Race, Change and Sweet Potato Pie: Understanding Bed Stuy One Resident at a Time

A scene from the block party, circa late 1970s. Photo via New York Magazine

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    Through a combination of census data, sweet potato pie recipes and interviews with 62 block residents, both current and former, New York Magazine reporters attempted to gauge the essence of one block of Bed Stuy’s MacDonough Street, from Patchen Avenue to Malcolm X Boulevard.

    The extensive, multimedia New York Magazine cover story, “One Block,” explores the diverse experiences of the Bed Stuy microcosm through soundbites and written profiles, photographs and tenant timelines.

    The results of the months-long deep dive vary from the obvious sentiments (locals say Brooklyn is changing, becoming richer and whiter) to the more nuanced (neighbors are still welcoming, but many now feel alienated).

    Our new cover story: 1 Block, 135 Years, a historical journey through life on one stretch of Bed-Stuy’s MacDonough Street, a block that, like Brooklyn itself, has seen massive change. Meet two current residents: SHARON AND RONN KOONTZ, 45 and 50, own their two-bedroom home, and share it with their 4-year-old daughter, Mackenzie. Sharon bought the house in 2002 for $276,000: "I met someone who introduced me to Ms. Rita. Ms. Rita wanted to sell her house to someone who wasn’t going to turn around and resell it. She lived on the top floor and rented out the bottom two floors. It was a rooming house; she'd take one room and subdivide it into three. She required me to come visit her a couple of times, which I did. She would tell me that people would knock on her door with suitcases of money. And she would tell me, 'I really don’t care how much money they have. I want the house to go to someone who I like.' Her only wish was that I help her move back to Barbados, which I did. When I first moved on the block, a couple of the older ladies would say, 'I’m going to teach you how to make a sweet-potato pie!' They sure did teach me. And I do make it now, even though they’re not watching anymore." The couple—an IT program manager and property manager—have listed their home on Airbnb, and according to Ronn, the booking is "just constant." We will be sharing different perspectives from residents who live on this block in Bed-Stuy all day. Stay tuned for more stories from MacDonough Street. Read the full feature online at nymag.com/oneblock.

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    Originally a white neighborhood, the first African-American residents starting moving to Bed Stuy in the early 20th century. By mid-century, the area was almost entirely black and remained so until about 2000. In the last four years, property values have soared, and the white population has swelled.

    The story that emerges will confound those expecting the stereotypical arc of wealthy white residents displacing poor black ones. Many of the block’s longtime black residents are attorneys, in finance or small-business owners. Whites rent from black homeowners.

    Themes of race, gentrification, nostalgia and history all intertwine to create a poetic portrait: Here is Bed Stuy, in its own words.

    Our new cover story: 1 Block, 135 Years, a historical journey through life on one stretch of Bed-Stuy’s MacDonough Street, a block that, like Brooklyn itself, has seen massive change. Meet one resident: JAMES "BROTHER" SPEARS, 50, co-owner, whose parents bought the house for $35,000 in 1978. He lives with his 90-year-old father and a tenant, Daniel "June" Farquhar, and works as a carpenter. He says he's one of the "originals" on the block; He's lived here for his entire life: "I was born on this block. I've been here longer than this concrete been on the ground. There are about five or six more original people who was here since I was little. We out here playing as kids, everybody was your mother. Most of the originals passed. And what they did was leave their kids the houses. So the kids either rent the houses out or they're selling them. I'm maintaining, taking care of my father—he's 90 years old. I think I'll be here for good. And I’ll pass it on to my kids." We will be sharing different perspectives from residents who live on this block in Bed-Stuy all day. Stay tuned for more stories from MacDonough Street. Read the full feature online at nymag.com/oneblock.

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    The interviews are streamlined, the majority beginning with a video of the resident leaving or entering their home (in some cases there is only a photo of a front door). Links in the text connect neighbors, statistics and history — metaphors for the ties connecting residents on the block. The smooth formatting somewhat masks the interviews’ divergent content, bringing people together under the umbrella of their shared block and participation in this cover story.

    Yet, despite their common block, the characters of McDonough Street are diverse.

    “I grew up in Northern California, and Do the Right Thing and Sesame Street sort of represented New York to me,” said Brooke Vermillion, a white woman who bought on the block in 2009. She goes on to say she sees ghosts in her home, and that, “When I moved to this neighborhood, there were only a couple of people who were clearly like: ‘What are you doing here?’”

    Meanwhile, Annette Cox bought a house on the block in 1985, and enjoys what she finds to be improved services in the area. At the same time, she feels a standoffishness from new white neighbors. “They move in and it’s like: ‘Okay, we’re here. Don’t fuck with us…White folks feel comfortable wherever they are. We’re the ones who live with a certain amount of uncomfortability.”

    Our new cover story: 1 Block, 135 Years, a historical journey through life on one stretch of Bed-Stuy’s MacDonough Street, a block that, like Brooklyn itself, has seen massive change. Meet a current resident: WINSLOW CORBETT, a 35-year-old actress and tenant since 2001, paid "less than $1,000" for a one-bedroom: "I found this listing for an upstairs apartment online in the Village Voice. I was the only white girl on this block for years. By 2011, the tide had really shifted—I didn’t stand out anymore at all. I had nicknames. 'What’s up, snowflake?' More recently, in 2006, an African-American woman in a minivan said to me: 'Go back to your own neighborhood.' And I was like, 'I’ve lived here since …' But whatever. I get it. I was robbed in the street, and I know that if I had been black, I wouldn’t have had the same treatment from the police. They had me look at mug shots, and then they took me to canvas the neighborhood in the back of their car. They had these enormous floodlights, and they were literally shining the light in guys' faces, going, 'Is this him? Is this him?' I remember feeling really embarrassed." We will be sharing different perspectives from residents who live on this block in Bed-Stuy all day. Stay tuned for more stories from MacDonough Street. Read the full feature online at nymag.com/oneblock.

    A video posted by New York Magazine (@nymag) on

    The racial tension, however, emerges between the lines of memories and stories, both from the block and far off it.

    “We had a guy named Buddy,” former resident Milton Miles remembers of his years on the block after his time in the military. “He used to get drunk on Wild Irish Rose and karate fight with the trees.”

    Other interviewees complain that new transplants don’t understand what it is to be a part of a local community; some discuss what it was like to see the neighborhood’s last white population flee in the 1960s and ’70s.

    The article does not end, as the interviews can be read in any order, but a comprehension quickly forms in the mind of the reader that these intimate profiles of area residents give a much fuller understanding of what it means to live in Brooklyn in 2015 than their property values.

    [Source: NY Mag]

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