An Honest Look at Bed-Stuy

One photographer allows his lens to enunciate the meaning of Bedford-Stuyvesant, where the rounded brown belly of a pregnant mother speaks of the future, Muslim women adorned in burkas speak about faith, and the Egyptian hieroglyphs on a rapper’s back pay homage to his ancestors.
Today, Bed-Stuy is more racially, economically and ethnically diverse, and it’s easier to find a vegan deli or yoga studio, but it was still battling the stigma of Bed-Stuy Do-or-Die as recently as 10 years ago. Despite the small world often painted by news accounts or rap lyrics, Russell K. Frederick decided to combat the court of public opinion by capturing the often undocumented essence of the community.

Frederick recalls sitting in a community board meeting in 1999, where attendees predicted the neighborhood would change drastically by 2010 and that rent for a studio apartment would be $1,000. Back then it was a far-fetched prediction, but it has since come true. I sat down with Frederick for a short Q&A to discuss how those predictions have come true and the significance of photography as a means of storytelling.

Q. What inspired your photographic journey into the life and culture of Bedford-Stuyvesant and its residents?

A. Bed-Stuy had a bad connotation. When I told people where I lived, they would twist up their faces and cringe, and I was asked if I had a bulletproof vest and a helmet in my bag. I bookmarked all of these things that people said about my community and what they thought about it opposed to how it truly was.

They saw the shootings on the news and in the newspapers, and in addition to the crime they saw on the news, they developed a perception about the community through rap music.

When I would hear these things, I would just shake my head and laugh. They did not know it was a place of family, community, love, honor, and diverse culture. So, instead of defending the community, I thought it was time to let the pictures speak.

Q. Part of your goal as photographer is to capture the true essence of Bed-Stuy, the largely unknown beauty to counter the lone concept of Do-or-Die, Bed-Stuy. One of your photographs is of Bloods gang members. What does that signify or say about Bed-Stuy’s make-up, and what should it say to the onlooker?

A. That photo happened [organically] when I ran into a young man that I was mentoring who was a part of the Bloods gang. Once he and his friends saw my camera, they all fell in line to take the photograph. They threw up their gang symbols and posed.

I asked them what made them join. They said it was for safety and love. They did not have to worry about getting robbed, jumped or bullied, and by joining they had back up, support…strength in numbers. They felt a sense of safety and love from a lot of the guys. They got things they weren’t getting from home: food, money, and tips on surviving in the streets. After hearing their stories, it made me think about what they were missing at home. It was a gang to the outside world, but a brotherhood to them. I got the sense that these were good kids that really needed some guidance from men.

To the visitor the image will say, “This is real.” This is an issue that we have. The underlying issue is about missing fathers. These young men are gravitating towards one masculine presence they have access to.

Q. Gentrification in Bed-Stuy is multi-layered, but what role does the neighborhood’s historical racial make-up play in that discussion?

A. Bed-Stuy was white at one point, then black people came and the community changed. And now that the neighborhood is evolving, the community is changing again. There is a strong sense of solidarity in the community. We don’t own much, but we take extreme pride in what we do own. It’s always been an uphill battle – we haven’t always had support from banks, police, or businesses.

Bed-Stuy has been the black metropolis on the other side of the bridge. This accomplishment is something that should not be lost or dismissed as the community continues to evolve. But that doesn’t mean we’re not welcoming other racial backgrounds. Bed-Stuy can’t turn into Bay Ridge or Park Slope. That would not be cool.

There are more diverse restaurants and business and that’s embraced, but when police crack down on traditional [pastimes] like drumming in the park because of complaints of “noise pollution,” we have a problem. In general, when people come into a new community, they should try to embrace the culture and not try to change it. There is growth and progress, but when it starts to distance itself from the rich fibers that made it unique… we take issue.

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Q. What story are you hoping to tell through your work?

A.  An honest story of our people. Paint a picture of  how we truly are, how we live, and try to clarify some misunderstandings about our community.

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