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Archive for the ‘Bed-Stuy’ Category

Bed-Stuy, or this corner of Bed-Stuy is being flooded with condos.

Two four story, close to hundred unit condos on Greene between Franklin and Classon.

Two condos on Greene Ave

Another 20 units (give or take) on 270 Greene (at Classon).

Condo on Greene and Classon

What looks like another four story, possibly close to a hundred unit building going up on Clifton Place between Franklin and Classon . . .

Condo clifton place

Another 20 unit place overlooking Beford and Greene . . . .

Condos on Bedford

Another 100 or so units down Bedford, off Dekalb, off Myrtle . . . .

Condos on Dekalb

And smaller units dispersed around a ten block radius everywhere else.

This section of Bed-Stuy is on a corridor between gentrified Fort Greene and Clinton Hill and trendy hipster capital Williamsburg – and thus desirable real estate. Now – ten years ago, this was still a desolation zone. Not quite the war zone it had been in the mid-90’s, when crackheads and hookers lined the street that gentrification forgot, but bad enough. At night you’d hear fights on the street, periodic gunfire, and, sometimes in the mornings, crackheads standing on the sidewalk coming down off a binge, radiating menace.

Community activism, declining drug use, heavier police presence, and the inevitable sweep of gentrification changed all that. The local council needed development so they didn’t impose the same height restrictions as neighboring Clinton Hill, with the result that the Condos have marched in. En masse.

Almost all the lots these condos are being built on were vacant, or occupied by abandoned factories, so at least there hasn’t been any destruction of indigenous architecture. Many  of the lots are owned by Hasidic Jews, who have moved up block by block up Bedford from Williamsburg, right to Myrtle. The Hasidim have huge families, and their particular (and oft peculiar) brand of Judaism forbids higher education, so many go into real estate speculation and construction. Possibly, the owners of these properties have held them for decades.

The question, as EV Grieve asked about development in the Bowery is, who are these being built for? What happens if they remain empty? Will they be converted into affordable housing, or will the owners hold out for the inevitable yuppie condo buyer? At 270 Greene, a 2 bdrm ‘loft’ will cost you as much as $635,000, what an entire brownstone would cost you just a few years ago.

You can see businesses on the main streets starting to rev up. On Franklin, the New Millenium has removed the hard plastic barrier in front of the condo, installed an LCD banner, and now advertises organic food. A new restaurant is opening up on Bedford, by Lafayette. On Franklin, a Fench pizza place has opened up near Bistro Lafayette. Perhaps they’ll even have to put a few more cars on the G train.

Time will tell . . . .at least nothing has come up like this I’m sure unintentionally hilarious ad (courtesy of Jeremiah Moss) for high-end (and evidently very white) condos in Harlem.

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The dog walk down on Marcy Ave here in Bed-Stuy (the other are the bodegas and, curiously, the Tiny Cup cafe on Nostrand) is one of those places where the old and new Bed-Stuy meet – and clash. The other weekend was a good example.

A crowd had gathered by the dog walk in the corner of the park. I heard some yelling, and at first I figured it was just kids hanging, but as I got closer I saw it was mostly adults. Mostly women in fact, with two guys at the centre doing the yelling.

The smaller guy was holding back a medium sized dog. I couldn’t make out what kind. It wasn’t a killer, but it was one of those dogs that could be vicious in the care of a bad owner. Anyway, he was yelling at a much bigger guy in the dog walk, who was holding back a big, if benign looking, pit bull. The big guy had a  big jacket with a hood and with his dog he looked pretty much ghetto but he seemed more outraged than out and out angry as the smaller guy yelled at him.

“Motherfucka you can’t even control your dog. I told you to control him, and you wouldn’t control him and that’s why people don’t like to come to this dog walk and I got a right to come here and walk my dog without . . .  ”

And so on. The small guy was really steamed. Most people in the crowd seemed to be on his side. He was a buppie looking dude, with nice clothes, and well-trimmed facial. He was so angry the veins were bulging out of his neck. The other guy seemed a little more calm. Or perhaps more defensive.

