Remember that Billy Joel song from 1980, ‘You may be right, I may be crazy’? To illustrate his being a “lunatic” he sang that he was so crazy he even “walked through Bedford Stuy alone”.
Well, that was over 30 years ago so I assumed, as Coco and I set out to have our own walk around the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant – or Bed-Stuy – that things had changed.
My assumption was correct. It’s no longer ‘do or die Bed-Stuy’, famous for crack and crime, but an ‘up and coming’ area attracting a middle class who like the strong community feel – and no doubt the fact that you can rent or buy a beautiful old brownstone here for way less than neighbouring Park Slope.
Before we wander, a quick history… Started out as the village of Bedford, meaning “place where the wise old men meet”. Expanded to include an area called Stuyvesant Heights and the two joined to become Bedford-Stuyvesant. In the 1900s African-Americans migrated here from the South followed by West African and Caribbean immigrants. Long been a centre of black culture – music, art and film (Spike Lee shot various flicks here, including ‘Do the Right Thing’) as well as being active in fighting for equal rights.
Part 1: Place of artists and where old men meet
Bed-Stuy may not be as dodgy as it once was but apparently it still isn’t all roses; a 2011 article I read proclaimed that the area still had a highish murder rate and a bad drug trafficking problem. “Best”, it said, “to avoid wandering aimlessly through the neighborhood.”
But aimlessly wander we did. Not down the street a kindly shop owner told us to “steer clear of” – the one with the temporary police tower on the side of the road. But everywhere else across the sprawling neighbourhood.
Didn’t set eyes on a single murderer or drug trafficker. Instead we met perhaps the friendliest community of people we’ve met so far in NY. From singers and wanabee singers to old men chewing the fat…
Part 2: Equal, sort of
On one of our visits to Bed-Stuy we stumbled on a family birthday party for nine year old Arkeen. While Coco busied herself in a game with some of the girls I got chatting to one of the mums, Sa’uda – and somehow we started talking about the issue of racism.
Her grand-mother, who was inside the house with the other family members, had come to the neighbourhood in 1963 as part of the ‘Great Migration’ from South Carolina to escape the segregation and racism down there.
So did racism still exist, almost 50 years later and in enlightened NYC, I asked Sa’uda?
Sa’uda, who works in mental health, told me about the recent case of a 12 year old African-American boy who was innocently mucking around in a junk yard when he was shoved against a wall, hand-cuffed and taken into custody. There were no charges but as a result of the trauma he ended up in a psych unit for a few weeks. He’s only just started to be able to go outside again and still he can’t look at a police officer without breaking into a sweat.
In the South, Sa’uda explained, the segregation is obvious. In NY, it’s not – but yes, it still exists. She told me that mums of black boys have to educate their sons at a fairly young age about the way things are – that they have to behave in a certain way to protect themselves against the racism as best they can.
The congregation from the Seventh Day Adventist Church we met when we explored Crown Heights had all said similar things. But still it shocked me – yes, in the South I’d expect it but in NYC in 2012?
But things were improving, Sa’uda said. Nowadays most of the kids have good self-esteem and question the way things are rather than just accept.
Sa’uda struck me as hope personified. She grew up in hard-core East New York, not far from Bed-Stuy. But she took herself off to college on the Upper East Side, a place that many living in her neighbourhood at the time didn’t even know existed. Now she is passing on her positive attitudes to her own children as well as helping kids like the 12 year old – surely with every generation things will improve?
Part 3: Cooking up a storm
Walking along Nostrand Avenue, one of the main streets in Bed-Stuy, we stumbled on a new cafe called Paris Dakar specialising in French crepes. Inside was Thierno, the owner and crepe chef. A quiet man, I only learned his story when his friendly assistant told us… Thierno arrived from Senegal 15 years ago speaking not one word of English. Just two months ago he opened his own cafe and it’s going gang-busters. He supports his immediate family who live here as well as his extended family back home – his mum, aunties etc. – and has done so ever since he arrived in NY. The American Dream come true?
On another visit we came across a very different scenario, but one that still involved food and commerce. Khem, originally from Jamaica, was smoking out half of Bed-Stuy with his jerk chicken that he sells for $15 a pop. But his neighbours didn’t mind one bit – because Khem’s jerk chicken is worth being smoked out for. I say this with certainty because he gave us a taste of his famous chook – damn fine.
The secret? The Pimento wood he uses to smoke the chicken that comes all the way from Jamaica, and of course his special, secret, magical ‘rub’ – the marinade.
From what I could gather Khem cooks sporadically. But he doesn’t need to tell his neighbours when his chickens are available – the smells wafting over the airwaves do that just fine. They come a-runnin’.
BBQs are clearly the go in Bed-Stuy. On another visit we met fellow BBQ-er, Kevin, whipping up some fish for he and his wife, Georgette, who was due home from work any time. There was so much fish on the grill I thought perhaps he was also running a side business like Khem, but no, they were just for he and his wife – “She’s a big eater”.
Georgette turned up while Kevin and I were chatting. Another incredibly friendly, warm Bed-Stuyer.
Part 4: Sunday in Bed-Stuy
Which means one thing – church.
We stuck our heads into the loudest one going – Mount Sinai Cathedral, a Pentecostal church of God in Christ. AKA, loud and lively. I wasn’t allowed to photograph inside but the place was jumping with a full blown band going all out and people dancing behind their pews. I loved the atmosphere but Coco could only stand it for a minute – “Mum, I’m going outside, it’s a bit too loud and crazy for me.”
When I came back out I noticed one of the ushers, who help people to their seats, looking through the main doors. It was Flossie, a dedicated church member who first visited the church at 25 and is still there 50 years later. When I asked her, does her faith ever waiver, she replied, “Well, when I was younger it did but not anymore. Men don’t always treat you right but the Lord does, always.”
We left Flossie to her faith and wandered around to see who else we could find.
To be honest I was keen to explore Bed-Stuy because I’d heard that it had a lovely stock of beautiful brownstones in the section called the Stuyvesant Heights Historic District. But instead of just finding some nice old buildings I found the most amazing community. I swear everyone we walked past – black, white, young, old, professional, working class – they all said hi and smiled. If I had questions, they happily stopped to answer them.
Life may still not be perfect in Bed-Stuy, maybe far from it, but whatever happens they’re all in it together.
On the ‘home front’
My head has been swirling this week. I realised as much as I love NY, it’s not going to last us until the end of the project, which is another 18 installments (18!). But where to go? It does depend on budget but I’m thinking a few more North American cities (Chicago, Memphis, Miami) and maybe somewhere in South America (Mexico City or Buenos Aires). I’ve even put Tokyo or Osaka back on the table, having moved on a little from my former worries about the radiation threat.
Anything jump out at you? I was also thinking Hawaii – because all most people know about the place is that it has nice beaches. But then maybe that is all it has…
Anyway, at the same time as all that travelling around the place in my head, Coco and I have had to up sticks a few times this week, leaving our West Village apartment to stay with our lovely friend Chris on the Upper West Side via his gorgeous family in Brooklyn. We need to rest our heads in one place for at least a fortnight before we shuffle off again.
This suburb has been brought to you by Nicole Lenord and Derek Leddie
See you next week.