feature: the new brooklyn: gentrification through the eyes of 4 clinton hill natives

March 26, 2014

I stepped out on the corner of St. James and Fulton Street wide-eyed and confused. I had no idea where I was. Never mind the fact I’d spent 15 years walking these streets, and living just above the now vacant karate building. My elementary school was around the corner. The corner store I went to before work had become a gourmet deli. The flower shop I passed by in the spring time on my way to the Laundromat had disappeared 6 months ago, only to be replaced by something the community desperately needs; another coffee shop. The nail on the coffin wasn’t the influx of new faces, but the arrival of the new organic grocery store. My childhood neighborhood, the rap legend The Notorious BIG’s neighborhood, had changed hands overnight.
In light of the recent comments on gentrification in Clinton Hill by film legend Spike Lee, I went out to my old area, off St. James and Fulton st. to find out just what the people of that neighborhood felt about the effects of gentrification. A large number of people turned me down, but from that, I met 4 amazing men that agreed to share their thoughts.

By Gyasi Williams-Kirtley, AFROPUNK Contributor *
Photos by Jasani Jacobs

Akhmed inside Fine Care Pharmacy on Fulton and St. James

How long have you lived in this area

Going on 15 years.

What do you think about the changes to this area?

Some of it is good some of it is bad. We got gentrification and all that. Now they’re starting to do things they weren’t doing before and then out of that they’re weeding out some bad elements so there’s some good parts and some bad parts.

What have you seen?

Number one, basically more business are here that weren’t here before. Number two; well we all know the rent went up. Some of these properties people could have been getting back in the 80s for 40 thousand dollars are now over a 100 thousand dollars. But some of the nice parts are that this has become a multi-cultural neighborhood, you know. You have all nationalities from not only people moving from Manhattan, people coming in from out of state, even out of the country, so that’s a good thing.

Do you feel safe?

That’s a kind of funny question. I’m always safe. I don’t care where I’m at. The heart of Brownsville, I’m safe. The Bronx, I’m safe. Harlem, I’m safe [laughs] Let me not talk about me. I think more people in general feel a lil bit more safe a little bit more police protection which there wasn’t before. They’re really monitoring this neighborhood more patrols, more cameras.


What else. The new generation that came here! We got white folks. Before we wasn’t doing that. Before police response time was slow, now response time is quicker. You gotta understand this. When they come to pull somebody over…we have racial profiling at high over here and we all know it’s because of the new class of people that came in.

Is that a negative or a positive?

I see it as both. People are people. You only got two types of people. You got good people and bad people. That’s it. Color does not have nothing to do with it. You get yourself caught up like that ‘oh we got the while folks, this and that’ …no. It’s only two types of people again. Good people and bad people. Bring that with you to the bank.

I deal with a multi-cultural situation as a Muslim. I know people all over the world Bangladesh.. North, West Africa, China, when I go to prayer I look and see every nationality. Some of them are good some of them are bad too so you can measure a good person by where ever he’s from some people are crooked against you cuz’ you’re you! You’re born here. The people who’s been here are gonna use that as an excuse. So that means you’re having a rough time because they came in? This should be motivation. What are these people doing? They go to work everyday, they do this they do that. You need to get in that kinda mode, except you standing on the corner.

Sammy inside the beer section of Met grocery store

How long have you lived here?

All my life.

How long has MET been here?

My family has been here for over 50 years.

How do you feel about the changes to this area?

It’s for the better in a way. (Whispers) It’s a lot of white people….(Laughs)

It’s changed in a way. It’s gotten safer and property value went up.  A lot of old flocks are moving out of the neighborhood.

What’s the general attitude of the people you see and interact with?

Pretty cool. Some have stink attitudes, but they’re pretty cool. Everybody has their days. The good is its very safe now. It’s not like back in the day. I was safe for me, but lets say an outsider, someone who wasn’t from the neighborhood, walked into this neighborhood years ago, let’s say 89-90…I’ve heard stories. I’ve seen people come and go. I’ve had friends of mine that hung out on the corner, and either they’re dead, in jail or thy changed their lifestyle.  If they changed they either work for sanitation, or police officer…so I think it a overall change for the best.

