The Tipping of Jefferson Avenue

James Tripp and Carmen Maldonado, new owners of 598A Jefferson.Photo: Joseph Maida

When Graham and Blu decided last summer to leave London for good and make their way together in New York, their first order of business was to find a place to live—not some transitional shoebox, but a long-term address for themselves and Blu’s 12-year-old daughter, and for their children yet to come.

In the West Village, where they’d been renting, families would emigrate before the second child arrived because “no one can afford a three-bedroom,” says Graham, a 37-year-old filmmaker with a wiry energy about him. “So there are no kids the same age as ours. We want her to be part of a neighborhood.”

One Sunday last September, the British couple—he’s white, she’s of Jamaican descent—took a short hop on the A train to an open house on a leafy block in Brooklyn. They found a gem of a four-story brownstone, circa 1899, with all the Victorian trimmings: waist-high wainscoting, rococo fretwork, twelve-foot ceilings, a trio of fireplaces with carved-oak mantels. “It just felt like home when you walked in the door,” Graham says.

After the obligatory bidding war, Graham and Blu, an event producer, won the day with an offer of $820,000. Given the fever in New York real estate, the price hardly turns heads … until you register the address: 593 Jefferson Avenue, in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant. The expatriates were moving to a place long perceived as New York’s quintessential inner-city slum—and now, abruptly, as the hottest turf this side of Dumbo.

Gentrification is a loaded term with fault lines traversing race and class at oblique angles. The shorthand formula for this phenomenon—of wealthy white intruders displacing less-privileged black residents—fails to convey the complex reality on the ground in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The newcomers here are not so monolithic, the old-timers not so easily pushed aside.

Within Brooklyn Community District 3, the generally accepted borders for Bed-Stuy, the 2000 Census found a white population of only 1.4 percent, most of it clustered along the western fringe of the neighborhood, near Clinton Hill. While that figure has since climbed substantially (as morning rush hour at the Utica Avenue station will attest), the influx of the affluent remains to this point a largely black affair—and some longtime residents hope it stays that way. They are wooing the black professionals who no longer jump at some fantasy life in the suburbs or that $2 million rowhouse in Cobble Hill. They do not need white people to validate their neighborhood as desirable, much less rescue it.

“This neighborhood has come back,” says Brenda Fryson, the co-founder of a civic group known as the Brownstoners. “And it’s not because white people have come here but because of the tenacity of the people who have lived here all along.”

Fryson’s argument has some historical credence. Unlike Harlem, which was swallowed almost whole by white absentee landlords, Bedford-Stuyvesant has been anchored by black homeowners dating back to the early-nineteenth century. Attachments run particularly deep on Jefferson Avenue between Lewis and Stuyvesant, where Graham and Blu now make their home. Extended families put down their stakes between 60 and 70 years ago, passing houses from one generation to the next. There are people on the block today who were literally born in these brownstones, or held their wedding receptions on the sidewalks and street.

As the block’s grapevine spread the news about the sale price of 593 Jefferson, people reacted with astonishment, and with a worming question: Where do I fit into all of this? They wondered if the families who stood by Bed-Stuy through the hard times—through white flight and urban renewal (known here sardonically as “Negro removal”), through the crack epidemic and the media’s bashing the place for blood sport—might now be squeezed out and forgotten.

As Gloria Boyce sees it, the real-estate boom is “terrible, because our young people can’t come back.” A community activist who has lived in a lavishly detailed house at 583 Jefferson for most of her 70-plus years, Boyce has no plans to take the money and run. “When they take me out of here,” she says, “they’ll take me to the undertaker.” At the same time, she agrees with an estimate by Colvin Grannum, the energetic president of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, that the more attractive parts of her neighborhood—“brownstone Bedford-Stuyvesant”—might be 50 percent white within ten years. “That’s right, because you know why?” asks Boyce. “Nobody else will be able to afford to buy it.”

As prices zoom, the specter haunting this community is Fort Greene, where working-class residents—and especially black working-class residents—have been shouldered aside. For now, Bedford-Stuyvesant seems a long way from such concerns. There are few slow-food restaurants, few shops of note. Among a sampling of recent home buyers on Jefferson Avenue, none fit the yuppie stereotype of two briefcases, a nanny, and a yearning for Gramercy Park. In addition to Graham and Blu, the roster includes two other mixed couples (one Dutch and Caribbean, one African-American and Puerto Rican); a law professor and a communications executive, both black Hispanics born in Panama; a single white male who works as a photographer; and a black female pediatrician.

