Our second installment of The Neighborhoods Project examines the unique character of Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant...
08 January, 2020
For the second destination in our Neighborhoods series – Crowd DNA’s deep dive into the communities of New York City – we venture to Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy) to speak to the locals along its brownstone-studded streets.
A neighborhood known for its strong sense of community; many of Bed-Stuy’s residents have lived there for generations. Historically recognized as a predominantly black neighborhood, Bed-Stuy – like so many of its New York City counterparts – has experienced waves of change, primarily due to shifting population demographics. In the 70s and 80s, a rise in crime also clouded the public’s view of Bed-Stuy.
“There’s just so much history here and I feel like some of that is being lost. Progress and change are natural, but it’s kind of hard to see things go.”
Today, that rocky period feels largely forgotten as artisan pizza shops and new residents fill the streets. Through change, Bed-Stuy’s strong sense of community remains unwavering. However, amid the transforming landscape and shifting populations, many of the neighborhood’s lifelong residents are being pushed out.
Bedford-Stuyvesant gets its name from the merging of two villages: Bedford and Stuyvesant Heights. In the 1800s, Weeksville (formerly a section of Bed-Stuy that still borders the neighborhood) was one of the first free black communities in the US, before its sale to the Village of Brooklyn.
Just before the 1900s, Bed-Stuy became a commuter town, home to the working and middle classes who worked in Downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan. Around the Great Depression, immigrants hailing from South America and the Caribbean settled in Bed-Stuy, making it the second largest black community in New York. Soon after, the A train was built, connecting Bed-Stuy to Harlem, quickly making the Brooklyn neighborhood an offshoot of Manhattan’s prominent black community. This earned Bed-Stuy the name ‘Little Harlem’.
In the 70s and 80s, while many of the brownstones in Bed-Stuy lay abandoned and in disrepair, some saw them as opportunities. We spoke to Juan, who grew up in Brooklyn in the 70s. He recalled the migration of more African-American New Yorkers into Bed-Stuy: “There was a guy whose name was Arthur Square. In the 70s, he bought up the brownstones for a low price and sold them to his friends so that they could have something. The property wasn’t worth much, but this was where they lived.”
Still existing as the second largest black neighborhood in the city, Bed-Stuy continued cultivating this very strong sense of community. Its residents both past and present spoke with pride about barbecues in the street, block parties, old men sitting on stoops, and a general sense that everyone had each other’s backs.
Conaugh-Mae, another lifelong resident, told us about her old neighbor: “There used to be a guy next door, Jimmy. He would sit right here on his little fold up stool with his boombox, drinking his coffee, bopping his head, smiling at everybody.”
While the neighborhood is rapidly changing, its standing appeal stems from this communal, almost small town feel. The camaraderie of community boards and block associations keep drawing newcomers to Bed-Stuy, and make lifelong residents proud to still be there.
Bed-Stuy wasn’t always top of the list for yuppy newcomers. In the 80s, crime surged in New York City – drugs, gangs and violence were high. Bed-Stuy was struck particularly hard. During this time, subway stops like Myrtle-Willoughby had no foot traffic for fear of the streets beyond.
From this era emerged Bed-Stuy’s rallying cry: ‘do or die Bed-Stuy’. The mantra has been interpreted to literally mean ‘make a move or die’, or more loosely ‘go big or go home’/‘always hustling’. Due to turmoil in Bed-Stuy in the 80s, the phrase remains controversial to some residents, its literal meaning dredging up negative memories of the past. Even so, traces of the phrase are still sprinkled throughout the neighborhood – from murals to local dive bar, Do Or Dive.
Although the 80s and ‘do or die’ are synonymous with a difficult time for Bed-Stuy, they also inspired some of the era’s greatest talents. While calling attention to racial biases and tensions, Spike Lee’s film, Do The Right Thing, also gave Bed-Stuy’s spirit a platform. Similarly, hip-hop talents such as Biggie Smalls, Jay Z, and Lil’ Kim brought light to everyday struggles of Bed-Stuyers during this time. Their neighborhood pride remained steadfast even during periods of violence.
“We talk with a certain passion and a love for the community,” explained community leader, Rismia. “These artists come from struggles and the yearning to want to change their current situation. I’m not going to say that it was right to hustle and sell drugs, but to see how [these] people changed it. They didn’t get stuck in that “I’m gonna hustle and I’m gonna sell”, they changed [their circumstances].”
Attracted to the architecture of Bed-Stuy’s historic brownstones, people have come from near and far to poach prime real estate. According to the US Census, between the years of 1980 and 2015 the population in Bed-Stuy grew 34 percent, surpassing the mere 21 percent citywide. In 2000, three quarters of Bed-Stuy’s population identified as black or African-American. However, in 2015, only half of the population did.
Residents recollect strangers knocking on doors, offering their neighbors large sums of cash for their homes. This phenomenon, known as blockbusting, took advantage of Bed-Stuy’s natives and really picked up steam in the 90s and early 2000s. While 30,000 dollars seemed like a lot of money, homeowners didn’t realize their brownstones were actually worth over a million.
“The experience [of home ownership and how to go about it] is not something that’s generational with many minorities or people who have come up in poverty. Most people’s parents didn’t own a home so how would they know how to go through the process?”
Everyone we spoke to knew more than one affected party who lost their home in this way. Jean, who has owned a brownstone for 30 years, recalled scams used to obtain her neighbors’ homes: “They pay the water bill and taxes pretending to be the owner, and somehow with whatever scam deal they run, they take people’s buildings. It happens a lot. It’s a big thing in this neighborhood.”