Jamal Quyyun and his son in Fulton Bikes.

How long have you been here?

We opened this shop 3 years ago.

Do you live in this area?

No. I live in East New York. I used to live down here about 30 years ago. I used to live on Clinton between Fulton and Atlantic. I used to never come up this way. There was nothing up this way except storefront churches and candy stores, nothing that would draw you to it. This supermarket (MET) used to be a beverage distributor, and then it became a supermarket, I don’t know if it’s the same owners but I remember it as being a beverage distributor.  So there was really no reason to come to this part of Fulton st. And then on the other side, before they built the Atlantic terminal that used to be meat markets, and rats, and drugs and…prostitutes sorry to say. Oh my gosh, it was depressing. And what about Bed-Stuy?

The start of Bed-Stuy really hasn’t changed that much. Except for the people with the brownstones, you could get these brownstones for like…a lot of them were abandoned, but you could get them for like a couple hundred thousand dollars. The neighborhood has changed in the sense that the type of community that’s here now, it’s a lot better; there are still a lot of original people here, but with change there is some friction, but …I’m happy about it. This bike shop used to be here in the late 90’s and it could not sustain itself because of the type of area it was. I mean biking wasn’t that big a deal in the late 90’s because then, subway fares were a dollar, now subway fares are $2.50. During the now storm I had to ride the train during the snow, I’m like ‘Whoa’, I could not do that on a constant basis. 5 bucks a day, you know, what is that? 40 -50 dollars a week, I don’t know how people can stand that.

Do you feel safe?

I’ve never felt unsafe in Brooklyn. Never. In any part of Brooklyn.

What are the cons to the changes in this area?

That difficult to say, I’m a positive person. Once you’ve been on other areas you find that other areas have different attitudes and its only people the populations are the same. Montreal, and it’s a city but it’s so clean… It’s unbelievable clean, but you can’t do that in New York because ever neighborhood is different. You can’t expect that. So what you except has to change. Race. Class. It has that effect. So if you compare Brooklyn to lets say Detroit or Philadelphia, DC, Baltimore and other urban situation like that, there all gonna have issues and how its handled is always different. You can’t take one set of answers and put it someplace else. Everyone’s attitude is different. As each building becomes available in terms of an opportunity for an entrepreneur there’s like any number of people coming around here seeing what they can do.

So it’s a creative hub?

Yeah. Yeah. What is it…the tide lifts all the boats? I guess it has that effect.

Sam Penn in his office at Fort Greene Senior Citizen Center

How long have you lived in Brooklyn?

I’ve lived here in Bed-Stuy for 79 years. We’ve been here 40 years. I’m one of the foundering members of the Brooklyn council.

Have you seen a lot of changes in the neighborhood?

Absolutely. At one time this was an all black community. Now it’s probably 60-40. 60 percent black, 40 percent white, and it’s changing a part of I suspect the gentrification process going on all over Brooklyn, and probably all over the country.

How do you feel about gentrification?

Well, you know, gentrification if another form of racism. It’s displacement unfortunately, economic displacement. People are forced out the community because they cant afford to live here, for no other reason than the fact that rents and property values have risen to the point where they cant afford to stay here so they have to move out the community, out of Brooklyn, probably into other communities and the process sort of repeats itself. As I mentioned, it’s not just happing in Brooklyn, its happening across most urban areas in this country and in other places over the world. England, France, Germany, you see similar patterns that have taken place. It’s unfortunate.

40- 45 percent of African- Americans are earing somewhere between what is considered poverty wages. That’s say about 25-30,000 dollars a year. Then you’ve got another 45 percent that are so called middle-income folk, who are earning anywhere from 40-70,000 dollars a year. Maybe 2 or 4 percent are earing an access of that who are upper income, upper-middle class wage earners. So when you look at the larger white population who have just maybe 10 percent o the hole population earning poverty wages of 15-30 thousands collars and 75 percent are already so called middle income, so their earning anywhere from 25-70 thousand a year, so therefore you would find may more of those people who can afford to live in neighborhoods where the rent is raised. Those who cant afford, they will have to move eventually.

