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The Tipping of Jefferson Avenue

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Yet to many of Jefferson Street’s poorer residents, the newcomer’s race is immaterial. When a family’s rent is tripled to defray a fancy mortgage, or a buyer wants the house delivered vacant (a common scenario of late), the eviction notice isn’t color-coded.

The irony of Bed-Stuy is that it was gentrified from the start. Built around the turn of the twentieth century for swells like F. W. Woolworth, the housing stock was unparalleled: 6,000 vintage townhouses, half again as many as in Park Slope. Even after the swells had moved on to richer pastures, Bedford-Stuyvesant remained a harmonious, multiracial community, producing the likes of Aaron Copland, Isaac Asimov, and Norman Mailer—as well as Lena Horne, Floyd Patterson, and Richie Havens.

But when the blockbusters and red-liners sucked the capital from central Brooklyn in the mid-1900s, the people who stuck it out had little money to renovate those stately neo-Grecs and Romanesque Revivals; investors who bought them sought a fast buck with minimal outlay. Disinvestment did many terrible things to the neighborhood, but it also spared Bed-Stuy from the curse of modernization—from the architects with an itch for Italian Nouveau, or the contractors who chipped away at history on the Upper East Side until there was little left.

As late as 1950, the neighborhood was 50 percent white; by 1960, only 18 percent. Just that fast, a place changed—a reminder of how quickly it might change again. For Bedford-Stuyvesant, the fifties were not so sleepy after all. They heralded the exodus to suburbia on the new L.I.E., the buffeting by parasitic brokers and non-lending banks, the initial slackening of city services, and the first-phase dumping of the locked-out poor. In a conventional retelling of the inner-city story, that’s the end of Bed-Stuy’s golden era: when the white people left. We’re led to presume that it was all downhill from there, a nosedive into poverty, decay, chaos, murder.

But it wasn’t that way at all on Jefferson Avenue between Lewis and Stuyvesant. Even through the infamous blackout of ’77, the block stayed mostly unruffled. There was the occasional boarded-up property, but rarely two at a time. A break-in or car theft was huge news. The last white people on the block were gone by the late seventies, but the core of black homeowners never left: the chauffeurs and barbers, the teachers and transit workers, radio emcee Joe Bostic, and a great doo-wop singer named Adam Jackson, whose Jesters once beat all comers three straight weeks at the Apollo.

As late as 1950, Bedford-Stuyvesant was 50 percent white; by 1960, only 18 percent. That fast, a place changed—a reminder of how quickly it might change again.

The children kept graduating from Boys and Girls High School, and on the block they learned to behave. Margaret Cobb, who came of age at 612A Jefferson in the sixties and later moved back, recalls that “everybody raised the kids.” Until she turned 17, her curfew, strictly enforced by her mother, was timed to the streetlights; when it got dark, Cobb got home. If she lost track, she could count on old Mr. Slater calling, “Margaret, you supposed to be out now?” For young people on Jefferson Avenue, it didn’t matter if their parents were watching from their stoops or stuck working in some office or factory; there were always eyes on you. The teenagers might complain, but it was a good feeling. A safe feeling.

To be sure, the block raised its share of wild kids and lost souls—even its own gang, headquartered in a burned-out building before the lot was cleared for a Head Start playground. The Hellcats had zip guns at the ready to protect their turf, but any action went off the block, to some alley or park. “You didn’t just go and fight in front of your elders,” says Emory Moore, now 43, the fourth of five generations in his family to live at 574 Jefferson. “These were the people who watched you grow up.”

Even the hardest gang members enlisted in the local Scout troops and practiced for touch-football showdowns against teams from Macon or Hancock Street. Football evolved into a sort of informal asphalt league for bragging rights, with parents cheering from their stoops. During a home game against Putnam, Audrey Butler overheard an opposing receiver cursing in frustration. She knew him well; the boy’s mother had been her daughter’s third-grade teacher. She certainly wasn’t about to let him get away with it: “Billy, you play all the football you want, but you don’t come around here cussing!”

“I don’t remember what I said, but it contained some rather spicy language,” confesses William C. Thompson Jr., now the city’s comptroller. “I remember Audrey giving me what for. There was a sense of what was acceptable and what wasn’t.”

Most of the parents of those days were but a generation removed from towns in the rural South, where you greeted your neighbors each day and counted on them, too. Transplanted, those families reestablished their communality on Jefferson Avenue. Midway between the atomization of high-rise life and the insulation of the suburbs, a brownstone block fosters an ideal social density. When people know everyone around them and share the same concerns (street cleaning, snow removal, the welfare of their children), they grow naturally interdependent.

The block faced its sternest test in the eighties, as crack succeeded heroin as the inner-city pandemic. Brenda Fryson says, “Crack was like an atom bomb.” A walk to the A train became a slalom through a street-corner bazaar, and the block took some young casualties. But a line was also drawn here, as some entrepreneurial tenants found when they tried to run a “candy store” in one of the block’s low-slung garages. After brazenly leafleting their grand opening, the dealers arrived on the appointed morning to find their path barred by half the block association: working men and women, high-school students, and mothers with strollers, all picketing in the rain. Carl Butler is still indignant. “You bring that crap in here,” he says, “bad things are going to happen to you.” The picketers returned the next morning, and the next. The candy store never opened.


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