“Here My Whole Goddamn Life”: Remembering Bedford Stuyvesant

This city has a history worth remembering – old-timers and locals, blood on the pavement, laughter and meaning behind the paint on its buildings’ broadsides. Bedford-Stuyvesant is one of the most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Between 2000 and 2010, according to the census, the percentage of whites has risen from 2.5% to 15%, and in the west, this increase is even more dramatic, whites making up more than 25% of the neighborhood, and blacks down to only 49% in an area in which they used to be a majority of over 80%. To developers and wealthy newcomers, Bedford-Stuyvesant is brownstones and revivals, untouched Victorian architecture ripe for resale, unprecedented profits. It’s a new market. But the foundation they seek to build on isn’t empty. There was something here before.

1920s. 1930s. Black and brown New York residents flood the neighborhoods of Bedford and Stuyvesant Heights, merging the two together into Bedford-Stuyvesant. By the 1940s, the neighborhood is mostly African-American, called, derisively, “Brooklyn’s Little Harlem” by The New York Times. It was “redlined” – banks and investors gave it a D-rating, devaluing its property, primarily because of the large black population. Whites fled the failing real estate market in droves, a retroactive segregation. The sixties saw gang wars and race riots, police brutality and the murders of unarmed civilians, rampant poverty. It was a place dismissed by the city at large: district gerrymandered to prevent the voting influence of a predominantly black and predominantly poor and predominantly dissatisfied sector of the city.

These streets have felt the crack epidemic and longed for ambulances that never came to save their bleeding bodies; they have rued the violent, sparing attention of the police. Abandoned houses have sat, unfilled and rotting, infested with rodents and collected debt. But while it was a wasting-place, once, to those looking from the outside – a ghetto – Bed-Stuy’s story isn’t all suffering and disappointment. It built poets and writers and activists and families – business men and women that came back to invest in the homes their parents lived in, historians that sought to preserve the neighborhood’s historic districts, artists that captured the attitude and vibrancy of their pasts. It held up churches and mosques, sang the cultures of the influx of Caribbean immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s. Kids played in the streets while adults laughed out in the sun, playing cards and dominos on their stoops. Even in the worst of times, it was strong, it was insular, it was family. A citizen’s ambulance service – the Bedford-Stuyvesant Ambulance Corps – formed to fill the void left by the city, saved countless lives. Restaurants and small businesses owned by people of color provided goods and culture in turn, memories of the Caribbean and the South. People looked out for people. It was a neighborhood building, enduring, striving.

By now, Bed-Stuy has nearly a century of black culture behind it, burned into its very fiber – it was founded by black bodies, and every twist of its culture since then has been informed by their influence. Even in the 2000s, as gentrification took hold, helmed at first by wealthy black professionals and Caribbean and African immigrants, it remained one of the blackest communities in the city. And it was that, first and foremost – community. Families holding buildings and apartments for generations. Old-timers with history on their tongues and memories in the cracks of the sidewalks beyond their doors. In those early years of change, not so many were displaced, and culture was welcomed, demanded. Bed-Stuy remained – resilient.

Maybe it’s still resilient. But Bed-Stuy is changing. It’s becoming something new, something sheared from what it was before – “spared” from its history and its culture and its blackness. Developers are charging two million dollars for brownstones that were once boarded closed with cinderblocks. New trees are being planted on empty patches where young people once bled to death. Organic juicers are replacing age-old Jamaican food restaurants. Developers and city-planners may be using the words “renaissance” and “revival,” but what they truly are proposing is a purification – a new chapter, a blank sheet, an erasure of what has come before.

This city has a history worth remembering – blood on its asphalt, strength in its street corners. Change is inevitable – in some aspects, it is desperately welcome. Bed-Stuy schools have always fallen below the city’s averages, and every neighborhood, no matter its past, deserves fresh grocery stores and healthy options, blocks that are protected and clean and beautiful. But erasure is not inevitable, is not necessary nor demanded nor welcome. The removal of black bodies and history from this space is an act of prejudice and ignorance, squirreling away the suffering and accomplishments of those passed, replacing their self-asserted, independent narrative with a preferable, dominant, white one. An act of resistance need not be an army or revolution or riot. An act of resistance can just as importantly be as small a thing as a memory.

So I remember Bed-Stuy. I remember. As businesses are shuttered, as histories are muted, as the narrative is altered and erased like the long-time residents migrating back, prices out of their homes, I try to remember what came before.

We must not be made to forget.

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