By ROBERT GARCIA
Mshari Whaley remembers what it was like.
“I use to collect the crack bottles on the street, because I liked the colors as a kid,” said Whaley, 27, a lifelong resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant who lives in a brownstone on Hancock Street with her daughter and boyfriend. Whaley grew up in Bed-Stuy “do or die” days, its low point as a high-crime neighborhood in the late ’80s and ’90s.
As crime rates dropped, the value of the neighborhoods brownstone housing has since soared. That has made for rapidly increasing rents, forcing out not only long-time residents but putting pressure even on those who arrived recently.
Whaley lives in a building that her boyfriend’s stepfather owns, which means that mail often arrives with suggestions from real estate agents to sell the property – a sign that “blockbusting” could be re-emerging in a new form. During the changing times and social atmosphere of the 1950s, real estate agents visited neighborhoods in central Brooklyn spreading the message that black residents would soon be moving in, bringing down the market value of homes. Real estate agents would make offers to take homes off the hands of white home owners, then turn around and sell them at much greater prices.
The brownstones of Bedford-Stuyvesant stand along the streets like soldiers, warriors that refuse to fall. Renovated, re-vamped, and remodeled are among the words being used to describe homes and apartments being marketed for the “new” Bedford-Stuyvesant, which has swanky restaurants and artsy cafes on a landscape once marked by abandoned buildings and rundown bodegas.
Paula Crespo, a community and economic development planner from the Pratt Center for Community Development who deals with changing communities all over the country, said cost-of-living increases are pushing out Bedford-Stuyvesant’s low-income residents.
“Rent and real estate costs have gone up, for sure. Food prices have gone up too, but I think that’s for somewhat different reasons as they’ve gone up in much of the country,” she said. “I suppose one could say that food prices have gone up in Bed-Stuy if you are considering new food stores and/or newly emerging food items that appeal to people of higher incomes.”
Crespo said that real estate brokers and developers are marketing the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant to people of a higher income and are contributing largely to the gentrification process. “Retaining the existing affordable housing stock as well as creating more units of affordable housing will be important for ensuring the Bed-Stuy’s low- and moderate-income population,” she said.
Once rundown homes are now being restored to their splendor. A neighborhood that had been predominantly African-American is seeing a great number of whites moving in, attracted by charming streets lined with trees and the prospect of a great home. From 2000 to 2010, Bedford-Stuyvesant saw an increase in the white population from 2 percent to 10 percent, while the black population decreased from 69 percent to 49 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Now I actually have white neighbors,” said Whaley, who can’t recall seeing any when she was growing up. “The abandoned buildings were bought up by white people. There is more unity instead of poverty now.”
This unity is reflected in the “hoodster” trend, which mixes hip hop and hipster styles into an eclectic new form of fashion. But the new businesses and eateries that arrived in recent years typically cater to clients of a larger wallet size than the long-time residents carry. Bed-Stuy is seeing a massive increase in the cost of living to match its new appearance.
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Diana Knight has lived all her life within the neighboring areas of Clinton Hill and Bedford-Stuyvesant. Knight’s father, who was raised in Bed-Stuy, worked as a professor for the Pratt Institute and lived on the Clinton Hill campus with his family during most of Knight’s childhood. Knight witnessed first-hand the gentrification of Clinton Hill and recognizes where the recent changes in Bed-Stuy are heading.
The new businesses and residents are a welcome addition, according to Knight. At 26, she lives on her own in a studio apartment on Vernon Avenue and fears that she may soon not be able to afford living in Bed-Stuy.
“People who are opening businesses here are not African-American most of the time and are not trying to attract people who are living here but the ones moving in,” she said. “They are excluding these lifetime residents.” As the cost of rent rises around Knight, she holds on tightly to her apartment and her good relationship with her landlord.
According to Sharon Zukin, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, every critical sociologist believes gentrification destroys the culture of a community and displaces the people and the businesses in it. As neighborhoods around New York City are being gentrified, the number of affordable apartments is decreasing, not leaving enough for the people who need them, according to Zukin. The people most vulnerable are renters, especially because the number of apartments protected by rent control or rent stabilization is rapidly decreasing. The rising rents will make it impossible for many people to live in New York.
“The dynamic of gentrification always destroys the existing culture of a community,” Zukin said. “But does that form of gentrification destroy black culture or just update it?”
The ever evolving culture of Bedford-Stuyvesant has welcomed the addition of Caribbean and Muslim traditions; this is evident in the restaurants and stores throughout the area.
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When Zachery Starkey headed to New York City from Columbus, Ohio, his first move was to Bedford-Stuyvesant three years ago and he has been living there ever since. Starkey appreciated the neighborhood when first arriving, though it could be a bit rough in certain areas. He welcomed the inexpensive lifestyle of the area as well as the family-owned and -operated small businesses.
Although Starkey so far is a short-term resident of Bed-Stuy, he is annoyed at the changes in the cost of food and in the cost of dining at restaurants in the immediate area. Starkey expresses anger towards the new residents moving in, saying they believe the neighborhood should change to fit them.
According to Starkey, the transplants moving in cannot even afford the fictional lifestyle that is being promoted by such media influences as the “Sex and The City” franchise. “They expect the neighborhood to adapt to them. These ‘yuppie’ people don’t expect to be a part of the community,” said Starkey. Starkey recalls an observation a friend of his made that resonates with him – that a lifestyle and an identity are costly in New York City.
“The neighborhoods are drastically changing, making it harder for people to keep up and prepare for the increase in cost of living. We are still in a recession and the city is not lessening the stress on residents either,” said Peter Nelson, a music industry professional who moved from Long Island to Bedford-Stuyvesant, looking for a neighborhood that was at once progressive and affordable.
After less than three years he has already experienced two big annual rent increases. There have been large scale remodeling projects around him as new buildings and businesses appear.
Nelson said he will not be able to afford his apartment any longer if the rent goes up again. “I feel that the gentrification that is happening in Brooklyn is helping it lose its cultural flare that made it such a unique place to live in before,” he said. “I feel that the wealthy people moving into these once low-income areas who are usually not originally from New York forget that the people who lived there before are suffering because they can no longer afford to live there anymore.”