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The Tipping of Jefferson Avenue

With a bit of hindsight, Bed-Stuy’s current vogue seems predictable—more, inevitable. During the past decade, Brooklyn became the ambitious young urbanite’s destination borough, a trend born in the dot-com bubble and secured by 9/11 and our shattered assumptions about “safe” neighborhoods. By the late nineties, brownstones on the better blocks in Park Slope and Fort Greene had already swept past a million dollars. First-time buyers were priced out of Boerum Hill and Prospect Heights. Pressure built from just west of Bed-Stuy, in Clinton Hill, and from the north, where the Hasidic community had outgrown Williamsburg.

Not least, there was Bedford-Stuyvesant’s intrinsic value—its rare architecture and nigh-ideal location, less than fifteen minutes by train from Wall Street. In the end, all that buffered the neighborhood from real-estate mania—all that kept a nice townhouse as low as $200,000 into the late nineties—was its felonious reputation, along with a general reluctance among white home buyers to dive into an identifiably black neighborhood. But as the brownstone craze crested, crime fell throughout New York. In the 81st Precinct, which contains the eastern half of Bed-Stuy (including Jefferson Avenue and the landmark district of Stuyvesant Heights to the south), the tally of murders, robberies, rapes, and felonious assaults plunged 64 percent between 1993 and 2003. Rooftop handgun practice became a rarity; dealers moved their trade indoors or went out of business.

As a whole, Bedford-Stuyvesant remains one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods. In relative terms, crime is still high; with fifteen homicides in 2004, the 81st ranked among the worst in the city. But as in many neighborhoods, one’s sense of security is a block-to-block proposition. In the precinct’s muster room, a street map was pocked with colored pins marking the past year’s most serious crimes: homicides of any stripe plus all shootings, with or without fatalities. Of some 75 pins, 45 were clustered in the map’s southeast corner, near Atlantic and Saratoga, and another ten or so around the Roosevelt Houses, in the north-central part of the precinct. But in the south-central quadrangle of 25 square blocks most coveted by the new gentry, there were but two pins: a nonfatal shooting on Putnam and a domestic strangulation on Bainbridge. There were no pins on Graham’s block on Jefferson Avenue, nor along his pleasant eight-block stroll to the A train.

Five years after Bedford-Stuyvesant was hailed in the Times as “Brooklyn’s newest investment region,” the neighborhood has grown into the hype. Although middle-class amenities are sparse and the schools mostly substandard, Bed-Stuy’s image is beginning to mold to its softer reality. Real-estate agents will tell you that the neighborhood is undervalued even now. There is no great untapped brownstone quarter beyond Bed-Stuy. Bushwick has been devastated by arson and abandonment; Brownsville and East New York were tenement districts from the get-go. Bed-Stuy, so long reviled, may represent the last best chance for the urban version of the American Dream.

It’s a handsome block, this stretch of Jefferson Avenue, with its high, regal stoops and bay windows. Atop a scaffold, a Bangladeshi mason scraped away at loose stone from one façade or another; he had several customers here, new owners shoring up their investments. William C. Thompson, the comptroller’s father and a former state senator and appellate judge who grew up on Putnam, snatched 593 Jefferson from foreclosure last May, sight unseen, for an estate sale price of $330,000. At the time it was occupied by young men who claimed to be distant relatives of the deceased owners, and idled inside and out at all hours. It was the block’s problem house.

After a soup-to-nuts restoration estimated at more than $200,000, Thompson gave the listing to his stepson, Bill Ross, a Halstead broker based in Brooklyn Heights, who made his own leap of faith and set the asking price at $795,000, nearly half again as much as any house had ever sold for on this stretch of Jefferson. Before Graham and Blu had their bid accepted, Halstead’s open house drew prospects from Manhattan, New Jersey, Park Slope. A man from Bloomberg News. A pair of indie fashion auteurs. Neighbors were atwitter at a sighting of Courtney Sloane, interior designer for Sean Combs and Queen Latifah. One couple—originally from Pennsylvania—phoned from their home in Russia. Furman Calhoun, the sales agent, called it “a really mixed group . . . a rainbow coalition, I guess you could say.”

In the Thirties, a postal worker named Walter Taylor bought a brownstone at 598 Jefferson. He had an enviable job for a black man during the Depression, and his wife, Viola, believed that property held the key to building a family’s wealth. While raising nine children on the block, Viola set out to acquire a house for each child—beginning with the two next to their own, at 598A and 600, to be used for rental income. After Viola died in 1998, at the age of 99, it fell to one of her daughters to sell all three houses on Jefferson. The family’s private home would be the first to go.

Meanwhile, Ton Dejong was house-hunting with his fiancée, Leslie Wade, and their two young daughters. A fortysomething native of Rotterdam, the international-relations analyst was renting in Fort Greene, an area well out of their price range by 1999. When his landlord tipped him about a house on Jefferson, Dejong drove out to investigate. The house in question—across the street from the Taylor bloc—wasn’t right, but Dejong was impressed by the friendly neighbors.

Wade had her doubts. Though she’d lived in Harlem for three years and felt comfortable there, she’d heard nothing good about Bed-Stuy. “Whenever you saw something in the newspapers about Bedford-Stuyvesant,” she says, sitting in her country-size kitchen, “it was some kind of criminal activity.”

Dejong prods her: “It might not be comfortable to talk about, but you were concerned about my being of the Caucasian persuasion.”

Wade: “I thought that there could have been some tensions because he was a, quote—”

Dejong: “—interloper.”

Wade: “Ton is very special.”

Dejong: “Yeah, I’m special in the sense that I’ve lived in Africa and I’ve lived in Haiti, so I don’t have any—”

Wade: “—fear of black people.”

Dejong: “Exactly.”