Meet the Residents of MacDonough Street

You want me to pay $12 for a glass of wine and I live right here?

—Karama Horne

Tap to see price history of home

Karama Horne, 44Current Owner, Freelance Video Editor and Writer

A lot of people took the money and ran. I think that I miss that neighborhood vibe. I remember when this bar on the corner was the old Casablanca. It was so sad when Esther, the owner, passed. It was a neighborhood staple. All the old guys used to go in there and sing karaoke. I’m not saying it’s not nice now. But you want me to pay twelve bucks for a glass of wine and I live right here? It’s like I gotta get dressed up to go down the street and have a drink. 

When I found this house, I had an apartment in Fort Greene, and one of the reasons that I left was that it stopped being friendly. On South Elliott, where I used to live, there was this great little corner store and there were these two guys, one was Sikh and the other was Muslim, and they would sit out front and argue about whose religion was better, all day, every day. It was a good-natured argument. They were adorable. But this is what they did. Their families had known each other for years. I would be coming home from work and one of the owners of the store would see me and say, “Hey, we got the almond milk in — we can hold it for you.” At the laundromat up the street, the guy who ran it would give me change, and I’d give him the money the next time I saw him. And the bakery on the block made the best bread. The owner would bring it to me. I was like: You win, everything! Your neighbors would bring your mail to you when it went to the wrong house. It was almost like a small town.

And then all that started to go away. I remember going to a French restaurant with my mother and everybody looking at us when we came in: Who are you? I was like, I live down the street. Who are you? That vibe just kept happening more and more. At one point it was a color thing. Because all of the businesses being pushed out were Latin, Arab, and black. And a lot of the people coming in and buying the property were European. And then I had a lot of neighbors move. A lot of the people I knew weren’t there anymore.

I had several friends who lived in this area. One of them was like, “People are sleeping on Bed-Stuy, and these houses are cheap.” He renovated his place, and he said, “If you’re willing to do a little bit of work, this is a good investment.” So I’m thinking, “Define ‘a little bit of work.’ ”

I started coming over here on weekends and walking around. At that time, trust me, [this neighborhood] wasn’t as nice. There were basically no trash cans at all. The police had removed them from the corners, because I guess they were worried about drug drops. But it’s really hard to tell people to keep a place clean when you’re not giving them a place to put their garbage. There was a pest issue, which attracted a lot of stray cats. At one point in time, it was like Sanitation may or may not come. There were days when you’d come back from work and go, “Why hasn’t this been picked up yet?” Finally, enough people complained, and they got new people on the route.

At the time, a lot of people, my friends, were like: You’re going where? When my mother first came to see the house, she burst into tears. She was like, “Oh my God, it needs so much work! Why would you do this?” Now she loves it. Thirteen years later, I’m tired. Because this is a lot of work. It’s like a child.

Irving Smith, 80Son of Former Owners, Retired Principal Engineer at the Mitre Corporation.

Now lives in: Massachusetts

My mother passed away in ’72, and my father died in ’88. Since I was their only child, I inherited the property, and I kept it for about another 13 years. My mother was born in 1905, in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Black women at that time, generally when they went to a new town or city, would live with other black women in a rooming house. There was a YWCA downtown in Brooklyn, between Fulton Street and DeKalb. She lived there, and I guess she met my father through a social function at the Y. My father’s father, Charles P. Smith, was the last of about ten children born to an itinerant AME pastor by the name of D. W. Smith. Every two years, the family moved from one city to another — Trenton, New Jersey; Springfield, Massachusetts. They lived in Chatham, Ontario; Shelburne, Nova Scotia; Delaware; Pennsylvania. Brooklyn, New York.

Charles P. Smith, grandfather of Irving Smith, on the stoop circa 1960s. Charles owned the house from 1958 to 1988. Photo: Courtesy of Irving R. Smith

My grandfather worked for the post office, and he, my mother, and my father — the three of them put down equal amounts, $5,000 each. I surmise that my mother’s money came from an inheritance, although she worked as a church secretary. My father worked for the subways. He rose from a trainman on the BMT, Coney Island line, to be a conductor. Eventually he took the examination to become a towerman. This was before the automated switching of tracks — a towerman would monitor the progress of the trains on a monitor board with lights. It was a stressful job; my father suffered from shingles. 

On that particular block — the 400 block of MacDonough — my mother was one of the founders of the junior block association. She was very active with youth groups. Among the things that she did was organize them into bowling teams. My mother was also responsible for planting new trees along the curbside, and she was active in the community center at the Nazarene Congregational Church, which is at the Patchen Avenue end of the street.

Now, by the time my parents bought that house, I was already married — I never lived there — but I grew up in the neighborhood.

The area at that time was changing. When I was a preteen, there was a Jewish synagogue down the street, where P.S. 44 now exists. On Monroe Street, there were Jewish shopkeepers. There was Red’s restaurant — the owner, Red, was a redbone black man from Louisiana. There was a Chinese laundry, too. We lived next door to a Puerto Rican family, and a white family on the other side. Curiously enough, I discovered that there were very few black families in the 1920 census in what’s called Bedford-Stuyvesant today. In the early part of my childhood it was shifting from being an integrated community. By the early ’50s it was almost all black.

You noticed it, sure. Even in elementary school. We graduated in ’47 from sixth grade, and there were still two or three white children in the class. By the time I went to junior high, there were none. Then when I went to Stuyvesant High School, in Manhattan, it was totally different. Several of the few black students at Stuyvesant graduated with me in 1952 and when on to distinguished careers. From there I graduated from CCNY, Columbia University, and Brooklyn Polytech. I worked for more than 27 years at the Mitre Corporation. You learn that it’s a competitive society. As long as you do the work and make good grades, you can rise as high as you want. That’s my view — and that comes from the culmination of exposure and experience.