From farmland to stately brownstones to battleground for million-dollar bidding wars, Brooklyn’s transformation has fundamentally altered the city’s geography—and the way New York now thinks of itself. It has also altered the lives of the residents who call the borough home. To understand those changes, we dispatched a team of reporters to find a place where Brooklyn’s past and future are next-door neighbors. There were, of course, many blocks to choose from, but we settled on the 400 block of MacDonough Street between Patchen and Malcolm X, a brownstone block in Bed-Stuy close to the Utica stop on the A/C line that’s seen home prices nearly double in just the past five years. Those prices have brought richer and whiter residents to a block that many black families have called home for generations. Some bought in the 1970s and ’80s, at a time when crime and drugs were still rampant, paying just $20,000 or $30,000—which, even adjusted for inflation, is less than a tenth of what their new neighbors recently paid. Others remember when the street was mostly German and Irish and they were the newcomers.
Before it was a block, it was a field—farmland ripe for residential development to meet demand from those German and Irish families, some of whom had live-in servants. But they were not the only early arrivals. At the turn of the past century, Bedford-Stuyvesant, then a middle-class neighborhood, was less segregated than it would soon become, and the first wave of black homeowners and renters on the block, in the 1920s and 1930s, were often from relatively well-off West Indian and Harlem families. Soon, though, the real-estate picture would change dramatically. After a federal program designed during the Great Depression to help guide banks toward safe residential investments gave Bed-Stuy a D-rating (a move known now as “redlining”), in part because it had black residents, the block saw an exodus of white families, who would sell to Realtors sometimes at a loss out of fear their property value would further decline.
By the end of the 1940s, the block was almost entirely black. And yet even as banks and city policies deprived MacDonough of investment, and the surrounding areas succumbed to crime, the block remained a haven, rich with family life and tradition. Neighbors learned to lean on each other. Talk to the children of the ’60s and ’70s, now in their 40s and 50s, like Tushawn Booker and Leatrice Hinnant, and you’ll hear stories of block parties and all-day skully games. The character of the block began to shift in the early aughts, as the city had become markedly safer and Bed-Stuy’s lower housing prices began to draw new homeowners.
By the numbers, the block is now richer and whiter. But what’s harder to capture in a statistic is how those changes have reverberated through the life of the block itself, in the experiences of every kind of resident—how neighbors look out for each other and sometimes alienate each other; how their lives intertwine.
From spring through fall, our reporters knocked on every door, crashed the block party, and hunted through public records to track down and interview 62 current and former block residents. They mined Census data, deeds, crime reports, and other public records. The result shows not just how the block changed by the numbers but also the psychic weight of those changes. You can read and hear the residents’ own stories in their own words as you travel down the block door-by-door. And the many connections between neighbors, memories, history, and sweet-potato-pie recipes are rendered here as literal links, digitally. The stories can be read in any order. Together, they reveal what it means to be neighbors on MacDonough Street, circa 2015, whether one is brand new to the block or still prefers the slate sidewalks, which were paved over in 1976.