Things Done Changed
Beneath the blue overhang of Sam’s Pizza, on the southeast corner of Franklin and Dekalb Avenues, a black and white mural of the late rapper Christopher Wallace graces the whitewashed brick wall. Sporting his signature black, wool Kangol hat, Biggie Smalls’ eyes, which are about the size of basketballs, are fixed across the street toward the cookie-cutter, dirt-colored apartment complexes that comprise the Lafayette Gardens housing projects. Two broken blue police barricades lay against the base of the project parking lot’s chain-link fence. Dekalb Funeral Services Inc. sits on the northwest corner of DeKalb across from Sam’s, just beyond the gaze of Biggie’s eyes.
A mural of the late rapper Christopher Wallace, better known as The Notorious B.I.G.
A block away, past the project parking lot, past the handball courts, and past Family Food Center, which accepts WIC checks, Dough sits on the southeast corner of Franklin and Lafayette Avenues. A beige paper banner hangs in the windows facing both streets, the “O” in “DOUGH” replaced by a doughnut bearing teeth marks.
A shattered glass front door, courtesy of a culprit who has yet to be identified, greets patrons as they enter the shop via Lafayette. Big enough for no more than ten customers at a time, the store is lined with polished bar-like wood counter tops. Four swivel-stools with red cushions are drilled into the wood floorboards. Tall glass windows allow customers, those seated as well as those standing in line just a foot away, to watch as their organic yeast doughnuts are made from scratch, while those adding milk, sugar, or honey to their tea or coffee have a view across Franklin. Rusted tin sheets and a chain-link fence blocked off what was an abandoned lot just a week ago. Then garbage and litter lay mixed with weeds and shrubs. Now, the hydraulic arm of a bulldozer hovers behind blue construction walls.
Nutella. Earl Grey. Chocolate Chipotle. Hibiscus. Café au Lait. Chai Cream. Lemon Meringue. Blood Orange. Cinnamon Sugar. Shredded Coconut. Chocolate with Cacao Nibs. Dulce de Leche with Toasted Almonds. Each doughnut is fried, glazed and receives any necessary toppings before being shoveled off of the baking rack onto the stained wood boards of the small two-deck display case constructed of glass and copper pipes. All doughnuts are $2.25, but they are the size of grapefruits, so you’re really getting two doughnuts.
Dough offers a variety of organic yeast doughnuts, including Nutella, Earl Grey, Chocolate Chipotle, Hibiscus, Café au Lait, Chai Cream, and Blood Orange.
Two doughnuts and a to-go bag later, you decide there’s really no reason not to look around the neighborhood. Bouchon, meaning cork in French, can be found next door. Open since December, Bouchon is the only wine shop in Western Bedford-Stuyvesant. Upon entering via Franklin, you are hit with the pungent smell of wood stain. This odor intensifies as you move from the foyer through another door and into the actual store. Hundreds of wines rest on the wood shelves lining the canary-yellow walls. Overstock stacked along the store’s two large glass windows partially blocks the storefront — New Zealand’s Saveé Sea, California’s Qupé, France’s Pigmentum, South Africa’s Beach House. Patrons can nevertheless peruse the wine labels with a view onto Franklin of the discount store Family Dollar, the women’s vintage clothing store Collecther, and that undergoing construction across from Dough.
Maps of France and of the country’s Vignobles (vineyards) du Languedoc hang on the wall behind Bouchon’s wood checkout counter. Six five-arm brass chandeliers hang in two rows of three from the ceiling above a yellow floor. A single chandelier hangs in the foyer. A smaller wood table placed along the front of the store by the foyer window displays a few books and pamphlets including Andre Domine’s Culineria France, a small book on the Brooklyn Museum, and a menu for Café Lafayette, a restaurant in Fort Greene owned by Bouchon’s co-owners Nadir Khelifi and Stephane Filippi.
“Everybody is very open,” says 43-year-old Filippi in a thick French accent as he leans forward on a wood stool just below the maps. Filippi, who moved to New York from Provence, France in 1994, has sharp features, straight white teeth, and longish-brown hair that is combed back behind his ears and held loosely by styling-gel. He wears a gold cross around his neck, which rests on his charcoal grey crew-neck sweater.