“It was YOUR dog bit my dog . … ”

“That’s because YOUR dog threatened mine . . . and I told you to keep him on a leash and you wouldn’t do it . . . ”

This went back and forth.. The crowd watched dispassionately, and from the way a lot of people murmured along when the smaller guy talked, they seemed to feel the dog walk WAS being unfairly monopolized by people like the big guy with the big pit bull. Then a middle aged lady with a West Indian accent said to some people murmuring around her: “Don’t be fooling yourself just because he’s got a smaller dog. His dog bit the other one . . . ” And the crowd seemed divided again. A few women chimed in, telling first the smaller guy then the bigger guy to leave it alone, it wasn’t worth it. But they kept on yelling at each other until, finally, the smaller guy started to walk away.

“It’s people like you give black people a bad name . . . ”

“What about you?”

“Me? I got a PHD! I ain’t worryin’ about ME!”

The smaller guy kept yelling back over his shoulder as he was walking but the crowd was losing interest. A white guy came up to a young black woman in the crowd and they greeted each other warmly. “Hey, I got a dog walking group next week – are you going to come?” “Sure!”

What was remarkable to me was how different the fight was from how a fight would have been in this area  even a few years ago, when there was still visible crack use, gunfire at night and so on. I doubt anyone would have kept it to words then.

The eternal question: does gentrification bring the violence level down, or does the violence level going down bring about gentrification?

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Some Graffiti and wall murals from around Bed-Stuy:

 

Man with shopping cart

Man with Shopping Cart

This mural appeared a couple of weeks ago at the corner of Greene and Classon, on the wall of a store advertising ‘International News’ on it’s now very tattered awning. The store has been closed as long as I’ve been in the area – five years – but I think I’ve seen the man in the mural around the neighborhood, though not for awhile. A guy asleep on a chair usually inhabits this space but I haven’t seen him around for awhile either.

 

Mural For Nucy

Mural For Nucy

Corner of Greene and Macy. Along with the Holy Quaran picture on the right, the blocked off windowframe has votive candles.

 

 

Community Mural

Community Mural

Community Mural on Green, corner of Nostrand.

 

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Runners Headed down Bedford to ManhattanSunday was Marathon day and I got up with a bad post-Halloween hangover to find my normally semi-deserted neighborhood packed with people. The NYC Marathon is a big deal and brings in people from across the world – some 42,ooo runners participate. It runs through all five boroughs, from the Verizona Bridge in Staten Island, through Brooklyn, on into Queens and through the Bronx before turning back into Manhattan and ending up near Central Park. In all my years in NY, I’ve never seen it, even when it ran right through my neighborhood, so this time I thought I’d better catch it, hungover or not.

For some reason I thought it started in the afternoon so by the time I arrived around one, the main body of the runners had already passed, and some local people were already taking up their stools and canvas deck chairs and heading home.The crowd was thickest around Bedford and Lafayette, where the runners turned and headed back into Manhattan. One lady, who must been there all morning, stood on the corner, bellowing encouragement over and over, and even slapping the backs of ailing runners.

Woman Cheering on corner of Bedford and Lafayette

Woman Cheering on corner of Bedford and Lafayette

Still, watching the stragglers was enetertaining enough. One guy (presumably French) dressed as the Eiffel Tower . . .

Man running in Eiffel Tower outfit

Man running in Eiffel Tower outfit

Another who juggled while running . . .

Running Juggler

Running Juggler

The best scene was up at the housing projects up Lafayette. The projects are the usual twelve story, brick buildings with the black grates over the windows that make them look a little like prisons – the same kind of public housing built all over the US in the 60’s. Normally, you hardly see anyone but the old folks outside in the daytime, but a BBQ had been set up in the playground with big speakers blaring out old Motown. Periodically, an MC (dressed in NY Giants colours – see below) chanted encouragement to the stragglers “You’re doing great. . .keep going, keep going . . .  ” People stood by the side of the road, chanting encouragement, I guess glad to get out and be a part of it all . 

