The Q at Parkside

(for those for whom the Parkside Q is their hometrain)

News and Nonsense from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Lefferts and environs, or more specifically a neighborhood once known as Melrose Park. Sometimes called Lefferts Gardens. Or Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. Or PLG. Or North Flatbush. Or Caledonia (west of Ocean). Or West Pigtown. Across From Park Slope. Under Crown Heights. Near Drummer's Grove. The Side of the Park With the McDonalds. Jackie Robinson Town. Home of Lefferts Manor. West Wingate. Near Kings County Hospital. Or if you're coming from the airport in taxi, maybe just Flatbush is best.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Great Essay on Disappearance of Black Bed-Stuy

From the Daily News, a moving memorial from Brooklyn College professor Ron Howell. I was particularly struck by the measured tone, choice anecdotes and the timeliness to our own Leffertsian story. Below, reprinted without permission, though I guess I'm publicly asking for it now, Mr. Zuckerman and Mr. Howell. Lemme know, 'kay?

The legendary urban planner Robert Moses once said he'd like to - quite literally - rip America's ghettos and their residents from the map. "The first prescription for slum dwellers in the ghettos of the big cities is total, immediate, uncompromising surgical removal," he wrote in his 1970 book "Public Works: A Dangerous Trade."

At the top of his list of tumors was Bedford-Stuyvesant.

"I have recently seriously proposed a workable, uncompromising plan, involving at the start 160,000 people, to raze the central Brooklyn slums [and] move residents" to the Rockaway peninsula in Queens, he wrote. Wow.

Sadly for him, happily for my family of Bed-Stuy natives, Moses's idea went nowhere, and he died leaving behind the public perception presented in Robert Caro's classic book, "The Power Broker," of a man contemptuous of blacks, and all those without political clout.

But recent economic trends have been doing what Moses could not do. The 2010 Census showed a 700% increase over the previous decade (astounding even in these gentrifying times) in the number of whites moving into Bedford-Stuyvesant. Travel to the corner of MacDonough St. and Lewis Ave, and you'd have to bet that the trend has only accelerated since. The neighborhood's brownstones are being renovated at a rabbit's pace. And as part of the process, thousands of blacks are being priced out of the neighborhood they once proudly called their own, seeking more affordable spaces in the more eastern parts of Brooklyn, like Canarsie or Brownsville; or the Poconos, Georgia or the Carolinas.

An increase in the black population of the Rockaways suggests some Bed-Stuy blacks may even be moving to where Moses originally wanted them to go. I and countless others of darker hue who called Bed-Stuy theirs have been lamenting of late, sighing in exasperation - because it has diverged too much from the humble place we once knew, and because it is now just too damn expensive.

And it's not just the disrespect of a person's heritage that causes the seething in the chest, but also the seeming impunity with which real estate forces have their way with Bed-Stuy and other black neighborhoods over the course of modern history.

One thing that those of us who feel this way about Bed-Stuy have agreed upon of late is this: The gentrification war waged by realtors and their silent backers in politics and at the banks is over. The natives have lost. "Bed-Stuy, do or die," we used to say. And oh yes, it is dying.

As we pick up the pieces, we must ask: Along the way, as the story of the disappearing blacks of Bed-Stuy runs its course, can we not work together and try to ensure that some of the things so special to those of us still living and caring are respected?

It is right and proper to bemoan the death of a place that once loomed so large in our minds. For we in Bed-Stuy survived through a northern version of the pre-civil rights era, when murders or rapes didn't warrant coverage in the local newspapers unless a white person was the victim.

I grew up there, in that heart of the Republic of Brooklyn, in the 1950s and 60s, and Bed-Stuy was our place where American Dreams come true. More than any other locality in the country, it was an early meeting point of Great Migration blacks from the South and of immigrants from the Caribbean. Back then - before the post-1965 explosion in Caribbean immigration - we second-, third-, and four-generation blacks were not conscious of natal differences between us. We spoke Brooklyn. We played on Little League teams, and we went from street to street challenging others to stickball games, without the topic of ancestry from the South or the West Indies ever coming up.

Yes, there was a down side. Back in that day, cops did not see Bed-Stuy as we residents did, as a place worthy of respect and dedicated protection. My grandfather, Bertram L. Baker, in whose Jefferson Ave. home I was raised, was the state assemblyman for Bed-Stuy from 1949 to 1970 (he was the first black person elected to any office in Brooklyn). And in the mid-1960s, he achieved what was then a significant distinction, as he was chosen to be majority whip of the Assembly Democrats.

I recall distinctly, as a teenager, walking behind two white police officers, one of whom looked at my grandfather's car and license plate, with its number 5, and said, "Must be somebody's chauffeur." Now the insults of yesterday are expressed in backdoor actions of the monied class seeking to monetize buildings and, in the process, send the chauffeurs fleeing to other quarters.