“I wasn’t interested in the beginning,” Filippi admits. “But there’s a lot of different people moving in the area…more hipster, less ghetto, so there is a window of opportunity to do something.”
Leaving the wine shop headed south of Franklin, you quite literally stumble upon Bouchon’s other neighbor. Owned by a second-hand dealer, the space has become a junkyard. Other than the legs of a chair, a TV, and what appears to be a stroller emerging from the top of the heap, the fence hides its contents with the help of graffiti-laden plywood boards and a shattered full body mirror. That is, except for a grill, a birdcage, and a bathroom sink collecting in front of the fence and along the sidewalk. A rusted navy blue Ford F250 pickup truck sits parked in front of the dump. Two plywood boards spray-painted white are placed lengthways along the inner sides of the truck’s bed. A small bathroom mirror clings to the board on the car’s left side, which faces the junkyard. The truck, which looks more like the Grinch’s sleigh as it teetered off Mt. Crumpit, is literally bulging with junk, managing to consume everything but the driver’s seat.
This is Bedford Stuyvesant, aka “Bed-Stuy, Do or Die,” a neighborhood in the borough of Brooklyn as notorious as B.I.G. himself and about as sure of its own identity as a middle school student. A neighborhood where according to rapper Jay-Z, “ain’t nothin’ nice,” well, except for yoga studios, green markets, bakeries, cafes, bars, Dough’s organic doughnuts, and Bouchon’s international wines, of course. Even B.I.G. “[Loved] the Dough.” Yet, with new these businesses come new residents, rising rent prices, and higher property values, forcing many long-time residents and business owners to move out of the area. In the words of the Notorious B.I.G, “Things Done Changed.”
However, not all residents consider the by-products of this change to be, well, nice. Indeed, this change is steeped in questions of racial acceptance and coalescence, as gentrification is accompanied by heightened racial contempt and distrust due to drastically shifting demographics within communities. In the wake of the election of the United States’ first black President Barack Obama, the term “post-racial” began to circulate, as many Americans hoped the country had in fact moved beyond discrimination and the mistreatment or judgment of an individual based on their racial background. Over three years later, a simple walk through Bed-Stuy proves this to be anything but the case; though I was fortunate enough that the man who spit my way as I walked past the Lafayette Gardens projects did not have impeccable range. Frankly, most people want nothing to do with discussions on the topic of race relations. Nevertheless, as the lens through which we observe gentrification is almost always racial, these discussions are seemingly inevitable; whether they exist in the form of formal discussions at community-board meetings or as ephemeral interactions with strangers as you wait at the crosswalk.
For many Americans, the push for a post-racial nation is misguided. This is not to say that these people wish for some form of institutionalized racism. Rather, they aspire for quite the opposite, regarding the term “post-racial” as language that further complicates and delays progress. The fantasy of becoming a post-racial country was addressed by political satirist and comedian Stephen Colbert weeks after the election of President Obama. On his show “The Colbert Report,” Colbert proclaimed, “Racism is over!” as grey balloons fell from the ceiling and as images of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass wearing party hats appeared on the screen with the words “Racism 1776-2008” flashing between them.
“These here balloons are grey, because with racism over, this is the color we all are now,” Colbert joked.
Colbert’s guest was Mayor Cory Booker, the third black mayor in New Jersey’s history. Booker challenged the notion of a post-racial America and the idea of color-blindness it promotes.
“I think we make a mistake if we ignore the wonderful differences that are America. We’re like a concert. It shouldn’t just be one instrument; it should be a number of different instruments playing to one powerful song. And that’s America,” said Booker. “To embolden a democracy means the inclusion of everyone, everyone plays a role and plays a part. We’re not trying to make everyone the same, we’re trying to benefit from our differences.”
Like Booker, 22-year-old Rashad Moore, a senior majoring in philosophy at Morehouse College, is not willing to accept the term post-racial.