Yet to many of Jefferson Street’s poorer residents, the newcomer’s race is immaterial. When a family’s rent is tripled to defray a fancy mortgage, or a buyer wants the house delivered vacant (a common scenario of late), the eviction notice isn’t color-coded.

The irony of Bed-Stuy is that it was gentrified from the start. Built around the turn of the twentieth century for swells like F. W. Woolworth, the housing stock was unparalleled: 6,000 vintage townhouses, half again as many as in Park Slope. Even after the swells had moved on to richer pastures, Bedford-Stuyvesant remained a harmonious, multiracial community, producing the likes of Aaron Copland, Isaac Asimov, and Norman Mailer—as well as Lena Horne, Floyd Patterson, and Richie Havens.

But when the blockbusters and red-liners sucked the capital from central Brooklyn in the mid-1900s, the people who stuck it out had little money to renovate those stately neo-Grecs and Romanesque Revivals; investors who bought them sought a fast buck with minimal outlay. Disinvestment did many terrible things to the neighborhood, but it also spared Bed-Stuy from the curse of modernization—from the architects with an itch for Italian Nouveau, or the contractors who chipped away at history on the Upper East Side until there was little left.

As late as 1950, the neighborhood was 50 percent white; by 1960, only 18 percent. Just that fast, a place changed—a reminder of how quickly it might change again. For Bedford-Stuyvesant, the fifties were not so sleepy after all. They heralded the exodus to suburbia on the new L.I.E., the buffeting by parasitic brokers and non-lending banks, the initial slackening of city services, and the first-phase dumping of the locked-out poor. In a conventional retelling of the inner-city story, that’s the end of Bed-Stuy’s golden era: when the white people left. We’re led to presume that it was all downhill from there, a nosedive into poverty, decay, chaos, murder.

But it wasn’t that way at all on Jefferson Avenue between Lewis and Stuyvesant. Even through the infamous blackout of ’77, the block stayed mostly unruffled. There was the occasional boarded-up property, but rarely two at a time. A break-in or car theft was huge news. The last white people on the block were gone by the late seventies, but the core of black homeowners never left: the chauffeurs and barbers, the teachers and transit workers, radio emcee Joe Bostic, and a great doo-wop singer named Adam Jackson, whose Jesters once beat all comers three straight weeks at the Apollo.

As late as 1950, Bedford-Stuyvesant was 50 percent white; by 1960, only 18 percent. That fast, a place changed—a reminder of how quickly it might change again.

The children kept graduating from Boys and Girls High School, and on the block they learned to behave. Margaret Cobb, who came of age at 612A Jefferson in the sixties and later moved back, recalls that “everybody raised the kids.” Until she turned 17, her curfew, strictly enforced by her mother, was timed to the streetlights; when it got dark, Cobb got home. If she lost track, she could count on old Mr. Slater calling, “Margaret, you supposed to be out now?” For young people on Jefferson Avenue, it didn’t matter if their parents were watching from their stoops or stuck working in some office or factory; there were always eyes on you. The teenagers might complain, but it was a good feeling. A safe feeling.

To be sure, the block raised its share of wild kids and lost souls—even its own gang, headquartered in a burned-out building before the lot was cleared for a Head Start playground. The Hellcats had zip guns at the ready to protect their turf, but any action went off the block, to some alley or park. “You didn’t just go and fight in front of your elders,” says Emory Moore, now 43, the fourth of five generations in his family to live at 574 Jefferson. “These were the people who watched you grow up.”

Even the hardest gang members enlisted in the local Scout troops and practiced for touch-football showdowns against teams from Macon or Hancock Street. Football evolved into a sort of informal asphalt league for bragging rights, with parents cheering from their stoops. During a home game against Putnam, Audrey Butler overheard an opposing receiver cursing in frustration. She knew him well; the boy’s mother had been her daughter’s third-grade teacher. She certainly wasn’t about to let him get away with it: “Billy, you play all the football you want, but you don’t come around here cussing!”

“I don’t remember what I said, but it contained some rather spicy language,” confesses William C. Thompson Jr., now the city’s comptroller. “I remember Audrey giving me what for. There was a sense of what was acceptable and what wasn’t.”

Most of the parents of those days were but a generation removed from towns in the rural South, where you greeted your neighbors each day and counted on them, too. Transplanted, those families reestablished their communality on Jefferson Avenue. Midway between the atomization of high-rise life and the insulation of the suburbs, a brownstone block fosters an ideal social density. When people know everyone around them and share the same concerns (street cleaning, snow removal, the welfare of their children), they grow naturally interdependent.