And so, you see, this gentrification scenario is provoking a righteous anger, having to do with the thousands of black longtime tenants in Bed-Stuy who have been seeing their rents rising beyond their capacity to pay; and, worst of all, they are continually being hit with schemes of greedy new landlords using any means to get them out of the buildings.

Richard Flateau, raised in Bed-Stuy and now the owner of Flateau Realty Corporation, notes that many of the renters in the neighborhood live in brownstone houses with fewer than six units, which means they don't have rent stabilization protections. What's more, says Flateau, who is also is chair of the Economic Development Committee of Community Board 3 that covers Bed-Stuy, such renters are especially in trouble when such a property changes hands.

The new owner merely tells them to leave. And this has been going on frequently in Bed-Stuy, as investors purchase homes as bundles, much like the subprime packagers of earlier in the century. "It's basically about people who have more money," he said. And in this land of income inequality that has as much to do with race as anything else, where money talks and the person without it walks, Bed-Stuy's is placing get-out-of-here mats outside the apartments of those who once felt so welcome.

Two weeks ago, I received an email from Serene White, a former Brooklynite who is now a nursing student in Alabama. She wanted to tell me about her 94-year-old grandmother Willie Mae Greene, who White says is being harassed by the new landlords of her building at 952 St. Marks Avenue. White says the new owners are wrongly asserting that the grandmother hasn't paid rent in two years, and they have changed the lock on the doors, among other things. The grandmother has been staying with relatives, and the landlord's actions are clearly an effort to get the elderly tenant out so they can rent to a higher-paying new tenant, White said.

Lo and behold, the very recent morning that I began writing this article, I received an email from Public Advocate Letitia James. It was about the "worst landlords" of the city. I plugged in Greene's address and sure enough one of the "worst" was the owner of 952 St. Marks Ave., which has hundreds of violations. I sent an email to the woman listed as the head of the ownership group, a Karen Pasek, head officer of 952 St. Marks Avenue HDFC, but have so far not received a reply. (The attorneys for Greene say they have not yet received the family's permission to speak publicly on their behalf.)

Betty Staton, a former family court judge who is now president of Legal Services' Brooklyn programs, said that rising property values are leading landlords to offer tenants cash to vacate their apartments, perhaps a few thousand dollars. "If you're poor, it may seem like a lot," she told me. "But it's a small amount of money compared to the valuable asset they have (the apartment). They may move to a new location, where the rent is more than two or three times it was at where they left."

It is critical that elected officials and others do what they can to out and, yes, punish abusive landlords, as well as protect renters who, without help, will be forced to leave Brooklyn, the land they have loved for so long. One of the sadder moments of recent months for me was coming out of a café that opened recently on the east side of Throop Avenue between Jefferson Ave. and Hancock St. As I exited, on my way to visit my mother, who is homebound on Jefferson Ave., I stopped to chat with a group of black men, senior citizens all, sitting on folding chairs on the sidewalk opposite the café. "Can I ask you a question?" one of them said.

"Sure," I answered.

"How much was that coffee?"

I was for the moment stunned that the new place had been opened for months and, despite being coffee drinkers and despite gathering regularly right near the entrance, they had not had the opportunity to ask anyone about the price.
I confess that I could not bring myself to tell the truth.

"Two dollars," I said. They were stunned. Why, they wondered, would a working person go there when they could stop at a bodega owned by an Arab or Latino and pay 75 cents? We spoke some about their homes, and about the people they knew who once lived in Bed-Stuy but could no long afford it. Quietly, below the surface, there sat a truth that all of us in our hearts recognized: that in perhaps two years they would all be gone also, living in the South or wherever they felt, emotionally and financially, at peace.

Truth be revealed, regarding these men and other Bed-Stuy renters headed for the back door, I harbor similar feelings as many do about the Native Americans who once roamed the broken land of hills and slopes that would be called Breukelen. Yes, they were overcome. But this phenomenon is happening before us now and we must each, those who care, find a way of responding to it, with concern for the powerless, with respect for the past.

Howell is an associate professor of journalism at Brooklyn College.


suzanne said...

Thanks for sharing. I agree, such a thoughtful essay about a scenario being played out around the country. I read it when it was first published and shared it with friends. Seeing it here, I felt compelled to read it again. I hope all your readers do. It's a great read.

These are hard, scary issues we are dealing with and addressing them starts with people coming to the table to talk it out.

FlatLen said...

I knew something about that story was familiar, that I had read some version of it earlier. Prof. Howell blogs about Brooklyn: In addition, there is some interesting family history there. His cousin, who grew up in the same house, is Diane Patrick, wife of Deval Patrick, first lady of Massachusetts.

Bob Marvin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bob Marvin said...

BTW Diane and Deval Patrick lived on Midwood I for a number of years ; their house was on the PLG house Tour.

FlatLen said...

I didn't realize the Patricks once lived in the area, on Midwood. Very nice.