“Language such as ‘post-racial’ scares me,” said Moore. “Though race is a scientific concept, its sociological implications are evident in every aspect of society. I don't think we should push towards a post-racial society, but more so a post-racist society. Our race differences make America ‘America.’ We benefit and learn from our shared differences.”
Overall an undeniably extraordinary moment in our country’s history, President Obama’s election was at most a sign of improved race relations. With the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Treyvon Martin in Sanford, Florida this past February, these relations are once again under reconsideration and revaluation by media. Whether they display a bias towards Martin or the accused neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, race is at the center of the debate on every network, from CNN to Fox News to MSNBC. Racially motivated violence and similar recent events that have garnered media attention include the murder of two black men and a black woman in Tulsa, Oklahoma on April 6. A white man and an American Indian, who also identifies as white, have confessed to the murders and have been charged with hate crimes. The men allegedly shot blacks at random as they drove through black neighborhoods in North Tulsa. Two black men were also wounded in the shootings.
According to Touré, a music critic, television personality, and professor at New York University, these violent crimes are evidence that the “Racial Cold War is Heating Up.” Touré argues that the election of President Obama has actually left Americans more confused and divided rather than unified. In the same article, Touré points to an April 2-4 USA Today/Gallup poll of 3,006 Americans (including 242 blacks), as evidence of the racial disconnect occurring in the U.S. The poll concludes that non-blacks are far less likely to consider race a factor in the death of Martin as well as in the timeliness of Zimmerman’s arrest. For example, when asked, “How much of a factor did racial bias play in the events that led up to the shooting and the shooting itself?” 72 percent of blacks answered “Major Factor,” compared to 31 percent of non-blacks, of which 25 percent said race was, “Not a factor.”
Yet, this tension existed long before these killings; long before Martin’s death spurred national protests. While merely one-example among dozens in New York City alone, it is the evolution occurring in Bedford-Stuyvesant that exemplifies the racial tension still extant in our nation. As gentrification continues to permeate urban neighborhoods across the United States, residents attempt to process the ensuing changes to their everyday lives. While many of the new businesses in Bed-Stuy, including Dough, Collecther and Heavenly Crumbs, are black-owned, the perception among both new and long-time residents (white and black alike) is that of whites displacing blacks. The result: misconceptions and distrust dominate the ways in which blacks and whites perceive one another amidst a constantly shifting urban environment.
One More Chance: Think Big
The New York Police Department’s 79th and 81st precincts oversee Bed-Stuy. Last year, there were a total of 3,322 crimes recorded, including 25 murders, 49 rapes, and 847 robberies. These numbers are significantly less than those of just a decade earlier, when there were 43 murders, 73 rapes, and 1,046 robberies. In fact, crime has declined continually since the end of the 20th century. For example, in 1995, there were 7,911 crimes recorded, including 72 murders, 131 rapes, and 2,289 robberies, while in 1990 alone there were 11,867 crimes recorded, including 120 murders, 149 rapes, and 3,886 robberies. That is, there has been an approximately 30 percent decline in reported crime over the past 20 years. Clearly, a lot has changed since 1997 when “HOV” released the song, “Where I’m From” about the Marcy Housing Projects, which is about a fifteen-minute walk from Dough and Bouchon. According to Jay-Z, this was once where “the hammers rung, news cameras never come…” and
“Where you can’t put your vest away and say you’ll wear it tomorrow/Cause the day after we’ll be saying, damn I was just with him yesterday/I'm a block away from hell, not enough shots away from straight shells/An ounce away from a triple beam still using a hand-held weight scale/You laughin’, you know the place well, where the liquor stores and the bass dwell/And Government? F**K Government, N****S politic they ’selves/ Where…life expectancy’s so low, we making our wills at eighteens.”
In 2012, Bed-Stuy is gaining a different reputation. It’s where college students live and where hipsters come, where businesses like Dough thrive and trendy coffee shops are inevitable. Somehow I doubt Jay-Z will lay down a few bars describing this change in scenery. Yet, this change is precisely what has made Bed-Stuy so appealing to new residents and business owners alike.
