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The Tipping of Jefferson Avenue

On a single street, brownstone by brownstone, gentrification and race are colliding, making Bed-Stuy locals wonder what kind of block will be left when it all shakes out.

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James Tripp and Carmen Maldonado, new owners of 598A Jefferson.  

When Graham and Blu decided last summer to leave London for good and make their way together in New York, their first order of business was to find a place to live—not some transitional shoebox, but a long-term address for themselves and Blu’s 12-year-old daughter, and for their children yet to come.

In the West Village, where they’d been renting, families would emigrate before the second child arrived because “no one can afford a three-bedroom,” says Graham, a 37-year-old filmmaker with a wiry energy about him. “So there are no kids the same age as ours. We want her to be part of a neighborhood.”

One Sunday last September, the British couple—he’s white, she’s of Jamaican descent—took a short hop on the A train to an open house on a leafy block in Brooklyn. They found a gem of a four-story brownstone, circa 1899, with all the Victorian trimmings: waist-high wainscoting, rococo fretwork, twelve-foot ceilings, a trio of fireplaces with carved-oak mantels. “It just felt like home when you walked in the door,” Graham says.

After the obligatory bidding war, Graham and Blu, an event producer, won the day with an offer of $820,000. Given the fever in New York real estate, the price hardly turns heads . . . until you register the address: 593 Jefferson Avenue, in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant. The expatriates were moving to a place long perceived as New York’s quintessential inner-city slum—and now, abruptly, as the hottest turf this side of Dumbo.

Gentrification is a loaded term with fault lines traversing race and class at oblique angles. The shorthand formula for this phenomenon—of wealthy white intruders displacing less-privileged black residents—fails to convey the complex reality on the ground in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The newcomers here are not so monolithic, the old-timers not so easily pushed aside.

Within Brooklyn Community District 3, the generally accepted borders for Bed-Stuy, the 2000 Census found a white population of only 1.4 percent, most of it clustered along the western fringe of the neighborhood, near Clinton Hill. While that figure has since climbed substantially (as morning rush hour at the Utica Avenue station will attest), the influx of the affluent remains to this point a largely black affair—and some longtime residents hope it stays that way. They are wooing the black professionals who no longer jump at some fantasy life in the suburbs or that $2 million rowhouse in Cobble Hill. They do not need white people to validate their neighborhood as desirable, much less rescue it.

“This neighborhood has come back,” says Brenda Fryson, the co-founder of a civic group known as the Brownstoners. “And it’s not because white people have come here but because of the tenacity of the people who have lived here all along.”

Fryson’s argument has some historical credence. Unlike Harlem, which was swallowed almost whole by white absentee landlords, Bedford-Stuyvesant has been anchored by black homeowners dating back to the early-nineteenth century. Attachments run particularly deep on Jefferson Avenue between Lewis and Stuyvesant, where Graham and Blu now make their home. Extended families put down their stakes between 60 and 70 years ago, passing houses from one generation to the next. There are people on the block today who were literally born in these brownstones, or held their wedding receptions on the sidewalks and street.

As the block’s grapevine spread the news about the sale price of 593 Jefferson, people reacted with astonishment, and with a worming question: Where do I fit into all of this? They wondered if the families who stood by Bed-Stuy through the hard times—through white flight and urban renewal (known here sardonically as “Negro removal”), through the crack epidemic and the media’s bashing the place for blood sport—might now be squeezed out and forgotten.

As Gloria Boyce sees it, the real-estate boom is “terrible, because our young people can’t come back.” A community activist who has lived in a lavishly detailed house at 583 Jefferson for most of her 70-plus years, Boyce has no plans to take the money and run. “When they take me out of here,” she says, “they’ll take me to the undertaker.” At the same time, she agrees with an estimate by Colvin Grannum, the energetic president of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, that the more attractive parts of her neighborhood—“brownstone Bedford-Stuyvesant”—might be 50 percent white within ten years. “That’s right, because you know why?” asks Boyce. “Nobody else will be able to afford to buy it.”

As prices zoom, the specter haunting this community is Fort Greene, where working-class residents—and especially black working-class residents—have been shouldered aside. For now, Bedford-Stuyvesant seems a long way from such concerns. There are few slow-food restaurants, few shops of note. Among a sampling of recent home buyers on Jefferson Avenue, none fit the yuppie stereotype of two briefcases, a nanny, and a yearning for Gramercy Park. In addition to Graham and Blu, the roster includes two other mixed couples (one Dutch and Caribbean, one African-American and Puerto Rican); a law professor and a communications executive, both black Hispanics born in Panama; a single white male who works as a photographer; and a black female pediatrician.


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