Before I moved to New York about 75% of the people I spoke to mentioned gentrification. How disheartening and depressing it is. How being black in Brooklyn can be stressful as fuck because you feel your very way of life is like sand going through an hourglass and you don’t know when that last grain is going to fall. Still my decision to leave Chicago and move to Brooklyn was calculated — gentrification and all — because despite the migration (and forced push) of black people out of Brooklyn, the borough still has some serious numbers when it comes to black population.
I spent my first year in Brooklyn in Fort Greene. Which, I’m told, used to be an artistic black mecca. Erykah Badu used to live there. Chris Rock. And there are still a few black notables. My ex spotted Malik Yoba in the grocery store and, on a separate occasion, riding his bike. Spike Lee is never hard to find (his production company is here, although he lives in Manhattan now, I’m told.) But for the most part, Fort Greene has hit a gentrification tipping point — it’s not a black neighborhood anymore. Just a few days after I rode into town with all my belongings crammed into a Penske truck, an African store that had been on Myrtle Avenue for years was shutting down and moving east for cheaper pastures.
And I did the same when my lease was up, heading east to Bed Stuy. This is the neighborhood that raised Jay Z, Mos Def and Talib Kweli. And, in the spots that aren’t being gentrified, there is a concentrated blackness like I’ve never seen before. Rastafarianism is still recognized and practiced as a religion here. On any given Sunday you can see women in suits and white gloves walking to church. And in the summer time there are waves of block parties, blasting music deep into the night. Some with DJs, contests and even public performances.
One block north of me there are no less than 5 new multi-unit developments that have gone up, I’m told, just in the past 3 or 4 years. On my own block there are 3, with another one currently in development. This makes for a bizarre, oil and water mix of young white professionals looking for reasonable rent by a train, and not-at-all affluent black folks who have lived here for years, consider the block home and do NOT want to be pushed out. And I am somewhere in the middle — with the means to afford the rising rent, but no desire to see the fabric of the neighborhood change.
On a warm Saturday in late August, it was our turn to have a block party. I only knew this because a black man, cupping his hands like a megaphone, walked up and down the block at dawn yelling, ‘Block Party todaaaaaayyyy!’ The police set up blockades at both ends of the street and a few people set up tables outside, as pedestrians and cyclists meandered down our empty block.
Around 4 pm the music started — reggae, Afropop, hip hop and R&B blasting from man-sized speakers. A woman set up a makeshift store in front of her building, selling clothes from her closet. A few guys started a pickup game of basketball. And — thrilled at the once-a-year treat of having the entire street all to themselves — kids rode their bikes, skateboards and scooters up and down the street.
My kids having an absolute blast!
Most of the gentrification on my block has happened on the eastern half, where I live. And as I stepped out onto the street it was like a ghost town. I looked up at the buildings around me. A few people peeked out of their windows, with a mix of curiosity and annoyance, before pulling the curtains.
I walked down to the non-gentrified western half of my block, where longtime neighbors were dancing and greeting each other.
A woman running for local office stopped by and shook hands. Old folks pulled chairs in front of their apartment buildings to take in the festivities.
And half of the block stayed quiet, save a few white people who ventured out to meet their neighbors.
A couple hours into the party a young white woman left her apartment and signaled a truck at the end of the block. The driver of the truck moved the blockade and began backing up, a few yards from where children were riding scooters.
A gaggle of older black folks leapt into action, flagging the driver and telling him to stop.
“You can’t do this. There are babies playing in the street,” an old man explained to the woman.
“I know, but I was supposed to have a couch delivered today,” she replied.
After a few moments of discussion, a couple black men carefully guided the truck to the apartment building, waited while it was unloaded, then led it back out past the blockade. One shook his head as he passed me. “They just don’t understand,” he sighed.
A couple hours later I gathered my kids and headed home. As we walked, my kids still wired off the music and fun, I wondered what the block party would look like next year. Would it continue to be poorly attended by half of the community it was designed to engage? Would it be smaller scale? Would it be ‘Columbused’ and become this hip thing featured on Vice and Buzzfeed? All the scenarios seemed depressing — and very likely.
So what’s a black person who just moved to Brooklyn to do? Enjoy it while you can, I suppose.