Packed with not only tourists and Manhattanites looking to explore Brooklyn, Dough is patronized equally by both recent and long-time Bed-Stuy residents; so much so that on most days it is uncomfortable, if not impossible, to linger in Dough. If you are not fortunate enough to claim one of the four swivel-stools, you cannot remain in the shop without disrupting the line for the register, which is constantly in motion as customers stand on their toes, shifting from left to right to sneak a glance at the magenta frosting glistening off of the newest Hibiscus batch.
“People come from upstate, people come from Harlem, just for the doughnuts,” says Dough’s owner Edward Atchouke in a French accent thicker than Filippi’s. A couple from Montreal and a family from Texas were among his most recent out of state visitors. Atchouke, a black man in his mid-thirties from Benin, West Africa, opened Dough in November 2010 alongside his friend Thierry Cabigeos, a Frenchman whom Atchouke met when he moved to New York. Cabigeos also owns Choice Brooklyn’s Choice Market and Choice Greene shops a few blocks away in Clinton Hill.
Originally from Benin, West Africa, Edward Atchouke opened Dough on Franklin Avenue in November 2010.
A black 18-year-old from East-New York, Olajuwoa Williams says he supports new businesses such as Dough, Bouchon, and Choice Market, if not for their services, for the vivacity they bring to the community. “I think it’s better for us,” says Williams, in a quiet voice marked by a thick New York accent. “I think it’s positive, because more buildings means more people and then maybe more jobs.”
Atchouke couldn’t agree more.
“People like it and people really appreciate it,” Atchouke says of Dough. “We open one of these and then other people have different ideas, like ‘ok we can do something different in the neighborhood. We can do this, we can do that.’ It’s a really positive idea.”
Williams says he would love to see this domino effect continue to occur in the area, adding that enough has not yet been done to improve the overall quality of life in the neighborhood. “They have more property they need to fix up,” adds Williams, standing on the corner of Franklin Avenue and Clifton Place in front of Amina’s Gold Exchange. “This will mean a better community for everybody.”
Moore, who has lived in Bed-Stuy his entire life, also sees gentrification as a new opportunity to expand the overall quality of life in Bed-Stuy. Contrary to the stigma the area typically receives, Moore says the neighborhood was a wonderful place to grow up.
“Bed-Stuy has always been a culturally rich neighborhood,” said Moore, who described being a Bed-Stuy resident as an “honor.” Moore, who has lived on Quincy Street and who currently lives on Jefferson Avenue, now has neighbors who are Caucasian and Asian. He says he has openly welcomed them to the neighborhood.
“Having them has made the experience all the better,” said Moore, who eventually hopes to become a pastor in his community. “From my own experience as a young resident from Bed-Stuy and college educated, I appreciate the change of residents. It’s a sign of a more diverse America.” Moore did acknowledge, however, that some residents will be unable to survive the escalating cost of living in Bed-Stuy and that affordable housing must be made readily available.
“I know there are a lot of old-time residents who are opposed to the change,” added Moore, “yet there are many who love it. New faces, businesses, and culture result in an increase in property value. As for me, I feel safer now than I did in past years.”
Friend Of Mine
East on Lafayette, past Dough, a new box-shaped five-story apartment complex complete with balconies, and Simply Polished, a nail salon that opened last year, James Steward and Ellison Lee sit on the steps of an old brownstone building. A blue-shopping cart is parked at the foot of the stoop. The cart is filled with clear-plastic bags, which have been stuffed with empty bottles and cans. Steward, who has also lived in Bed-Stuy his entire life and who is currently unemployed, says he began noticing something different about the neighborhood three years ago. Like Moore, Steward and Lee have welcomed the “new” Bed-Stuy, which he says has changed “one-hundred percent.”
“I see it as a positive. I really do,” says Steward, a 50-year-old heavy-set black man with a round face and a soft, deep voice. “It’s change for the better. It did change for the better. Everything’s cleaner than it was. It seems like it’s more peaceful in certain areas.”