Although the iconic Victorian architecture of Bed-Stuy remains mostly unchanged, the streets feel different than they did even just ten years ago.
As with several Brooklyn neighborhoods, gentrification is on the minds of Bed-Stuy natives: “If you looked up gentrification in Webster’s Dictionary, I think a picture of Brooklyn would pop up,” mused Juan.
In many New York City neighborhoods, particularly in Manhattan, it’s easy to live anonymously. However, in Bed-Stuy, residents boast about their relationships with their neighbors, the bodega worker, the woman who sits outside the coffee shop. These anecdotes of community pride illustrate a repetitive trope that can’t be ignored. For this reason, the neighborhood appeals to young professionals and families seeking a small town feel amid a big city.
Both Bed-Stuy’s youth and neighborhood transplants see the ways that long standing dwellers care for their streets with such passion. Bed-Stuy’s cyclical, ‘pay it forward’ spirit feels contagious. The enthusiasm toward giving back to the neighborhood inspires younger generations and newer residents to promote local pride too.
“After leaving Woodhull Hospital, I ran a medical clinic downtown for several years and I saw diabetes and high blood pressure and I thought I have to make sure the food is excellent. That’s what I’ve done [with my cafe]. I want to help you take care of your health. I wouldn’t be a nurse and true to my profession if I didn’t do that.”
Natives reminisce about the warmth that pulsed through Bed-Stuy’s streets. From sitting on community boards to bringing healthy food options into the area, they dream of a future where residents new and lifelong live in harmony. As Rismia tells us: “If you reference back to the 70s and 80s, crime was up. Bed-Stuy was not what it is now. It’s the same with this garden. You plant certain seeds and you invest time and resources and you start to see things mature.”
Riz is a community leader
Conaugh-Mae works as a personal trainer
Jean owns a local restaurant
Juan sits on the board of community organizations
This collection of images paint a picture of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s heritage through the people, places, and institutions, all working to keep the neighborhood true to its roots.
Neighborhood pride is reinforced as born and raised community members of the Bed-Stuy community fight to stay local and build their own successful businesses. Bed-Stuy has one of the highest concentrations of minority owned businesses in New York City. Often addressing gaps in community services, Bed-Stuy’s entrepreneurs democratize access to areas formerly underserved – health, wellness and fitness being prominent fields. Ife Obi created TheFitIn.com to support the diverse women of NYC in their health journeys.
Bed-Stuy architecture illuminates cycles of gentrification experienced by the neighborhood. Here, we see historic brownstones and townhouses built for the expanding middle class around 1900, backdropped against new condos under construction, built to serve a new wave of gentrifiers settling in the neighborhood.
Bed-Stuy is home to 21 public housing projects. As in other neighborhoods, these developments built to aid underserved communities quickly became awash with crime. That said, many mega celebrities like Jay Z hailed from projects specifically in Bed-Stuy. But as the neighborhood begins to change, and wealthier individuals move in, it seems Bed-Stuy’s public housing goes forgotten. In 2018, Bed-Stuy’s largest housing project went without water for weeks, further heightening an issue of income disparity.
Many communities in New York, particularly in Brooklyn and the Bronx, are considered food deserts, meaning access to fresh produce and healthy food is sparse. Bed-Stuy’s undying sense of camaraderie bands locals together to help feed the community and support one another.
In 1989, Spike Lee took America to Bed-Stuy, shining a light on an average day that eventually escalated into a commentary on race and racial bias against the black community. The film, Do The Right Thing, was one of the first to bring this dialogue to mainstream media, and continues to be important to the conversation today. The black community who still thrive in Bed-Stuy pays homage to this film and its importance on America’s perceptions of racial prejudice.
In New York City, public transportation is a blessing for most, but a curse for some. Certain communities are limited in their accessibility based on where their train lines sit – limited stops, service interruption, lack of transfer points. Juan spoke about how rerouting the M train gave areas of Bed-Stuy immediate access to Midtown Manhattan, widening job opportunities for the community.
Block associations are strong forces, helping the Bed-Stuy community to stay tight knit. Block associations provide residents with advice on housing, finances and education. In the summer, they organize events like block parties and street festivals, bringing more vibrancy and culture to the neighborhood.
Biggie Smalls often paid lyrical tribute to his Brooklyn home: “Live from Bedford-Stuyvesant, the livest one,” putting Bed-Stuy on the map for fans across the globe. As the demographic of the neighborhood continues to change, this mural remains as a beacon for Bed-Stuy’s rich African-American cultural history.
Beyond its community, Bed-Stuy has developed a reputation as an unsafe neighborhood, inflicted with gangs, drugs and violence, and illuminated by its infamous battle cry ‘Do or Die Bed-Stuy.’ While many residents reject the moniker as a symbol of a darker past, proud local businesses such as dive bar Do Or Dive are reclaiming it, as a way to celebrate neighborhood pride.
Speaking to Juan Perez, who sits on the board of the Bed-Stuy YMCA, he pointed to the organization as a central pillar of the community. He described the destination as the go-to summer camp, after school program, gym, meeting space for nonprofits, and even as temporary housing for some. However, as Bed-Stuy’s demographics change, a tension arises between appealing to new, neighborhood residents while ensuring services needed by more underserved community members are not lost.
Stay tuned for the next installment of The Neighborhoods Project, when we head over to Greenpoint, the northernmost section of Brooklyn.
08 January, 2020