Meet the Residents of MacDonough Street

Photo: Francis Agyapong for New York Magazine

I came up a fighter. In this neighborhood, I had no choice.

—James Murray

Tap to see price history of home

James Murray, 55Current Tenant, Construction Worker and Cook

Moved from: Bed-Stuy

History: Started renting here in 1990; has lived in various Brooklyn neighborhoods since age 5.

Both my parents is dead now. But we came from Mississippi, when I was 5. First we was in Brownsville, on Blake and Belmont. From Brownsville we came over here to Bed-Stuy. I’ve been here ever since. I’m 55. I’m dead in the middle — I got four older and four younger sisters. I have three left. Five died. One died of an asthma attack. Another, she died of aids. The oldest sister, she had cancer, just like my mother. And my baby sister, she caught meningitis, runnin’ around out here in the streets and shit like that. That’s another story. 

I was excited to come to New York. In Mississippi, it was the ’60s — there was still a lot of racism. Coming to New York, it was totally different. From this neighborhood, I’d say it was about 16 of us that went out to a school on Avenue X and West Fourth Street, Coney Island. The neighborhood was a white neighborhood. They bused us in, bused us out. I had no problems. 

As a matter of fact, I had a friend. His name was Frank Gallo, and he was Italian. You know, you used to hear stories about the Italians and the blacks. He said, “I would love for you to come to my house for lunch.” We were like 7, 8, 9. I’m thinking about it, like: This could be a trap. Because coming from where I came from, I wasn’t trusting people like that, especially white people — I ain’t gonna lie. But we got to his house, and his mother, his father, his grandmother, his brothers and sisters treated me like I was family: “Hey, you’re Frank’s friend! He talk about you all the time. Sit down. Nice to meet you.” They gave me pasta and meat, and all this. Not everybody’s racist. That’s what I had to learn.

But when I went to junior high, I started getting called nigger and black motherfucker. We had to fight every day to go to school. We used to get off at Kings Highway on the F train. And from train station to the very doors of the school, we would have problems. People would yell at us, call us niggers, this, that, and the third. It kind of flipped me a little bit. I joined the Black Panthers. For me, it was something that was needed. It was as much about protecting my sisters as myself, and the Black Panthers had a lot to offer. Being a Black Panther for life is something that I took on, that I still think is necessary — certain situations, certain times. If anybody feels so oppressed, they’re gonna find a way to get out of that oppression. That’s what the Black Panthers did for me. They got me thinking that I could be and do anything I wanted in this world.

A lot of my friends, when we was coming up, they wouldn’t go to Bensonhurst, they wouldn’t go to Bay Ridge. Me? I’m goin’. I went anywhere: the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island. Because I felt I’m just as part of the human race as anybody, and I can go anywhere and do anything. Some of my friends were like, “How you do it?” I’m like, “How I do what?” They’re like, “You went to Bay Ridge?” I’m like, “Yeah. And I rode my bike. I ain’t had no problem.” They’d be like, “They chased us, or they called us niggers and shit like that.” It depends how you roll.

Now, things change. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t expect you, sitting on my stoop, talking how we are. Not that it couldn’t happen, but I wouldn’t expect it.

Coming up in this neighborhood, being the only boy in a house full of females, I really had to fight, fight for respect. Most of the people that is around my age can tell you that I’m not a pushover, but I’m not a bully. And I can’t explain it no deeper than that, as far as how the neighborhood used to be. But when you go from Broadway, and you’re coming back this way, you’ve got Pulaski, Kosciusko, Lexington, Munro — I know people on all them blocks. I feel blessed. You can see for yourself, people stop and say, “Hey, Murray, man, how you doin’?” It’s a good feeling. We could walk up Malcolm X, and by the time we get like three blocks, I guarantee, you’d be like, “Damn, you know everyone.”