“Right now, I think we should all be one and live among each other as brothers and sisters,” adds Lee, a 75-year-old black man with a voice made gruff from years of smoking cigarettes. “Me myself, I don’t discriminate against no race,”
Despite their readiness to accept the change, Steward feels that most whites neither embrace the neighborhood’s historical significance nor its established residents. From his experience, Steward says that many of the area’s new residents move into the neighborhood willing to speak only with one another. This, he feels, has a negative effect on the personality of Bed-Stuy and the overall sense of community that was once so visibly present.
“They don’t socialize, you might get a smile from one or two,” says Steward, who thinks whites are afraid of blacks. “They should be more friendly and open up to us. You know, get to know the black folks.”
I sit on the steps of the brownstone beside Steward, who looks at me through tinted, round eyeglass frames. Steward occasionally stares across the street as if he is waiting on someone or something to happen.
“We sit in the park sometimes, and they separate themselves from us,” he adds, greeting a middle-aged white man crossing the street. “Talk to us.”
Steward predicts that there will be almost no blacks living in Bed-Stuy ten years from now. For now, one of the biggest downsides to the change, he believes, is that there are even fewer black-owned businesses than there were when he was a teenager. While he says he personally has a lot of white friends, even inviting me to come hang out with himself and Lee on the stoop, he acknowledged that some of his other black friends are not as open to the neighborhood’s transformation.
“They’re like invaders, you understand, that’s what it seems like to black people,” Steward said. “They feel that whites are taking over; that they’re taking advantage of us.”
Mo Money Mo Problems
Bed-Stuy is incessantly undergoing a makeover. New businesses have made their way towards south-central and eastern Bed-Stuy, including shops such as Saraghina, casaBAN, Bed-Vyne Wine, and Common Grounds. According to Community Board Three Bedford-Stuyvesant, the neighborhood’s official borders are Flushing Avenue to the north, Broadway to the northeast, Saratoga Avenue to the east, Classon Avenue to the west, and Atlantic Avenue to the south. Back along the Clinton Hill boarder, sitting outside of Choice Market, a gourmet café on the corner of Grand and Lafayette Avenues (a block from Classon and therefore technically in Clinton Hill), Bed-Stuy resident Ian Faden sits with his roommate Annie Pendergrast, and Clinton Hill resident Sasha Herzig. According to Faden, these “official” boundaries are subject to change.
“They’re dividing up Bed-Stuy into smaller neighborhoods with cute names,” says Faden, who has lived in Bed-Stuy for the past four and a half years. “It makes the area easier to gentrify.”
A thin white male originally from Worcester, M.A., Faden has short, wooly-dark-brown hair. He wears a multi-colored sweater over a blue-collared button-up. His hat, pale-blue, features a patch sewn on the front reading “Salem Witch Museum.” Faden graduated from Pratt Institute last spring and now works in a coffee shop in Bed-Stuy. Though he moved to the neighborhood while studying painting at Pratt, he is confused by Bed-Stuy’s current popularity.
“It wasn’t so much that way four years ago,” he says, looking across the street through his Harry Potter-like glasses to the corner bodega, “but now it’s so many people who move here from like Texas. Why’d you move to Bed-Stuy from Texas? Or from Minnesota. Why’d you move here from Minnesota? It’s just perplexing to me.”
“Because it’s cooool,” says Pendergrast, a petite white girl with a surprisingly deep voice, pale-blue eyes, and straight light-brown hair that drifts about her elbows. The red-beanie on her head pushes her hair to the sides and emphasizes her pale complexion. Pendergrast, a senior studying painting at Pratt who lives with Faden on Franklin Avenue and Quincy Street, wears pants that redefine the meaning of skinny jeans.
For Pratt students, Bed-Stuy could not be more convenient, she explains, as it happens to be mere blocks from the Pratt Institute’s 200 Willoughby Avenue Clinton Hill address. Faden can attest to this, as he lived on Lafayette his first two years while attending Pratt. “That was before the election,” says Faden, who describes Bed-Stuy’s current demographics as young white-kids and black families.
