Bed-Stuy’s Changing Fabric: More Color But Less Cover?

As watchmen of the community, Bed-Stuy natives are the best narrators of gentrification’s outcomes. Two of the first things they point to are the disappearance of familiar faces and a shift in the neighborhood’s cultural fabric.

A core part of Bed-Stuy’s cultural fabric is neighborhood familiarity, where people know your name on the block and have seen you grow up, something that is often lost with the proliferation of high-rise developments. Longtime residents and their stories, community centers and historic buildings all contribute to Bed-Stuy’s essence.

Bedford-Stuyvesant, with its pristine architecture and rich history, for years has been a cultural epicenter for black culture. Today “The New Stuy” is more diverse, with varied ethnic groups and a host of new businesses to accommodate the changing climate.

The additions to the community may have increased the quality of life as it did the cost of living – all factors that increase the value of the neighborhood. However, many residents complain about downsides, for example, the departure of long time neighbors due to rent increases, and the closing down of many of their favorite businesses.

Experts say that the new transition in businesses can alter the “authentic diversity” of a neighborhood. Sharon Zukin, Brooklyn College Professor and author of Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, said, “Regardless of the good intentions of [the] more affluent, better educated new residents, they drive up the costs of housing and change the kinds of goods and services that a neighborhood offers.”

Zukin notes that it is less about race and more about social class tastes. “Whether it’s organically grown kiwis or expensive lattes, the tastes of this higher social class impose themselves as the ‘authentic’ cultural tastes…”

After more than 10 years abroad, Johnny King, an original Bed-Stuy native, returned home and was struck by the vast change in the neighborhood. King described his experience as “cultural shock” as nothing he knew or remembered seemed the same. Foreign looking businesses and high-rise buildings now replace the original businesses, local restaurants and even an old memorable community center.

“Whites and educated middle-class blacks are moving in, and driving up the cost of living,” King said.  Pointing his finger at me, he asked, “How much do you pay for rent?” At my reply, he said, “See that’s exactly what I mean. Why would a landlord have cheap rent when people like you are willing to pay more?” King believes that it’s a good thing the neighborhood is increasing in value, but realizes that the new stores, businesses, and dwellings are for the new residents.

Gabriel Edemodu, a nine-year resident and owner of Just Bright Laundry at 275 Nostrand Ave., has seen a full transition in the neighborhood.

“When I first moved here … there were only two bodegas, an Allstate Insurance Business, and a Chinese take-out place, and my place,” recalled Edemodu.

Today his block is flourishing with new businesses, and the neighborhood demographics are noticeable different. “Back then you’d never see a white person walking down Nostrand [Avenue].”

In the span of a few months Edemodu has gained two new neighbors, a vegan deli and a French Dry Cleaners that was a small family owned grocer four months ago.

There are undoubtedly new and great businesses arriving in Bed-Stuy, although happening in small pockets. On a stroll one can encounter a fair mix of “both Bed-Stuy’s,” such as high-rise condos, liquor stores, Internet coffee shops, soul food restaurants, and Chinese take-outs where workers are shielded by bulletproof glass.

As Bed-Stuy undergoes change some of its newcomers add a nice flavor to the existing neighborhood character. On a Saturday evening I can watch a play at the historic Billie Holiday Theater, and afterwards take a short trip to India by dining at the new Bombay Heights Indian Restaurant. On Sunday mornings elderly women adorned in church hats still greet me, little girls still jump double-dutch, and I can spend the afternoon shopping for organic goodies at the thriving farmer’s market.

My experiences suggest to me that Bed-Stuy isn’t in any immediate danger of losing its cultural essence, but can we be too sure of its future? What will happen if massive “redevelopment” comes knocking?

King who sees old Bed-Stuy residents as the “home team” and the new residents as “visitors” thinks that the owners of preservation of the black heritage within the Bed-Stuy community lie in the principles of ownership, cultural maintenance, and community taught to the youth. “We have to shift their interest [from] things that depreciate to those that appreciate.”

“The only thing that will preserve the authentic diversity of neighborhoods and of the city as a whole is rent controls that enable people to stay in their homes if they want to,” said Zukin.

What do you think about Bed-Stuy’s changing cultural fabric?

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