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The Tipping of Jefferson Avenue

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They closed on 598 in December 2000, for $350,000—but only after the Taylor daughter invited them to tea, to make sure they’d be good stewards. That settled, Dejong threw himself into the community. He established the Bed-Stuy Knights, a chess club, and frequented local shops. He found two good jazz clubs and a Lewis Avenue bakery that sells a respectable croissant.

The neighbors have proved as advertised. Mrs. Matthews next door takes in their packages when they are at work. People ring their bell when they forget to move their car to the alternate side. Playdates—rare when Wade lived in Boerum Hill—are here aplenty, and she knows that she can count on at least three other mothers to take her daughters in a pinch.

Early on, people at the corner bodega would make Dejong for a cop: Do you have the time, officer? He had one charged encounter coming out of the subway past midnight, an hour when white people in Bed-Stuy were once assumed to be up to no good. A group of teenagers eyed him suspiciously. One yelled out: “White-ass!” Another demanded what he was doing there.

And Dejong stared back at them and said, “Living!” The youths were “really puzzled,” he remembers, “and that was it, end of conversation.” He walked home without further incident.

The last of the three Taylor houses, at 598A, went to community-development workers James Shipp and Carmen Maldonado, late of Prospect Heights, who paid $490,000 in December 2003. Shipp, who is 34, spent his early childhood in Bed-Stuy, on Macon Street, before moving to Indiana at age 9. Maldonado, 35, was raised in public housing in the South Bronx. In fifth grade, she began commuting to the Brearley School on East 83rd Street, a stranger in a strange land.

Maldonado is light-skinned, even pink-cheeked, and she imagined her neighbors’ thinking when they spotted the U-Haul: Okay—gentrification, white person, there goes the neighborhood! But it was precisely Bed-Stuy’s identity as a mixed-income “neighborhood of color”—with its significant Latin minority—that appealed to her. If the couple needed confirmation, it came on a late weekend night last summer. A disturbance raged across the street, inside a house where the owner died without a will and squatters had taken up residence. The noise got louder as it spilled outside the house. One man was struck with a bottle, and it wasn’t clear what might happen next. Shipp first looked out from his window and then, as a police car swooped in, he moved out to his stoop. He found a heartening sight: a half-dozen neighbors on their stoops, monitoring the situation. There would be no Kitty Genovese on Jefferson Avenue.

At bottom, gentrification amounts to a brutally simple transaction: Those with more edge out those with less. The most vulnerable people in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where a two-bedroom apartment can run $1,400 a month and up, are lower-income renters. With few legal constraints, impatient landlords have used the tried-and-true techniques—no repairs, ample harassment—to rid themselves of undermarket leases. Eviction complaints to the Pratt Area Community Council quadrupled between 1999 and 2003.

We have no way of knowing how many Bed-Stuy tenants have melted away, destination unknown, after investing untold years in their community—people like Jewell Rogers, for example. When Rogers was a girl growing up in Queens, her great treat was to visit her grandmother on St. James Place in Clinton Hill. She loved to gaze at the limestone houses: “It was my dream to own one.” Years later, a single mother soon to bear the second of three sons, she found a third-floor apartment at 631 Jefferson renting for $110. The building was a brownstone, and she was only a tenant, but she felt like she’d acquired a piece of her dream.

That was in 1980. Rogers and her family stayed in that two-bedroom flat for the next 21 years, through two different landlords. “It was a very homey atmosphere,” says Rogers, a clerical worker for JPMorgan. At 61, she is youthful and unguarded, a trim woman who rolls her white cuffs back just so over a red sweater. “There were people starting to enjoy their retirement, sitting out in their front yards reading the papers, just very nice people. I thought my children would be very safe there.”

Her sons made great friends on Jefferson, and Rogers liked the fact that her living-room window angled so that she could track them outside the house. She became close to her next-door neighbors, Jerry Blackshear and her daughter, Stephanie Baugh, and to an older man two doors down—she knew him as “Mr. B”—who rode a bicycle for his heart condition. Rogers joined the block association and worked the annual block parties, running the volleyball games and relay races. She was, simply, a good neighbor.

In the summer of 2001, Rogers’s landlord, a transit worker named Willis Andrews, ran into some bad luck and fell behind on two mortgages. Faced with foreclosure, he called Rogers at work the day the FOR SALE sign went up—“A big shock,” she says. At the time, Rogers’s rent was $550. (Andrews says that he couldn’t charge her the going rate because she’d “stayed there so long she was like part of the family.”) The prospective buyers who toured her apartment were prosperous people all, and it seemed likely that the next owner would take her third floor for family living space. Rogers had no lease—when you’re part of the family, you don’t think you’ll need one. Knowing how Brooklyn’s rental market had skied, she felt panicked. Troy, her youngest son, was 13 years old. Where would they go?

Rogers didn’t wait to be evicted. She and Troy wound up in Bushwick, in a much smaller two-bedroom on Suydam Street at $950 a month. Just off Broadway, where the elevated clatters at all hours, their new block is dimly lit at night, flanked by flat-faced rowhouses with aluminum or asphalt siding. The walk home from Rogers’s bus stop felt queasy, so she switched to a less-convenient train. She says, “This is not where I want to be, let’s just put it that way.”

Troy, now 16, “took it very hard when we left” Bed-Stuy, Rogers says. He visits from time to time to see his old friends. When asked what she misses about her old block, Rogers grabs a tissue and then counts the ways: the quiet and the “calmness”; the winter’s first clean snow draping the Victorian streetscape, when she would pull her boys to the window to look; and, most of all, the close-knit Jefferson community. “I didn’t have a great deal of friends, I had a select few,” Rogers says. “But I spoke to everyone, and everyone was respectful of each other. I had really gotten used to that area and I just fit in so well with them.”

As it’s turned out, the new owner of 631 Jefferson, a black contractor, still rents out the building’s top two floors. Rogers’s old apartment is now home to a single woman, an interior decorator who pays $1,200 a month. In Bushwick, meanwhile, the first harbingers of gentrification are apparent: a toy store converted into residential lofts; the “artsy-looking” white kids now renting above the Broadway storefronts. Rogers says, “You can see the trend coming.”

For ten years after college, Emory Moore lived and worked in glamorous places: first Zurich and Florence, later Chelsea in Manhattan. In 1996, he came back to the place that made him happiest, where he had a vegetable garden and everybody knew his name. He returned to his family’s home at 574 Jefferson, to rejoin his mother and two brothers and a sister-in-law. His grandparents lived next door. “It’s a place where I feel I belong,” Moore says, as he closes up shop at Embora, his stylish dance-and-martial-arts studio in Clinton Hill.

Moore is ambivalent about gentrification. He is thrilled to find—at last—a macchiato and a Times in Bed-Stuy, and the new potential to expand his business here. He is all for diversity on the block: “You learn from each other.” At the same time, he believes that Bed-Stuy needs “to be predominantly black. The part I don’t want is any loss of cultural identity.”

The block’s newest residents feel much the same way. They want a true community, caring neighbors, a stable place for the next generation. Graham purchased 593 Jefferson with the proceeds from his flat in London’s Notting Hill, a vibrant West Indian neighborhood that had just begun to gentrify when he bought there in the early nineties. By 1999, the place had homogenized into a fitting backdrop for Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. The artists moved out; the money moved in. It was a very profitable experience for Graham, but he’s hoping that Bedford-Stuyvesant won’t go the same way.


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