Live in a place long enough, you can spot the long trends. The coming and goings of businesses, the changing of the faces, the physical and emotional architecture. As Mrs. Q and I round the corner towards the end of two decades, what once felt like a fast-changing neighborhood has started to seem less so. It's easy to spot the shifts, yes, but so much is the same since (say) 9/11 that I sometimes wonder why all the sturm and drang. Though it has become increasingly unaffordable to rent an apartment here, or buy a house, many of the same shops and demographics remain. That's largely because it's primarily a renter's neighborhood, but also because even as people move in and out, a large percentage remain. Brooklyn neighborhood change can be both slow and fast at the same time; it takes a local's eyes to see the slow.
The racial dimensions of so-called gentrifcation throughout Brooklyn have been dissected and (I would argue) exploited better elsewhere. The Q has always tried to remind readers that he knows he's not the center of the story, but rather a white male observer and cog in a greater Capitalist Machine, a machine that grinds away even as he vainly pushes against it. Grinds downs. Grinds away. Grinds with both precision and haphazard randomness. Misery and comfort coexist in Flatbush Lefferts, and have since its "founding" as a planned community for workers in the early 20th century, built on top of old farmsteads that before that were native lands. The Q's house was but one of ten in a row of faux brownstones considered ugly tract housing of its time and sold for roughly $5,000 in 1912. Built as a single family home, it and many of its sisters were instantly sold to speculators and landlords who chopped them up into apartments and sometimes even SROs. Lefferts Manor, the enclave within the north Flatbush borders of the magically designated Prospect-Lefferts-Garden (I'm going with TWO hyphens, and one S on garden, which makes more sense really, since it stands for Prospect Park, Lefferts Manor and the Botanic Garden) legislated its desire to avoid such a fate with deed covenants and eventually zoning changes. (It is my understanding that it would be hard to enforce the single family code during a housing crisis, but generally the folks of the Manor stick to the code. It is, after all, good for home values.)
The neighborhood was initially white, but not WHITE white, as the working class people of the neighborhood were mostly immigrants who hadn't fully "assimilated," a word that essentially implies capitulation to the racial and ethnic pecking order with the hope that somewhere down the road one's family might be given access to the best of the spoils of colonialism. Italians, Jews, Irish, my own Nordic ethnic immigrant ancestors, needed just a couple generations to achieve near-full access. Those related to enslaved Africans have not been so quickly absorbed, as we know all too well. That fight continues to be valiantly waged, and our neighborhood was host to many a powerful protest even during this year of COVID. I, like so many of my neighbors, participated, though I'll admit there were times I wondered whether my presence was welcome or merely tolerated. My heart was in it; my head reeled from questions of whether I've been complicit, ignorant or too much of both in racism's insufferable persistence.
While some neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy trace the beginning of their shift to nearly all-black from the 1930s, along the A train, then accelerating during the block-busting 60's, Flatbush saw an enormous cultural shift not just white to black also to West Indian as scores of immigrants came from the Islands to either escape or capitalize. The cultural oleo that we now associate with our homenabe is one of a particular mix of young and old, Black, white, Asian, Caribbean, LatinX, families to singles - a real mix, though strictly speaking not as "integrated" as one might be tempted to boast. People clearly tend to keep to their own, and try as we might to make new friends, a lot of us (Q included) have found that mixing tends to end at the stoop. It's hard to break through to intimate friendships - often those reflect deeper cultural ties, schools and churches. This is a lament that I hear echoes by others in my still mostly-white network of intimate associates.
But in all honesty, NEW intimate relationships aren't something one pursues in earnest while raising kids. Amiright? Warm acquaintances is all I can manage. Deep friendships are hard to come by. Maybe a lot of integration has ALWAYS been superficial, and not just racial integration. Maybe the whole thing is ephemeral, and maybe we never become as close to one another as we imagine. Maybe...well, at the very least, we need legal and economic equity so that justice has a fighting chance. Equal footing. As if that's every been a reality, anywhere. Has it?
One fascinating curve ball is, of course, inter-racial marriages, which provide one of the most promising and fascinating arrangements in cultural reconciliation and understanding. And endless hilarious familial anecdotes. (Cue musical with catchy title like "You Got Jerk In My Gefilte!" or some such.) Note to self: For another rabbit-hole research trip I might want to look at how suburbia - and racist block-busting - helped usher new ethnicities into whitedom. So many early suburbs attracted once-shunned groups like Italians-Irish-Jews that I wonder if part of the appeal of leaving behind the mixed race City was the promise of Whiteness. Ah hell, somebody probably already got their PhD on that one. Note to self: forget it. You don't read enough to even know if an idea is new or not.
So what about that supposed wholesale change from black to white businesses? So far, I don't see it. Most of my favorite West Indian food places are still around - De Hot Pot, De Bamboo Express, Jamaican Pride, Errols. The predominant shop type along and just off Flatbush is still the hair salon, beauty supply store or nails place, all catering to those of African descent. The whites seemed to usher in a few more sit-down restaurants - but not a ton, and many of those that DO exist are owned or co-owned by people of color. There's even a bar now (Flatbush Zombie House) that could have existed on the Lower East Side in the 90s. There are about 10 coffee houses where a decade ago there were none. But take a peek inside - they tend to be among the most diverse businesses anywhere around the 'Bush. Grocery stores have mixed offerings and mixed clientele. The new buildings have definitely brought higher-earners, but a surprising number of these residents are non-white (not a ton, but more than were foretold). The bad landlords are still plotting to get rid of lower-earning tenants, often black and brown, though I wonder sometimes whether it's more about the money than the race. Rent stabilization has perversely incentivized building owners to make life miserable for stabilized tenants to allow for vacancy increases and the promise of moving out of price controls altogether. I first started wondering just how racist was the practice when I started seeing and hearing of white renters being targeted for misery and gaslighting too. Local good-guys the Crown Heights Tenants Union tried to draw on the strength of this commonality. And with the pandemic, prices have actually come down. Who knows where it's leading. I recall many Q-posts (not Q-drops, mind you) where I wrote "all seems X now but wait til the next 9/11 or Great Recession sized calamity and..." I wasn't foreseeing pandemic, but hey, that's what makes them surprise economic reversals, right?
But here's the thing. At first, the Covid shuttered everything. We wondered whether we'd ever be the same again, whether society itself would break down, whether we'd ever eat Peppa's again. But by the end of the summer, nearly every business was back up and some were thriving. Anyplace that can do takeout saw a surge in volume, though restaurants that count on sitting customer/imbibers was and is screwed. For now. Hold out folks. It's nearly Christmas, and the Flabenue is as lively and festive as ever. The masks are near universal. There's even been a slight uptick in violent crime! (back to 2012 vibe, not 1992). The infection rate is almost bearable. Is it possible to feel upbeat about the neighborhood's chances for survival? A vaccine even! Because that's the vibe I'm soaking up - a turning corner, and hope. Then again, maybe it's the antibodies talking. Apparently the family Q got the C-19 in April and thankfully got through without major illness. And now for a few poorly shot pictures of life in the 'hood.
|Last count we're up to 10 coffee places, including this odd entry on Bedford tween Clarkson and Parkside - Cups and Books.
|Bonafini and Errols keeping the faith
|The nabe's bookstore, Greenlight, popular as ever.
And that restaurant? I dunno. Never been. Seems adequately bourgie and sometimes busy.
|Brand spanking new - not the only biz to open in the pandemic
|Great cup of coffee. Buff black man owned (BBMO). Great vibe.
|Warm raw fish and rice in a cup never felt so right
|Not the best bagels. OUR bagels.
|How bout more coffee?