dance at the block party.
Jason Reynolds is the author of the novel When I Was the Greatest. He currently resides in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.