Inside Choice Market, there is one large dinning-room table for its customers. Young and old patrons of all races wait in line to order from the bakery or the kitchen before sitting down to eat together. Pastries, coffee, hot chocolate, tea, paninis, burgers, salads, as well as rotisserie, braised, and grilled entrees and appetizers are available. Choice Market offers free-range eggs, fair trade coffee, and other organic food prepared by French chefs. However, it is not the food that Choice Market chooses to emphasize. The first two sentences under the “About Us” tab on the company’s website state that, “In four short years, Choice Market has become a neighborhood institution. Pratt students, long-term residents, dog-lovers and the stroller set mix and mingle at our communal table and outdoor benches.”
Faden considers himself a contributing member of the community and says he is open to everything the neighborhood has to offer. “In general, if you live here, you have to have an attitude and a sort of mindset to be able to get along with a bunch of different people and be totally open to race, gender, sexual orientation, class…everything,” says Faden, who says he used to hang out with the black single mothers in his apartment building. While Faden is totally open to everything, — well, except for the projects, which he admits still “freak [him] out” — some Bed-Stuy residents have shown Faden that they don’t quite feel the same way.
“I’ve been shot at,” says Faden. “I was walking down the street, and someone shot.”
“Well there was a gunshot two nights ago,” adds Herzig.
“And you know, I’ve had people say like ‘white boy’ and stuff like that,” says Faden.
“And egged, getting egged and bitched at in the bodega,” says Pendergrast.
“But this is all in the last four and a half years, so I’m not like….”
“Sometimes they throw eggs, sometimes they throw bullets. You never know,” Faden laughs.
Pendergrast is, for the most part, also comfortable living in Bed-Stuy. Pendergrast, who lived on Taaffe Place with Faden, and on Marcy and Myrtle Avenues next to the Marcy Projects, is sure only to avoid the projects, where she says she feels unwanted. “Ooh that was…when I lived there…oh my God…I only lived there for a month. I had to leave.” Still, Pendergrast, who says she grew up in Los Angeles in a community with a similar dynamic as Bed-Stuy, would not have it any other way. “I like living in a mixed neighborhood,” Pendergrast says. “Here, we go to bars and we meet 60-year-old black guys that are like, ‘Yo I remember when no one white lived here. I was born here, and no one white lived here.’ ”
“But even the way we’re talking right now, any time we talk about anything negative we’re saying black people, and any time we talk about anything cutesie or safe or we’re saying white people,” says Herzig, interrupting Pendergrast. “And I don’t consider any of us to be racist.”
Herzig, who attends the CUNY School of Law and is originally from Oneonta, N.Y, says she can definitely understand why many residents may be upset. Upon first moving into her Clinton Hill neighborhood, she claims she experienced antagonism from her neighbor, a black woman who had lived in the area since 1985 and who owned Locksmyth’s Barber Salon on Greene and Grand Avenues—a block from Choice Market.
“She was really hostile to us when we moved in,” said Herzig, a white girl with thick dark-brown hair. “And since then she’s moved out because she couldn’t afford it any more…She was just really crass to us all the time and we couldn’t figure out why and then we realized she’d been in the neighborhood for ten years and it was changing and she wasn’t able to afford the salon anymore.”
The salon, which opened in Fort Greene in 1991, later moving to Clinton Hill in 2002, has since closed and been replaced by Dou Yoga, next door to Cabigeos’ Choice Greene.
Pedestrians walking down some of Bed-Stuy’s main avenues are often accompanied by sounds of construction. These sounds draw your attention to what will be a be a 10-unit, six-story residential building next to the Triple A Super Clean Laundromat between Greene and Lexington Avenues. While Community Board Three openly supports new businesses, they do not support these new apartment buildings, which they say are cheap in appearance and in building costs. Bed-Stuy, says the Community Board’s website, is most well known for its row houses and brownstone buildings. This reputation, they feel, is being threatened by gentrification.
Community-Board Three Bedford-Stuyvesant does not support new apartments such as this one, which they feel "do not blend in with the traditional architectural style of the community.”
