Meet the Residents of MacDonough Street

Photo: Francis Agyapong for New York Magazine

If these brownstones were on a white block they’d be going for $3 million.

—Patricia Bramwell

Tap to see price history of home

Patricia Bramwell, 74Current Owner, Retired Psychology Counselor, Former City Human-Rights Commissioner.

Moved from: Bed-Stuy

History: Bought her house with her mother for $29,000 in 1968. Her nephew now lives on the top floor.

I had some reservations about doing this interview because this isn’t gentrification. This may be re-gentrification. This block is not deteriorated and to call it gentrification would be kind of racist because it assumes this block is deteriorated based on the fact that the people who live here are black, even though they’re just like anyone else who’s middle class, black or white. But if these brownstones were on a white block they’d be going for $3 million. We didn’t move on the block until ’68, but I was born and raised in Bed-Stuy. My mother was born and raised in Bed-Stuy, my grandmother was born where NYU is, and my great-grandmother was born in the East Village. 

I was living on Hancock Street, four or five blocks from here. My mother was looking to buy, and a doctor had the house. The first floor was his waiting and examination room. We came by and he liked the family and he even reduced the price because he thought we would be an asset to the block. About $29,000. He could have gotten $35,000 — I guess my mother said what she could pay. She worked for the city, as a school-lunch manager. Back in those days people knew each other because there weren’t but so many Negroes in the area. When I came out of grad school a year later, I took it over. I was at Fordham University School of Social Work, then a psychological counselor at City College — I retired young, as an assistant professor, in 2000. I was there for 30 years.

It used to be five generations of us alive in Bed-Stuy. Now it’s just down to me. Growing up if you lived on this side of Gates Avenue you were considered on the good side of the tracks. Some of the gangs … I can’t remember if the El Quintos lived on that side, or the El Quintos lived on this side and the Frenchmen … I guess [the gangs] just faded. They dealt with the guys more, if Francis went over into their territory they would either chase him or tried to get you to join. Sometimes your parents said, “Well, why aren’t you dating so-and-so?” because they wore a tie and they were nice, and you’d look at your mother and say, “Uh-uh.” That was the leader of the gang. They would come through the block, tip their hat, stop cursing. And you didn’t really date because we had social clubs that served the same purpose. We would meet and have bologna sandwiches or tuna-fish sandwiches. And your little soda or punch, playing whist.

Your mother could see me doing something and slap me upside the head in the street or come home and ring my bell, tell my mother, “I saw Pat doing so-and-so.” I do it — I don’t hit kids, but I will chastise them or correct them in the street. And some teenagers. You know it’s something I do automatically if I feel comfortable. Sometimes if the young people are cursing, I’ll turn around and give them a look and you can tell their home training because then they’ll apologize, “Oh, I’m sorry, Miss.” Or I can say, “Wow, when I was growing up, black men didn’t act like that. They didn’t curse around women and children.”

I remember I had to teach a freshman workshop over the years. One of the assignments was “Why do you want a college degree?” and the answers you’d get back most times were “want to move to a better neighborhood.” One day, I don’t know what was wrong with me, but I said, “You know, it amazes me most of you are saying you want to move to a better neighborhood. I pray that you all get your degree and move, because the houses are beautiful — it’s the people in them, and that’s you: You’re writing the graffiti, you’re selling the drugs. So when you move, my neighborhood will go back to the way it was when I was growing up.” I thought the students would report me to the director. They didn’t. When I came back the next week I said, “You know, none of you challenged me.” One student raised her hand and said, “Maybe it’s because what you said is true.”