Ramirez was one of those Puerto Ricans, and he grew up acutely conscious of his bifurcated world. “I was too Spanish for the white community and too white for the Spanish community,” he recalls. When he was 10, his family moved from the mostly Hispanic east side of Broadway to the still whitish west side. In the early nineties, he moved to a New Jersey suburb. But Ramirez kept roots in the neighborhood, commuting to work for the district Rite Aid office and attending Good Shepherd. One day, he heard the checkout girls at a Dominican bakery grumbling in Spanish about how the neighborhood was changing. “I remembered when I was a kid and the white people were talking about the neighborhood changing—only they were speaking English.” Same complaint, different language.
Ramirez detected an opening. “I saw that there was an antiques store now, and a Moroccan restaurant, and I thought, This is something I need to jump on.” He bought the 100-year-old Dichter Pharmacy, where he had worked as a teenager. At times, it looked like a bad call. The recession hit the neighborhood hard. The Moroccan restaurant and the antiques store closed. In 2012, a fire destroyed the block. But Ramirez moved the business a few dozen yards up the street. Soon, the Badger Balm and apple-crumb muffins started to sell, and his poetry slams built a following—mostly from the west side of Broadway, though he’s trying to recruit some Dominican bards too.
With strong feelings about the past and an eye on the future, Ramirez is a one-man neighborhood-improvement center. He knows that the change he’s helping to nurture could one day turn on him, though he draws comfort from the fact that his lease won’t expire (so his rent can’t soar) for another twenty years. He keeps a fatherly eye on local kids and notes the low-margin stores that close and the new bars that force up rents. It pains him to see how few Latinos from the east side of Broadway welcome the new stores, and he knows that goodwill extends only so far. “If they’re a low-income family and they’re walking up the hill, past three or four other pharmacies, to buy Tylenol from me, are they going to go next door to Darling for a $4 cup of coffee? Probably not.” That doesn’t stop Ramirez from steering occasional customers there—until the day when he can feed their soy-latte cravings himself.
Nothing symbolizes the abyss between plenty and deprivation more than their physical proximity. The rapid gilding of Brooklyn has, in places, produced a grotesque companionship of vintage-clothing boutiques and Goodwill stores. Even as Bedford-Stuyvesant real estate approaches Manhattan prices, nearly a third of its residents—47 percent of its children—live below the poverty line. The neighborhood remains a bastion of unemployment, public assistance, and crime, moated by great ramparts of public housing. The old inner-city anxieties—that poor people who know only other poor people are more likely to remain that way—have not disappeared. Only now, instead of being stranded in sprawling ghettos, the poor are confined to islands of deprivation, encircled by oceans of prosperity.
Yet those Dickensian juxtapositions are actually a sign of a city that is doing something right. Subsidized housing helps preserve neighborhoods from a uniform wash of affluence. Chelsea and the Upper West Side—two of the wealthiest districts in the nation—still make room for low-income residents in nycha projects. “Those are neighborhoods where gentrification has been meaningfully tempered,” says Brooklyn city councilman Brad Lander, a staunchly progressive ally of Bill de Blasio’s. And all over the city, developers reap tax benefits by erecting luxury buildings and earmarking 20 percent of the apartments for renters who pay far less than their neighbors. A group of visiting developers from Mumbai was thunderstruck by that custom: They couldn’t imagine why well-off New Yorkers would voluntarily share their enclaves with the poor.
The fact that single-family townhouses and public housing often share the same few blocks gives community organizers a versatile set of tools. Colvin Grannum, the president of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, arrives at his offices the morning after the city has announced a $50,000 grant to help restore a small ice rink that’s been sitting idle for years near the corner of Fulton and Marcy Streets. He had been hoping for a more robust infusion; now he has to raise nine times as much as he’s getting. A staffer greets him with a shot of ambivalence: “Congratulations, I guess.”
Robert F. Kennedy’s children went skating on the Bed-Stuy rink in the seventies, when the area was an encyclopedia of urban decline. “It looked like a war zone,” Grannum says—“a desolate and blighted community.” In the summer of 1964, riots flared at the corner of Fulton Street and Nostrand Avenue, and mounted police shot at looters. Three years later, RFK and Senator Jacob Javits founded Restoration, the country’s first comprehensive community-development organization. Kennedy envisioned a fusion of public funds and private investment that would nurture local, self-reliant businesses: “What is given or granted can be taken away,” he said. “What you do for yourselves and for your children can never be taken away … We must combine the best of community action with the best of the private-enterprise system.”