The kids were out in force. One kid, dressed like Micheal Jackson (that’s the pre-wierdo, 1980’s Micheal Jackson that seems to be the image black people want to keep of him. The Micheal Jackson that was still BLACK), complete with oversized silver glove, stood on the side of the road with his buddies putting out his glove for the runners, then all of them would do cartwheels back and forth across the street, in-between the last of the straggling runners.

Kids Welcoming Runners

With the motown and people dancing on the sidewalks and the kids doing cartwheels in the street, it was a scene I haven’t seen in New York for some time, and I remembered how common this energy was here a few years ago – how you could go out on a weekend afternoon in Manhattan, and feel this same edgy, vibrant, black American energy running through the city like an electrical current. You would meet someone’s eye, someone you had nothing else in common with – say a black kid from the Bronx or Harlem or Brooklyn- and you’d have this instant empathy because you were sharing that moment of being out in New York City on a fall afternoon, digging the people, the city, the energy, and you knew just from looking at each other that you felt it, that you were aficianado.

And I realized that the difference came because these were mostly poor people out on the street, enjoying free entertainment, that poor people had to a great degree become invisible in the New York of today.

Kids Dancing on the road

The kids had such remarkable energy, and unself-concious joy. I thought of Park Slope, the mostly white, increasingly upscale neighborhood where I worked last week, and how the kids there seem uniformly miserable – constantly crying, screaming. Even if it was heightened by the release of a special event, these kids had the magic of childhood in their faces, and watching them made me feel joyful as well. And it was good to be reminded of all the things I’ve loved about New York all these years, why I’ve come back again and again.

Kid doing cartwheels between runners

Kid doing cartwheels between runners

Couple on Lafayette

Girl holding flag with her teeth

Girl holding flag with her teeth

Cops on corner of bedford and lafayette watching the runners

Kids Posing along the route

Kids Posing along the route

Couple on Lafayette

Couple on Lafayette

Two kids on Lafayette

Two kids on Lafayette

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MTA CondomsWalking down Bedford Ave, one weekend morning, not too long ago.

Two black guys, very gay, walking on ahead of me . . .

Since the summer,  one sees a great increase in openly gay black men in this section of Bed-Stuy (there are also a great number of evidently hetero black men with very small dogs. But that’s another post). Sometimes, they look like young (if well-dressed) straight guys until you get up close, sometimes they wear a touch of make-up. Once, I saw three actual transvestites, each over 6 foot tall, wearing ripped tank tops, mini-skirts, fishnets and size 13 heels, walking past Nostrand to the projects, then another queen, maybe even taller in silver flats the size of small canoes. A friend saw another queen, wearing one of those “I ‘Heart’ You’ pajama bottoms, walking up Bedford, with a couple of real female friends, saying ‘you know, girlfriend’ over and over.

You wouldn’t have seen openly gay men in the rough and tough Bed-Stuy of a few years ago. Once, four or five summers past, when I foolishly ventured outside wearing a tight-fitting designer tank top from a friend’s boutique in Toronto, one of a bunch of guys hanging out on a stoop, shouted: “I can’t believe they’s hiring motherfucking HOMOS for the force now!” (this, back in that not so long ago time when a lot of folks here assumed any white guy (or gal), walking around the neighborhood had to be a cop).

But the boys are out now, in numbers, and not at all shy. I’ve never heard anyone abuse them,  or even look at them twice. Maybe they’re originally  from the hood. Or maybe, like a lot of queens, they’re just really fucking tough and the homeboys have learned the hard way not to mess with them.

