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
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
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
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
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
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
"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.
The Q at Parkside
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.