A Price Point That Would Guarantee Exclusivity

We had been gentrifiers, more humble and open than most, we assumed, and now our time to be called back into service had come again. There were surely other areas in premium metropolitan cultural centers out there that had lapsed to Negroes in the years after the Great War which remained affordable for the mostly white American middle class of 2015, and we’d have to go find one. He was, quite naturally, thinking about moving to LA, a cliché in the Brooklyn we were inhabiting, especially among the middle-class creatives who fashioned themselves as priced out, a sensation that inspired a cottage industry of Didion imposters writing “Goodbye to All That” imitations on the websites of once-veritable magazines. This is not, despite appearances, one of those. I remain too stubborn to read the writing on the wall.

I set about visiting old haunts that summer, but soon realized few were left.

The following is an excerpt from Making Rent in Bed-Stuy, by Brandon Harris, out today from Amistad Books. Harris will be in conversation with Keith Gessen at the n+1 offices on June 15.

A few weeks after Samuel DuBose’s killing, in August 2015, I temporarily moved to the four hundred block of Greene Avenue, between Nostrand and Bedford. I had agreed to sublet my tiny studio in the Bronx through September and took over the first floor of a handsome whitestone number my ex-roommate Kevin and his wife, Heather, had been renting just half a block from 499, which I had been kicked out of two years previously. Kevin’s chain-smoking, booze-guzzling, and, at least temporarily, babysitting days were behind him. Tempered and emboldened by marriage simultaneously, he had decamped for California for an animation track at Cal Arts’ graduate film program. The brownstone at 434 Greene had the type of high ceilings and German woodwork finishes that were now thought of as a steal for $1,300 a month, even if it was essentially a railroad with no backyard access. The change that was greeting the neighborhood could be surveilled easily from the bay windows that jutted out toward the street below. I’d wake that August to the sound of construction on one of the block’s many brownstones, rat ta tat tat and a good morning to you, Mr. Jackhammer, only to stammer over to close the window and find men surfing the trash beneath my perch for cans. In the early August heat that kept me awake in the night I’d drowsily watch several men each morning, shopping carts at their hip, pilfer my discarded beer bottles and plastic two-liters of seltzer from above as the power saws roared, renovation and restoration continuing apace. About a block away, across the street from where I had lived at 499 Greene, I saw a Citibike rack had been set up, one of thirty-four new ones in the neighborhood according to a Citi-sponsored ad on Facebook that suggested I use the #BedStuy hashtag when documenting my Bed-Stuy adventures on Instagram and Twitter!

While sitting on a bench near one of the new coffeehouses that had opened on Nostrand, having a late-morning breakfast with a childhood friend in from D.C. for the weekend, I spotted Tony, our sixth grade classmate and my second Bed-Stuy roommate, crossing the street from the opposite sidewalk with his dog. We were only blocks from the building his parents bought for him on Jefferson in the years since we stopped living together. Either he didn’t see us or he didn’t care to stop. My friend, who also grew up with Tony in Cincinnati, ran after him and took a selfie while I stayed behind and ate my grits, wondering if he had used the #BedStuy hashtag to document our not-so-private pain. New restaurants lined the Bedford Avenue corridor, and the offices of Caldwell Banker, too, advertising freshly renovated brownstones to the well-to-do millennials who were being shepherded into the area by the beauty and relative affordability of the district. The suspicious eyes and fleet gait with which young gentrifiers moved through Bed-Stuy in my earliest days amid the concrete was gone; recent émigrés walked through the area with confidence now. The pale hordes, the light in their eyes no longer cowed by the sense that they were trespassers writ large, steeled themselves to the task of making the space in their own image, at a price point that would guarantee exclusivity.

