As a Neighborhood Changes, Will it Still Be ‘Bed-Stuy, Do or Die’?

Representative Edolphus Towns of Brooklyn will not seek a 16th term in Congress. (Photo via Our Time Press)

With the retirement of Representative Edolphus Towns after 15 terms in Congress, one of Brooklyn’s iconic black neighborhoods — Bedford-Stuyvesant — is at a crossroads, the journalist Ron Howell writes in Our Time Press.

Howell, a longtime resident of the neighborhood, describes the power struggle between two African-American Brooklyn politicians, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries and Councilman Charles Barron, both of whom hope to succeed Towns in June for a district that includes Bedf0rd-Stuyvesant, as well as a large portion of Brooklyn.

Bed-Stuy, as people affectionately call it, straddles the two Brooklyn worlds that these men represent, Howell explains.

Jeffries, a 41-year-old attorney at ease in corporate board rooms (as well as on the street), now represents Fort Greene, a place that has become a Brooklyn version of Chelsea, with snazzy hipster restaurants up and down DeKalb Avenue, a gathering place for countless newcomers from Michigan, Wisconsin, Alaska and beyond.

Barron, a ex-Black Panther who says he sometimes likes to curse out (white people) for emotional release, was elected to the Council from Brownsville and neighboring sections, which have some of the highest crime and poverty rates in the city, and where young black men are stopped-and-frisked by police every day of the week.

Bed-Stuy is the no-man’s-land of the congressional race and all are waiting to see which way she will go.

The struggle over the soul of Bed-Stuy goes deeper than this particular political race, the Amsterdam News reported in an article that also quotes Howell. The area’s gentrification has caused a rift between new residents — including many whites — and longtime residents seeking to keep Bed-Stuy’s history alive.

… despite the sights and smells of this traditional African-American and Caribbean neighborhood, the slow, steady rise of gentrification is occurring, and conflict between the longtime residents and the new ones is occurring. While Bed-Stuy has been welcoming to diversity, it is nevertheless struggling to keep its soul, its cultural roots and, most importantly, its Blackness.

“There was a time when Bed-Stuy ruled the world,” said Charles Bradley, a longtime resident of the neighborhood. “Everybody knew where and what Bed-Stuy was, even if you have never been here before. It was a subconscious feeling that grabbed hold of every Black soul.”

Although Bed-Stuy was a mostly white neighborhood until the late 1920s and early 1930s, many African Americans migrated to the area after being pushed out of downtown Brooklyn, according to the Amsterdam News. Decades later, the neighborhood became a center for black culture, the setting for Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” and home to rappers such as Jay-Z. The neighborhood was also marred by violence and drugs.

Now, the neighborhood has drawn a new crowd, which has driven up rents and home prices, forcing some longtime residents and businesses out.

Suddenly, it became a place white hipsters wanted to be, and white families were soon to follow.“We were sort of ignored before by the city,” said Howell. “Now that the neighborhood is diversifying, the city is starting to pay more attention to us, as well as work against us.”

“It’s a shame now that as more white young people are moving in, there are more cops patrolling and making it safe for them, but what about before? We always needed this. Not just now because they [whites] are here,” added a longtime resident of Bed-Stuy, who did not wish to be identified.

Howell, in his Our Time Press column, invokes the neighborhood’s longtime rallying cry, “Bed-Stuy, do or die.”

Some do not like that term, which has been buried in the archives of Central Brooklyn’s past.

In fact, in some sense, it could be said that the old Bed-Stuy did, in fact, die, given the huge demographic changes of the past two decades.

But despite all the neighborhood’s change, Howell argues, the June 26 Democratic primary for Towns’ seat will ultimately come down to who can appeal to the area’s longtime residents.

History matters here. The redrawn lines of Towns’ district (now the Eighth Congressional District of New York) leaves it less Black than it was before. But it is still mostly Black. And its history as a Voting Rights District – requiring review by Washington before changes to its makeup – make it especially meaningful to Brooklyn old-timers and others who appreciate Civil Rights history.

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