“Recently developers have constructed many inexpensively produced houses, which do not blend in with the traditional architectural style of the community, interwoven among the unique homes which date back to the turn of the century. The Community Board has made known to various city agencies including the Board of Standards and Appeals that structures being constructed in the North for 8-10 stories are out-of-context with the norm of this community.”
The glass windows of the Hong Kong Cafe Chinese restaurant reflect the sunlight emerging from the corner of Franklin and Lexington Avenues. Here, the green, red, and yellow-painted upper stories of an apartment building undergoing construction are visible looking back towards Greene Avenue. Tattered black trash bags hang snagged in the trees in front of the new six-unit apartment building next to the laundromat. Next door, a middle-aged black man in a black barbers smock comes out of Cle’s Cuts Unisex Barber Shop, which opened on Franklin about fifteen years ago. Through the window covered in a film of dirt, a Sports Center clip of the Knicks game plays on the flat screen hanging in the upper left corner of the shop. Patrons look back across the street to a string of new business, including the bars Shirley’s Lounge and One Last Shag, as well as Alcatraz, a Mexican restaurant that opened in December 2010.
Dashan Dickerson pulls a pack of Newport Box 100’s menthol cigarettes from the right waist pocket of his barber smock, which he wears over a grey Coogi hoody. A barber for about 20 years, Dickerson has worked at Cle’s for the past two months. The smock ends around his knees, exposing grey-and-blue-patched Coogi pants. The pants, which are a cross between felt and velvet, have zippers at the shins and sag around a pair of black Nikes. He draws a cigarette from the box and lights it.
“As you can see this neighborhood is diversified now, it’s changing, and we don’t have any animosity, we don’t say they’re not welcome into the community,” says Dickerson, who has lived on Lexington Avenue in Bed-Stuy for the past 20 years. “But on another hand, you go into a predominantly white community, and there’s still that racism that they don’t want black people living there. They think black people are going to bring the value of the property down and things of that nature, and it’s ridiculous. But we’re supposed to be so open-armed and they act like nothing has happened.”
A white girl wearing thick-rimmed glasses and skinny jeans comes out of the laundromat next door. “Mhmm,” Dickerson says nodding, sucking the tip of his cigarette. “To be honest with you, I remember when white people didn’t even walk down this avenue; scared to death,” he adds. “There was one time you could walk down this avenue and get BEAT UP.”
“Like me or…?”
“Ooh yea, youu!”
“For being white?”
Dickerson is by no means new to a diverse community, as he grew up in Park Slope, Brooklyn and attended a catholic school where he says he befriended white, black, and Hispanic students. Whether or not Dickerson accepts gentrification depends on the sincerity of the new residents and their willingness to fully embrace their black neighbors who have been established in the community for decades. “If you’re genuine, it’s gonna come across,” he says. “But if you’re just trying to once again take a neighborhood over and move people out, then I’m not for it.”
According to Moore, who lives 20 minutes walking distance from Cle’s, it would be unfair to pin this lack of neighborliness entirely on white residents. In fact, Moore has had the opposite experience. “We have had a great relationship with our non-black neighbors,” said Moore. “Now, there are some new black neighbors that don’t speak. I think that’s crazy.”
Still, Dickerson believes there is a certain comfort level that is absent with the new white residents, whom he said were not willing to come to the neighborhood’s annual block party even though it was advertised as a community event. “If we can be so accepting, what’s their problem? You know, what’s the problem?” says Dickerson. “You want to get along, you want us to be accepting, but then it’s always some underhanded, underlying stuff.”
Like Steward, Dickerson believes that whites are simply afraid.
“You can see there’s still that little scaredness in them and it’s like, why you scared? Why should you be scared for, if we’re all trying to get along and we all want better things for our kids?” Dickerson says. “You have some people that say ‘hello, how you doing?’ and what kills me is they don’t think that people are going to be friendly. But when they see it, then it’s a smile.”