Kevin and Heather hadn’t left much furniture and I had little to speak of in the Bronx, so I bought a rickety wooden rocking chair from the new Salvation Army on Fulton Street. It was small enough to just barely fit into the back of a cab and was only $20. The toilet in the tiny bathroom had become a Rube Goldberg contraption in the hands of the previous subletter and the floors were remarkably dirty. I went to fetch cleaning supplies and an AC unit from the notoriously shoddy Bed-Stuy Home Depot. Coming out of the store, I acquired the services of a Puerto Rican named Victor, a wiry, open-faced man in his fifties. I paid him fifteen bucks to drive me and my newly acquired air conditioner the five or so blocks back to 434. We quickly began about Bed-Stuy.

“It used to be real bad down here, in the ’80s,” he started. “A lot of crime. It’s better now.” He does a brisk business in his purple van, hanging out in front of the Home Depot finding people, often new to the neighborhood, in need of a short haul for their new furnishings.

“It used to be all black and Latino here,” Victor said as we neared the corner of Clifton Place and Nostrand, not far from where a new luxury building had just gone up and a bodega had closed. Victor told me his wife, Rose, operates the laundromat on the nearest intersection to 434, Greene and Bedford, as we circled the block to get back around to Greene. I asked him how he would describe the people moving into the neighborhood. “A lot of whites, a lot of gays.” He grumbled about homosexuals “walking around the way they do,” worried about the effect it would have on the children. I swallowed a shard of spit, wondering what he had thought of the tides that had finally brought the freedom to homosexuals to marry a few months before, but midwestern modesty told me not to ask.

“Not that I have anything against gay people,” he said nonchalantly. “My son is gay.”

Greene between Nostrand and Bedford is one of the most picturesque blocks in the neighborhood. Lined with immaculate brownstones, this stretch of Greene conjures “Brooklyn” as it appears in the contemporary American popular mythos, in summertime its well-kept trees providing a delicate shade for sidewalk commuters and long, lively block parties. Number 434 is a whitestone whose owner, Mr. Knight, has held the building for over three decades. A congenial black man in his eighties with fading health and children who, in Nick’s words, can’t wait to sell the place for millions once the old man passes, he is representative of a type of Bed-Stuy resident who, like me, may not be long for the neighborhood.

As a new order has emerged, the ghosts of the previous one are everywhere, but their echoes are getting smaller, snuffed out by the tides. In Sebastien Silva’s Sundance shocker Nasty Baby, which had locally premiered in neighboring Fort Greene during BAMCinemaFEST earlier that summer, the talented Chilean director and Fort Greene transplant plays a version of himself, an avant-garde video maker who lives in a sunny stretch of the community next door with Mo, a towering black artisanal carpenter played by TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe. Although Mo’s father seems suspicious of their relationship, the film nodding to the general social conservatism of his generation of black men, the couple navigate the multicultural and affluent new regime of their urban bobo utopia with the carefree ease of a Levi’s commercial. Their new Brooklyn seems blissful, save the constant sounds of a leaf blower powered by the Bishop, a mentally unstable black man on a fixed income who, as embodied by Reg. E Cathey, is a return of the ghetto repressed, of the unruly street Negrodom that the presence of these young gentrifiers is supposed to awake the police and the developers into removing. The Bishop lives in a basement apartment one building over and, as this terrific, uneventfully unrelenting movie makes clear, is simply not capable of assuaging his perhaps less menacing but surely more economically and socially powerful new neighbors. Their own forms of solidarity will prove too much for him. The discord places Mo in the position of failed, unprepared mediator, as black invaders almost always are. He tries to come to his lover’s defense in a street-level altercation about the leaf blower that involves a black female cop who is sympathetic to both sides, and the Bishop’s rage greets this turncoat with a special ire. “Negro!” he exclaims at Mo, accusatorially.

The film, which lulls its audience asleep to its dramatic possibilities by inhabiting the rhythms, humor, and milieu of the average Sundanceable hipster comedy, makes a turn for the gallows late in its running time. Kristen Wiig’s Polly, a friend of the couple with whom Silva’s Freddy is trying to have a child, is threatened by the Bishop, who follows her into the couple’s apartment. To what end we never quite find out—Silva’s character attacks him preemptively and, with an assist from his Mo and Polly, suffocates the Bishop to death in his bathroom. In Nasty Baby, the rituals of gentrification, be they the assault of reasonable rents by landlords and the evictions that follow, the exclusionary cultural dislocation of new pricy storefronts, the mysterious increase in municipal services, are simply not enough to exorcise the ghosts of the violent past these streets contain; it takes a physical snuffing out of the menace of black disappointment and forbearance, of the way the policies of this country and the majority of its citizens have driven so many of us mad.