Anyway, one of the guys ahead of me drops something on the sidewalk, square and black, and they both look at it and laugh, the one who dropped it saying, “oh, just forget it!” When I get close enough, I see that it is one of those condoms with the round NYC subway logos and colours, the MTA condom brand the NYC Department of Health has been handing out for the past couple of  years in a big anti-HIV/STD drive (though, apparently, they no longer use the MTA logo) so you see them all over the place in bars and clubs, sitting in big glass jars like candy.

I have a friend who works in a non-profit which deals with, among other things, sexual education and STD prevention.  She says there is a big, big problem with these freebie condoms: they break. Not just once in awhile, like all condoms do, but frequently enough that her organization is phasing them out and going back to Durex. She even knows someone who became HIV positive after one such breakage.

Now, I sure as hell would never use freebie condoms, from the NYC Department of Health or anywhere else. But I guess our friends out for a morning stroll knew a thing or two.

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Where indeed?

I haven’t updated this question since the winter because it’s been difficult to get a sense of where, in fact, New York is at.

Certainly, the optimism I felt in the winter after the Obama inauguration has dissipated. People talk about the recession continuing through next year, of hard times in 2010 when unemployment starts to run out. They talk about a jobless recovery, of the kind Japan went through for a decade or more. Liberal friends are pissed about the tortuous health care debate, the bonuses at Goldman Sachs.

I’ve often wondered how New York  – and America – would bear up under long term decline. As long as I’ve been coming here, New York has been about optimism, possibility, the future. Decline has curious effects. In pre-turbo-capitalist London, people were resigned, pessimistic, chronically depressed (they’re still chronically depressed, but that’s another story). In Montreal, the transition from an essentially prosperous city to one of the terminal decline, created all manner of inward-turning semi-psychosis, a ghetto mentality even if it was to all appearances still a middle-class city. My friends in New York have already become more withdrawn. People go out much less, and when they do go out, there is much less of that desire to meet new people, to create experiences and encounters, that made New York so captivating even a couple of years ago.

Yet prices haven’t gone down. In my Manhattan local, they’ve actually gone up. Once favorites like the Old Town have become so expensive, I can’t afford to go there for more than a beer, and then only haphazardly, since it’s largely full of the kind of people who can afford $8 beers (with tip).

Yet in Park Slope, Fort Greene, and much of Manhattan, the bars and restaurants are still full. In this corner of Bed-Stuy, the condos keep going up. The foundations have just been poured for a fifty unit building on Clifton Place, stacked behind two similar units on Greene, with more around the corner. Down Bedford, two or three condo units stand empty, windows still papered over. There has been talk of crime going up, but as far as I can see, it’s all relative. This neighborhood is nothing like it was even three years ago, when you felt the tension every time you stepped out the door, and you had various disreputables hanging around the bodega on Bedford every night.

It’s an odd recession alright. When the crash came last year, I thought gentrification would come to a halt. It hasn’t. It is a constant source of conversation – who are these people? How do they get their money?

Happy Face Warehouse in Red Hook

Happy Face Warehouse in Red Hook

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Volunteers Painting Mural for Market

Volunteers Painting Mural for Market

An organic market opened this summer in Bed-Stuy, behind the community garden on Marcy and Clifton Place. I’ve been going regularly when I’m in the neighborhood. I have mixed feelings about things like organic markets. In Fort Greene, the organic market that opened along the park in 2003, was pretty much the beginning of the end of Fort Greene as an affordable neighborhood. Going to the Fort Greene market now – and I say this as someone who has always enjoyed going to markets, of all kinds – is about as pleasurable as fighting your way through a crowded shopping mall. And cheap it ain’t.