The problem, according to Dickerson, starts even before residents move into the community, as stigmas portrayed in the news surrounding majority-black neighborhoods such as Bed-Stuy contribute to an unwarranted level of fear. “We have Block Watch, neighborhood watch, all that, everything still exists here. But they act like it doesn’t. They act like ‘oh cause you’re in this neighborhood, oh it’s predominantly black,’ [that] we don’t care about what goes on, and it’s not the truth.”
“Criminals don’t have no color [in mind], if they’re gonna rob somebody, the color is green. They’re gonna rob or burglarize where they know they can get money from,” adds Dickerson. “We try to show people we’re not those people that you always claim us to be.”
He brings his cigarette to his top lip, which is outlined by a thin mustache. He takes a long pull from his cigarette before letting the smoke out of his mouth.
“I want my kids to grow up just like your kids,” Dickerson reiterates, flicking away his cigarette. “I want my kids to grow up and say that’s my friend, and that’s my friend.”
Life After Death
Pressed on the front of the dark-brown canvas awning that neighbors Cle’s barbershop, bubble-gum pink letters form the words “Heavenly Crumbs,” and “BOUTIQUE BAKERY.” Stars and circles of that same pink hover above each letter like the errant accent marks of level-one French students. A miniature tin watering can dangles in the front window among pink, yellow and green decorations leftover from Easter.
Shannon Pridgen, the founder and owner of Heavenly Crumbs, opened the bakery on Franklin in 2006. She is older than she looks, with vibrant hazelnut skin. A large smile reveals a slight gap between her front teeth. She wears a pink bandana over her dark curly hair and a plain, off-white t-shirt. Pridgen, who has a degree in Pastry Arts from the Institute of Culinary Education, specializes in decorative cakes, such as the portrait of Langston Hughes she designed for the Museum of Natural History. “I really wish I had a picture of that cake,” Pridgen says, lathering her newest creation with a layer of vanilla frosting. Pridgen’s other inventions include a sculpture of a record player for R&B duo Ashford and Simpson, and a beaded Victorian wedding gown for the Macy’s Bridal Showcase. This past December she even helped New Jersey rapper Treach celebrate his birthday with a Naughty by Nature cake.
“Everyone loves baked goods,” says Pridgen, a Bronx native.
One of Pridgen’s goals when she first opened the bakery six years ago was to create an environment that everyone in Bed-Stuy could enjoy equally. “I wanted to create a sense of community,” said Pridgen in her feature as a Google AdWords Success Story.
However, Pridgen says that white people who move into the neighborhood only associate with other whites and do not necessarily embrace Bed-Stuy for its unique character. Instead, they look for the neighborhood to conform to their own needs. Pridgen also feels that white residents generally do not support the various black-owned businesses in the area, failing to acknowledge that, like Dough, Bed-Stuy residents and non-residents of all races patronize her business. There is no typical Heavenly Crumbs customer. As Pridgen says herself, everyone likes baked goods. Nevertheless, Pridgen, who says she looks at the U.S. through the lens of it being a racist place, is not open to the influx of new residents.
“I don’t think [gentrification is] inherently good. I think it’s a change and you decide on a personal level whether it works for you,” Pridgen says. “As long as it works for you there is no questioning of the system. People of color are losing their homes disproportionately to whites. Is that not racist?”
When asked directly whether Heavenly Crumbs has contributed to the gentrification of the neighborhood, Pridgen adamantly disagrees. Yet, gentrification involves mutual dependence, as many new residents are attracted by trendy businesses, which in turn come to rely on these residents for their business. As with Bouchon, many businesses open purely because the neighborhood has in fact changed. Still, Pridgen does not believe that businesses are responsible for the downsides of gentrification. Rather, she affirms that businesses such as Heavenly Crumbs build community and attempt to bring people together. Whether the new residents choose to take advantage of this opportunity, she says, is out of her hands. Regardless, Pridgen is happy to serve Bed-Stuy, which she feels benefits from Heavenly Crumbs.
“When you grow up in a neighborhood without amenities, this is a wonderful thing to have,” says Pridgen. “Even if you don’t use the services, you can appreciate it as a beautiful edifice, as a safe haven. It lights up the street.”