After moving into 434 Greene, I’d see Silva in Bed-Stuy—we had gotten to know each other a bit one night after being introduced at a screening in the city and later served on an awards committee together. He lived in the apartment where his character lives in the film and would often work out at the Bed-Stuy YMCA on Nostrand Avenue. Its men’s locker room sauna rivaled the neighborhood’s best barbershops for gossip and witty repartee. Surely he’d overheard the sentiments of men not too far removed from the Bishop in that locker room, amid all the heat and sweat and wooden stillness, where the mostly black patrons would carp about the invasion in ways they wouldn’t out in the streets, where pink ears were listening and blue eyes watching. Not that it was safe from the ghosts, either; Tony belonged to the YMCA as well, as did his girlfriend, who would occasionally cast hard eyes at me from across the ellipticals.

I set about visiting old haunts that summer, but soon realized few were left. On the east end of the neighborhood, Goodbye Blue Monday had been shuttered the previous fall due to rising rent, and rumor among my friends held that M&M and his band of crusty layabouts were being pushed out of 551 Kosciuszko by Bo, or whoever his successor was. The way must be cleared for fancier buildings and people.

“Bed-Stuy was the last neighborhood in Brooklyn I really liked, the last one that really felt like a neighborhood,”  said Liam, another white roommate I’d had in this increasingly unaffordable historically black neighborhood, when I ran into him on my end of Greene Avenue, walking home late one night. He wasn’t long for the neighborhood either. Liam was leaving 499 Greene after being kicked out by his black landlords, who planned to raise the rent from $2,700 to $4,200 on his middle-class ass. “I’m looking at other places because I don’t know if I want to move farther into Brooklyn and start over again,” the commercial producer and writer told me, saying that he was considering a move to cheaper, if not greener, pastures.

We had been gentrifiers, more humble and open than most, we assumed, and now our time to be called back into service had come again. There were surely other areas in premium metropolitan cultural centers out there that had lapsed to Negroes in the years after the Great War which remained affordable for the mostly white American middle class of 2015, and we’d have to go find one. He was, quite naturally, thinking about moving to LA, a cliché in the Brooklyn we were inhabiting, especially among the middle-class creatives who fashioned themselves as priced out, a sensation that inspired a cottage industry of Didion imposters writing “Goodbye to All That” imitations on the websites of once-veritable magazines. This is not, despite appearances, one of those. I remain too stubborn to read the writing on the wall.

The end of the Bush age had been disastrous black American wealth. Forty percent of the black community, whose fortunes were tied up in their home value more than most other Americans’, lost more than 60 percent of their net worth in the great recession. The majority of the people who lost their homes due to foreclosure were black women over the age of 50 who were first-time homeowners. The Obama years, despite all of our hopes, had done little to alleviate this pain. The process that was swallowing up the Bed-Stuy I had come of age in, and many more like me—ones who had spent their lives building and securing the district under the torment of neglect—would not be denied. I had lived there in service to it the whole time. It had been displacing Negroes and the earliest white gentrifiers at least since before the towers fell.

We were feeling the ground cave in under us from an explosion that rang out before Craigslist even included New York, but the real effects were felt elsewhere. East New York, poorer and blacker than Bed-Stuy at the dawn of the new millennium, had grown blacker still, its Negro population increasing by 13 percent from the time George W. Bush won the Iowa caucuses to the time Barack Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ten years later, as the displacement that accompanies class warfare set in. In the western part of Bed-Stuy, where I was passing away those late summer months at 434 Greene, the black population dropped in those years by 14.6 percent. As in the Weeksville of six generations previous, the white population exploded, up 634 percent by the decade’s end.