What I find interesting is that black people who own property here, they bought the property in this neighborhood lets say 50 years ago, how much would a piece of property run back then? Around 25 thousands dollars. Maybe 30 thousand at the most. Today, if I were to sell that property, in some places is worth close to a million dollars. So I’d be tempted to sell it. On the other hand I might say “Well, I’ll save it for my kids” I have two kids. One living in Chicago, one living in Houston, or wherever they are, or maybe their down the street, but most instances they have mobility, they go to school, they find a job wherever they find a job, and their gone. Their living wherever their living and chances are their not necessarily gonna want to uproot themselves from where they are and come back here to live so, what happened to that property? In all likelihood they will probably sell it to somebody who can afford to pay a million dollars. If I sell it for a million dollars, where am I going?

I mean what would you do if you had a million dollars and you’re 70 or 80 years old?  Who would I sell it to? How many black folks can afford a million dollars to buy the house? So who whose it gonna go to? Some white person who has a million dollars. or that can get a morgage for the house, and that house, that has black tenants, their gonna be forced to move. They paid a million dollars for that house, they can’t charge 60 dollars rent. They gotta charge 3,000 maybe, and that covers their cost.

Where do you see the youth in relation to gentrification?

Have you been to Williamsburg ? Greenpoint ? Take a look around. a lot of young people. You go there on a Friday, Saturday night they street are covered with people just your age. Most of them are white and there are a few blacks that hooked up with white people, engaged or whatever they are. I incited this observation. Two Steps Down, which is a black owned restaurant, has been around for at least 40 years. The woman who owns the restaurant owns her building so there’s no chance of her being forced out. She has a great restaurant. If you walk into her restaurant, it’s nobody but black folk. She makes enough to make a living off her restaurant, there’s no question about that, but I‘ve never seen any white folk in there on a regular basis, All around her you see people waiting on line to get into all these other places- I’m talking about white people now- and I even see black people standing on some of these lines, so when you ask where do I see young people in this, I see that their caught up in the magic of the moment.

Who knows where Peaches is? I’ve lived there for 79 years. I’m right across from Peaches. You realize there were four other restaurants in same location before peaches opened? All owned by African Americans. None of those places succeed. This white man moved in there with his black partner. Craig. But Craig is never in there. Only with the hammer and the saw (laughs) I used to frequent the place. The woman who first opened it she owns the place down the street called Akwaaba Mansion. She first opened it as a restaurant. It didn’t do well. She sold it to somebody else and that person tried their thing, and then that didn’t work out for somebody else bought it. All black folk, buying these restaurants. Then finally Craig and the other fella got the place and before you knew it white folks were poring in there and the black folks were following right behind them. You see, soon as white folks come into a place, it says it’s legit, like this must be the place to be. They do 40 to 60 people an hour. You can’t go past there and its not ¾ filled. I’ve been in there twice since they opened 3 years ago. I’ve never went back. I refuse, just on that principle that four black owners had this place and these people wouldn’t come in here! They wouldn’t come near the place! They boycotted it like it was the plague.  The food and stuff was good as far as my taste. (laughs)

You see the place right on the corner? Samantha’s? How many people are in there? It looks like a new place. It’s pathetic. But you go down the block to Outpost and you can’t get in there! you go across the street, although that’s a bar, that place you can’t get in there. Summer, winter, you cant get a seat. My point is white people go to places…..you see….we’re here, we got jazz. we do jazz here every Friday night. we’ve had Wynton Marsalis, the top names in Jazz in here, and I can count the number of white people on a regular basis and were been doing jazz for 25 years. 25 years and you can count the number of white people that come in here. Why ? All this stuff on the walls. Images. Black images. They’re intimidated by it. When white folks take over this we’ll see a different culture. So that’s gentrification in a nutshell. It’s not nice. It’s ugly. It’s nasty.

* Gyasi Williams- Kirtley on Twitter: @thedominusg