Every day I work behind the bar at a restaurant staffed mostly by young, dressed-up actors and actresses. In the heart of Fort Greene, my bar is populated at all hours of the day by Pratt students, young couples (with kids) and the occasional hipster barfly. Conversations run the gamut from business meetings on laptops to advice on hiring nannies to just contented silence as they enjoy their local brew or sautéed kale.
I didn’t see anything weird about this, or even remarkable at all, until I overheard a couple at a table talking about the guy’s recent trip to Bed-Stuy. The woman by the window didn’t even know where Bed-Stuy was, and the man was happy to educate her: “It’s that way,” he said, pointing vaguely east as a smirk came over his face. “It’s pretty grim.”
What the fuck? Something clicked in my mind there and I haven’t been able to see Bed-Stuy, my neighborhood as long as I’ve lived in New York, in the same way since. Somehow that yuppie pair managed to poison my mind with some weird neighborhood snobbery. I have the antidote: pride. Pride has been a part of Bed-Stuy’s culture since the 1800s, when parts of the neighborhood were first founded as a town by black freedmen. Since I’m white like the couple I heard, I can’t say I have the right to share the cultural and racial pride that peaked here in the ’70s and ’80s, but I’ve developed a fierce loyalty to the way things work in my neighborhood.
I’d pay out the nose to have the “Bed-Stuy Do or Die” T-shirt that Radio Raheem wears in Do the Right Thing. I live above the friendliest bodega in the city. I’m sick, however, of telling people where I live only to be asked how many times I’ve been mugged. I’m sick of saying I’d rather live in Bed-Stuy than any other part of Brooklyn, just to hear: “What is there to do there?” I lived in a rowdy bar scene once before, and since then I just haven’t seen the appeal of living in any sort of Pleasure Island. Living and breathing night life gets old mighty fast.
Bed-Stuy is a family neighborhood with an anti-gentrification streak three miles wide. Some people seem to get this attitude confused with some sort of racial segregation. I’ve talked with people black and white who think I don’t belong in Bed-Stuy because of my color or background, but none of them have lived here. Nowhere that I’ve been in New York have people been more friendly to me as a stranger, a customer or a pedestrian. Like the yokel I am, I say hello to most people I pass on the street. In Manhattan or Williamsburg people rush by with a little head nod at best. In Bed-Stuy I get a “hi” back and even “have a nice day.” It’s a little thing, but I notice it disappear as I walk toward the “nicer” neighborhoods on all sides.
With Park Slope’s brownstone renovators and real estate boom on one side and the ’Burg’s crunchy hipster culture on the other, I think a lot of people here are worried that Bed-Stuy is next on the hot seat. I don’t blame them. With block after block of those coveted Brooklyn brownstones and family amenities and laundromats easier to find than “speakeasy” bars and slow-food bistros, it’s got potential to be a beautiful, meaningful place to live for everybody. The reason my neighbors are worried seems mostly about rising property values. After all, there’s no point in building a community you can’t take part in when all is said and done. I think there’s more to it. The people who have lived here for 10 years or more have seen neighborhoods like Williamsburg turn from a mixed bag of low-income residents into middle and upper class segments.
Gentrification doesn’t just force poor people out, it also forces every resident to cling to what they know best. People form small knots within the community and the next thing we know we find each other surrounded by people just like ourselves. Case in point, an “enclave” is just a ghetto people live in by choice, and nowhere can you find more insular communities more at odds than the hip scene around northern Bedford Avenue and the Hasidic enclave in the south. There, living such separate lives that they can’t even agree to have bike lanes or not, are groups of people who have no choice but to turn inwards and away from other cultures.
I guess, in a way, I’m thankful so many people are ignorant about my neighborhood. The jockeying for space block by block, the pushing to surround oneself with mirrored reflections, doesn’t happen when everybody respects each other as individuals. It’s easier to do that when the common enemy is neighborhood gentrification and not religious differences or noise levels. We look out at the encroaching waves of modernization and fashion with a sigh and go back to eating, sleeping and raising families. We brace ourselves against the inevitable rise of property values and celebrate our differences and our shared culture. We work and play and call Bed-Stuy home.