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Haunts

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This was how it was. Everywhere you went, you’d been there before, and even if it looked the same, it was not. In the late seventies, after she became that last little old white lady in the building at 320 Eastern Parkway and moved to a far less mnemonically resonant apartment house in Briarwood, Queens, my grandmother still liked for me to drive her around the old neighborhood, just to keep tabs on things.

“Let’s go to Pitkin Avenue,” Grandma said. Twenty years before, she would take me to the bustling shopping street where my cousin Harold lorded over the projection booth at the monumental Loew’s Pitkin. We’d walk past Dubrow’s cafeteria and the clothing store owned by Abe Stark, the borough president with the famous hit-sign-win-suit sign at Ebbets Field. The joke was Stark would position himself in right field in front of his ad with a mitt, ready to catch any line drive that came near. As always, Grandma would buy two Charlotte Russes, one for me, one for her—sponge cake, pile of whipped cream, and a maraschino cherry in a white paper cup the bottom of which you pushed up with your thumb. It was murder on Grandma’s diabetes, but a tastier, messier madeleine I haven’t encountered since.

“Grandma, you don’t want to go to Pitkin Avenue,” I told her. The street was burned down, boarded up, bombed out. But she insisted. How bad could it be? We’d been to Crown Heights, and Grandma loved the way the Caribbeans were keeping the place up with all those crazy-looking fruits in the stores. That was Brooklyn, culture on top of culture. Pitkin was different. The street was abandoned, empty as after an air raid. The neighborhood hadn’t changed, it had stopped.

I think of this as I go over to visit my 25-year-old daughter, the one who lives on Bedford Avenue, near Greene Avenue, in Bedford-Stuyvesant. From the parental point of view, this new location was irksome. Would it have done any good to remind her that her apartment was three blocks from the Lafayette Gardens projects, where Michael Bowen, a young man her age, was shot to death only weeks before she moved in? Not likely. In that stern gender-studies way she deals with me on these twentysomething daughter-father issues, she said if I was so nervous about the neighborhood, I should just come over.

It didn’t take more than a cursory glance to see what she meant. White people were hoisting $20 bottles of Cigar City Guava Grove beer at places like the Black Swan and One Last Shag, downing blood-orange-glazed doughnuts at Dough, sipping americanos at the Tiny Cup and Bedford Hill, another coffee shop not to be confused with the similarly named Westchester women’s correctional facility that formerly housed the aforementioned Boudin and Amy Fisher. This was not quite the Bed-Stuy I knew, but what did I expect? my daughter wanted to know.

“Face it, Dad,” she said. “Your daughter is a gentrifier.”

She was not thrilled about this, the consequences of her presence in what she called “a historically black neighborhood,” especially one of the best-known and most revered African-American enclaves in the country. She’d spent a year working in an AmeriCorps after-school program with young women in Downtown Brooklyn. She knew what was supposed to happen when someone like her moved onto the block, the way prices rise, the local culture is overrun, and how eventually people, some of whom had been living in the area for years, are displaced, left to fend for themselves in an increasingly inhospitable city that claimed to have no room for them.

But what were the choices? She’d lived in Brooklyn since she was 5, graduated from Edward R. Murrow High School in Midwood, traveled to Utica Avenue to get some glop to dump onto her dreadlocks, sorta/usedta hang out with the squatters at the Bat Cave on the shores of the Gowanus, swam in the Brighton surf. Brooklyn is her home, where she wants to live, at least for now. Not that she was about to crawl back to our house to sit self-loathing in her old room. Free rent wasn’t worth that.

Bed-Stuy was a place where, she said, “people like me live these days.” But what kind of person was that?

“You know. A hipster. A Brooklyn hipster,” she replied with the grim matter-of-factness of someone who had at long last accepted a self-evident truth. “I wear tight jeans. I like indie bands. I enjoy locally sourced produce. I have a degree that may turn out to be useless. I live in Brooklyn. What else am I supposed to call myself?”


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