Sundays in Yokohama, I wake up bright and early and play basketball, but Sunday in Bed-Stuy is a holy day. I couldn’t tell you which there are more of in Bed-Stuy: Fire hydrants or churches. When I was younger NY used to enforce Blue Laws on Sunday…grocery stores couldn’t sell alcohol, bars stopped serving after 4am, etc… Some of these laws are still in place, but rarely enforced. Liquor stores still can’t do business on Sundays though. But, I don’t think there’s a bar or club in the city that would survive if they stopped serving alcohol after 4am. Can you imagine Blue Laws in Japan? The whole country would shut down.
Bed-Stuy has some of the most beautiful and oldest churches in the city, and this Sunday morning found me taking a stroll around the old neighborhood, around 10am, trying to find a NY Times. Used to be you could find the Times any time of the day, and The Daily News and NY Post, the local tabloids, would be gone. Now, the Times are missing, too. That’s as clear an indicator of the changing demographics in the community as you can get.
Bedford Stuyvesant has some of the most beautiful architecture in NYC…maybe the entire country. It’s not a boast. It’s a fact.
It’s a very old community and the homes average 100 years old. And these are some of the most coveted homes in the city these days. When I tell my Japanese friends that they are shocked. Old homes in Japan are not desirable, new ones are. The new homes in NY are not worth the cylinder blocks and sheet rock they’re built with. These brownstones were built to last. They were almost hand-built. Limestone, brownstone, intricate detailing and woodwork, fireplaces with painted tiles, stained glass windows, wainscoting, you wouldn’t believe it! On some blocks each house has something a little different about it than the others (See Pics) At the turn of the century (not this one, the previous one) Bed-Stuy was considered a suburb of Manhattan and so most of these homes were built for the affluent who had moved to Brooklyn to avoid the overcrowding and influx of immigrants coming into Manhattan. Ironic eh? Some even have stables for horses, servant’s quarters and dumbwaiters. Unfortunately, if you’re a tenant, and fortunately if you’re an owner or well off, they are very much back en vogue. And virtually exclusive in price already.
I love to look at them. I grew up in homes just like these. Not as an owner unfortunately. They weren’t kept up very well back then. Bed-Stuy had fallen into ill-repair, in every way imaginable. The history of Bed-Stuy is very fascinating, and being a student of it I could tell you all kinds of interesting tidbits, but thinking about them makes me a bit melancholy. So, I’ll pass right now. As I walked around I was overwhelmed by this melancholy.
Around the corner from my house was an old school, abandoned a good portion of my life. Homeless people used to squat in it. Well, no more. It’s a school again. (See below)
I have never been a Christian, but I love the architecture of the churches in my neighborhood, and the sense of community they inspire. Some of them are very old. Take Mt. Lebanon baptist (below)
Notice how it is made of the same stock as the homes, yet is grander at the same time. This speaks to the relationship of the church to the community. I don’t necessarily agree that a community ought to have this kind of relationship with a religion, but it looks great doesn’t it? I wish i had pictures of the homes on that block to show here. I’ll search around see what i can find. It’s one of my favorite blocks in Bed-Stuy. So, while the school represents the changes underway, the church represents just the opposite…steadiness, stability, a “we’ve always been here and we’ll always be here” appearance. Is it a delusion?
There were several new cafes, restaurants and bars along my way. The cafes weren’t Starbucks but had a similar vibe and an equal or higher price. I stopped at one for a cup and seated inside (yappari) was a group of white 20-somethings having a little meeting over coffee and assorted laptops. It reminded me of a cafe I frequent in Yokohama, only here the staff and owners are black. It was a cafe back when I left as well, called Mirrors. it was owned by a black couple I know, a couple of gentrifiers, who also bought a huge mansion around the corner which they converted into a Bed & Breakfast and several other enterprises. Now the cafe is owned by another black couple of gentrifiers I knew in passing. They changed it around a bit. They weren’t in when I stopped by but I could see that business was good.
And they had a NY Times (-:
Change is inevitable. I guess I’m a little conservative. The Bed-Stuy I grew up in had no cafes nor bed & breakfasts’. There were white people but they might as well had been black they’d been in the ‘hood so long. The houses were always beautiful but the security measures defaced many of them, and the need for tenants caused many of the houses to be converted into 2, 3, and 4 family houses, owned in many cases by an absentee slumlord. Gunshots ringing out in the day and night were commonplace, blood trails in the asphalt were not shocking. Drug dealers and users were everywhere. Businesses and services were few; mostly barber shops and beauty salons, grocery stores, liquor stores and supermarkets. Just the essentials, or the parasitic businesses that profit from despair and/or ignorance. But, this was what I grew up in and it became a part of me, so i feel a certain sentimental attachment to that ‘hood, an allegiance, however dubious, to the place that produced me.
So different from the super-clean, super safe, super quiet town in Yokohama where I live now. Where I can sleep with doors unlocked and windows unbarred. Where the only dodgy element in the neighborhood is, well, if you asked my neighbors, is me.
Still, I love Bed-Stuy. I love the old one, and the new one growing from the old, as well.
I’m a little torn, though. Inside me there lurks a gentrifier, too. While most of my friends loved the ‘hood, I actually loved to get out of the ‘hood. My best friend and I were of a similar mind, and we always made out for other locales. it was like a ritual. We’d get whatever we needed for the trip from the hood: weed, blow, whatever… and then head out to areas of NYC where we weren’t especially welcome but were quieter, cleaner, and more picturesque. We called these places sanctuaries. My favorite was Fort Hamilton, a totally white neighborhood out by my favorite bridge, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge (which connects Brooklyn to Staten Island.) We’d go out there and smoke blunts and drink blackberry brandy and talk and laugh about the things that I guess teens talk and laugh about, with a backdrop like this:
I was always kind of an outsider in Bed-Stuy. I knew people, people knew me, I was safe, I understood what was happening, but I always had a vision of something different. I always knew I was destined to do something different, perhaps even special, with my life. My friends and family seemed to sense it, too. I was the first person in my blood line (that I know of…at least going back several generations) to graduate from University. I didn’t feel anything special about it. No special sense of pride. I actually grew up inexplicably feeling that college was one of those things people just did, like get married and have children. Nothing special whatsoever. However, most of the people I grew up with did not share this mindset.
Nor did i think moving to Japan made me special. I just thought it would be a great experience, perhaps inspire me to write. But, my friends and family, well, they haven’t handled it well, some of them…
And it was time to spend some time with the family. Tonight, first up, my little sister and her daughter.