Hattie Carthan Market hasn’t reached that point, though. The times I’ve been there, it has been pleasant, relaxed. The market is the child of  Yonette Fleming, who rescued a vacant lot behind the Coummnity Garden which developers had been using to dump refuse from construction sites. She cleaned up the lot, mostly with volunteers from the neighborhood. She runs cooking classes every Saturday afternoon for a small audience, explaining what she is doing, then serving whatever she has cooked. Yonette is a community food educator, and the market is part of a larger mission of introducing healthy food into poor communities. From the press release for the market opening:

Young woman in front of mural

Young woman in front of mural

“. . .   In New York City neighborhoods like Bedford Stuyvesant in Central Brooklyn where a third of residents live in poverty, more than 12% of adults have diabetes, compared to 8% nationwide. . . . The farmers market is also a community’s effort  to reclaim its agricultural heritage and contribute to the cultural, social and economic vitality of  Central Brooklyn.”

The first time I went down, volunteers were painting the murals which now adorn the site and the next Saturday, Travis from ‘Band of Bicycles’ was down with his ‘blender bicycle’ serving fresh juice mixed in a bicycle-powered blender. The market takes food stamps, and prices are better than up in Fort Greene.  I like going to the little market, having lunch from Yonette’s food stall – she cooks every weekend, with produce from the community garden –  then touring the community garden next door. Most of the vendors come down from organic farms in Vermont, and there is a strong Vermont connection, with a lot of white people with the usual neo-hippie garb: t-shirts celebrating the Cuban Revolution, tie-dyed hair, beads, even sandals. It is amazing how little that basic style has changed in three decades. Last weekend, on the Oktoberfest celebration, there was even a bongo jam session, and spoken word poetry. Even if it is relaxing, even refreshing, this turn from a steets of barracks like brick housing projects with metal bars over the windows and the teenagers hanging out on the street into a slice of rural hippie Vermont is just a little odd.

Blender Bicycle

The Hattie Carthan Community Garden is one of a network of small gardens which you see all over Bed-Stuy. I also remember seeing a few up in Harlem, and a couple down in the Lower East Side, and apparently there are a few really big ones up in the Bronx. The gardens are the work of the Green Guerillas, an early 90’s movement to turn vacant lots in poor, mostly black neighborhoods, into garden plots for local people, many of whom came from the rural South. In particular, activists wanted to get the kids involved, most of whom had been raised in the city and lost touch with the soil.

It is usually mostly  old folks around when I tour the garden, who seem to have been around for years. They hang around in the shade at a BBQ in the back, next to the long greenhouse where Yonette gets a lot of her produce.  Once, I met a young black guy from Belgium who was sightseeing with his wife and young daughter. He said they’d been to community gardens all over New York, that people were always happy to show them around, that they made it a regular weekend activity to go around the gardens in New York.

Old folks sitting by the BBQ behind the garden.

Old folks sitting by the BBQ behind the garden.

Last week, I talked to one of the old guys who was at the very back of the garden, trimming the hedges. He had a thick southern accent and I guessed he must have come from North Carolina originally, as do many of the old people in the neighborhood. Some of the hedges had been trimmed into little domes, others wound through the market like a garden path. He said when the garden had first started 17 years before, the hedges had all been wild, and he’d trimmed them into shape and kept them up every year. They’d planted the fig trees, which now stood fifteen feet high. At the back of the garden, overlooking Marcy street, was a Magnolia tree, planted in 1885. Hattie Carthan, a local enviromenalist, secured landmark status for the tree before she died in 1984.

I wondered what the area had been like when the garden had first started. Even a few years ago, the park across the street was a sort of blank zone of scrubby grass, drugs consumed in the corners. Several blocks of low-rise projects cover the area behind and around the garden. Except for the barracks-like front doors, they aren’t bad as projects go, but they have that slightly abandoned air of New York housing projects, and a few years ago, they were much worse. The garden must have been a curious oasis amidst the decay that was Bed-stuy in that era, and I wondered what the old folks thought of all the white people moving into their neighborhood now, if they’d ever thought it possible in the dark days of the early 90’s, when the garden first opened.

Almost Ripe Figs on the branch

Almost Ripe Figs on the branch

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