An odd assortment of folks were getting rich off the transition, cashing in on the market, many of them descendants of the very Negroes who had come here in an attempt to build a community of home owners among their own kind in the years of the Great Migration, Perhaps Bo was one of them now, I hoped. Had he paid that underwater mortgage? The agents of this change were still, by and large, acting either selfishly or nefariously, and often with clear racial bias.

“We started in East New York, but we sold everything we had. We didn’t want to be there. Most of them are either Section 8, other government programs, and even the person that pays with cash is too much headaches,” an anonymous 26-year-old Hasidic developer and landlord told New York magazine early that summer when speaking of the lucrative work he’s now doing making Bed-Stuy palatable to whites who will pay high rents for all those renovated brownstones. “If there’s a black tenant in the house—in every building we have, I put in white tenants,” he said, hoping to better serve new, ostensibly nonblack tenants who “want to know if black people are going to be living there. So sometimes we have ten apartments and everything is white, and then all of the sudden one tenant comes in with one black roommate, and they don’t like it.” Negroes may have given Bed-Stuy its particular character and cultural importance, but we didn’t own it, not enough of us at least. It was clear, at least to “Ephraim” and whatever real man that pseudonym represents, that solidarity would not hold among the Negroes. “Every black person has a price,” he went on, suggesting that it was still much more expensive to buy out a black person in Bed-Stuy than in East New York.

He in turn sounded like Robert Moses, the man whose vision still stalked these streets, and not just in the dimly lit corridors of Marcy. His vision for central Brooklyn was finally taking hold. “The first prescription for slum dwellers in the ghettos of the big cities is total, immediate, uncompromising surgical removal,” the legendary urban planner wrote in his 1970 book, Public Works: A Dangerous Trade. It’s hard to figure if Moses’s thirst for womanizing or his hatred of Negroes was his more salient feature. If he had had his druthers, he would have moved the Negroes of Bed-Stuy to the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens. “I have recently seriously proposed a workable, uncompromising plan,” he wrote, “involving at the start 160,000 people, to raze the central Brooklyn slums and move residents.”

In late August, Highline Residential, a realty company that was spending significant amounts of money developing Bedford-Stuyvesant properties, released a promotional video called This Is Bed-Stuy, in which smiling blond twentysomethings give a “neighborhood tour.” Many longtime residents found the video—in which the pair of pale hosts sip expensive coffee and brunch cocktails at recently opened establishments while offering testimony to the neighborhood’s amenities and vibrancy—deeply offensive, seeing no mention of the institutions with which they associated Bed-Stuy. Highline Residential didn’t give a shit about them, the general sentiment went, other than wondering when they’d get the fuck out. Suddenly New York magazine and the Daily News were falling over themselves profiling entire blocks of Bedford Stuyvesant real estate, interviewing generations of owners and tenants, publishing op-eds by black journalism professors who had long lived in the district, and interviewing women who had been pushed out to East New York, or all the way to the Rockaways. Moses, and the forces of history that animated his mindset, would drive the dispossessed right out of this city if the market allowed.

I ran almost directly into Tony one night toward the end of my days at 434 Greene. I had surely spent the day packing up my few things so Tad and Brittany, the apple-cheeked twentysomethings who were moving in after me, could begin their #BedStuy adventure. I was walking into Dynaco with a friend of mine. The candlelit, wood-paneled nouveau hipster dive with class-warfare prices and an almost exclusively white patronage was where I had begun taking Polish women I’d had affairs with in the past to ask them to give me a real shot at loving them. I couldn’t bear doing the same with Tony, attempting reconciliation as I found myself suddenly standing next to him in the crowded bar, even though I missed, so badly, the camaraderie that had passed between us and had long been a boon in my life. But by that point, we had been estranged for as long as we had ever been close. Instinctually, I turned right around and ushered myself and my friend out, lacking the stomach to face the sadness of our lost solidarity, sullied as it was by these expensive Brooklyn nights.

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