The block faced its sternest test in the eighties, as crack succeeded heroin as the inner-city pandemic. Brenda Fryson says, “Crack was like an atom bomb.” A walk to the A train became a slalom through a street-corner bazaar, and the block took some young casualties. But a line was also drawn here, as some entrepreneurial tenants found when they tried to run a “candy store” in one of the block’s low-slung garages. After brazenly leafleting their grand opening, the dealers arrived on the appointed morning to find their path barred by half the block association: working men and women, high-school students, and mothers with strollers, all picketing in the rain. Carl Butler is still indignant. “You bring that crap in here,” he says, “bad things are going to happen to you.” The picketers returned the next morning, and the next. The candy store never opened.

With a bit of hindsight, Bed-Stuy’s current vogue seems predictable—more, inevitable. During the past decade, Brooklyn became the ambitious young urbanite’s destination borough, a trend born in the dot-com bubble and secured by 9/11 and our shattered assumptions about “safe” neighborhoods. By the late nineties, brownstones on the better blocks in Park Slope and Fort Greene had already swept past a million dollars. First-time buyers were priced out of Boerum Hill and Prospect Heights. Pressure built from just west of Bed-Stuy, in Clinton Hill, and from the north, where the Hasidic community had outgrown Williamsburg.

Not least, there was Bedford-Stuyvesant’s intrinsic value—its rare architecture and nigh-ideal location, less than fifteen minutes by train from Wall Street. In the end, all that buffered the neighborhood from real-estate mania—all that kept a nice townhouse as low as $200,000 into the late nineties—was its felonious reputation, along with a general reluctance among white home buyers to dive into an identifiably black neighborhood. But as the brownstone craze crested, crime fell throughout New York. In the 81st Precinct, which contains the eastern half of Bed-Stuy (including Jefferson Avenue and the landmark district of Stuyvesant Heights to the south), the tally of murders, robberies, rapes, and felonious assaults plunged 64 percent between 1993 and 2003. Rooftop handgun practice became a rarity; dealers moved their trade indoors or went out of business.

As a whole, Bedford-Stuyvesant remains one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods. In relative terms, crime is still high; with fifteen homicides in 2004, the 81st ranked among the worst in the city. But as in many neighborhoods, one’s sense of security is a block-to-block proposition. In the precinct’s muster room, a street map was pocked with colored pins marking the past year’s most serious crimes: homicides of any stripe plus all shootings, with or without fatalities. Of some 75 pins, 45 were clustered in the map’s southeast corner, near Atlantic and Saratoga, and another ten or so around the Roosevelt Houses, in the north-central part of the precinct. But in the south-central quadrangle of 25 square blocks most coveted by the new gentry, there were but two pins: a nonfatal shooting on Putnam and a domestic strangulation on Bainbridge. There were no pins on Graham’s block on Jefferson Avenue, nor along his pleasant eight-block stroll to the A train.

Five years after Bedford-Stuyvesant was hailed in the Times as “Brooklyn’s newest investment region,” the neighborhood has grown into the hype. Although middle-class amenities are sparse and the schools mostly substandard, Bed-Stuy’s image is beginning to mold to its softer reality. Real-estate agents will tell you that the neighborhood is undervalued even now. There is no great untapped brownstone quarter beyond Bed-Stuy. Bushwick has been devastated by arson and abandonment; Brownsville and East New York were tenement districts from the get-go. Bed-Stuy, so long reviled, may represent the last best chance for the urban version of the American Dream.

It’s a handsome block, this stretch of Jefferson Avenue, with its high, regal stoops and bay windows. Atop a scaffold, a Bangladeshi mason scraped away at loose stone from one façade or another; he had several customers here, new owners shoring up their investments. William C. Thompson, the comptroller’s father and a former state senator and appellate judge who grew up on Putnam, snatched 593 Jefferson from foreclosure last May, sight unseen, for an estate sale price of $330,000. At the time it was occupied by young men who claimed to be distant relatives of the deceased owners, and idled inside and out at all hours. It was the block’s problem house.

After a soup-to-nuts restoration estimated at more than $200,000, Thompson gave the listing to his stepson, Bill Ross, a Halstead broker based in Brooklyn Heights, who made his own leap of faith and set the asking price at $795,000, nearly half again as much as any house had ever sold for on this stretch of Jefferson. Before Graham and Blu had their bid accepted, Halstead’s open house drew prospects from Manhattan, New Jersey, Park Slope. A man from Bloomberg News. A pair of indie fashion auteurs. Neighbors were atwitter at a sighting of Courtney Sloane, interior designer for Sean Combs and Queen Latifah. One couple—originally from Pennsylvania—phoned from their home in Russia. Furman Calhoun, the sales agent, called it “a really mixed group … a rainbow coalition, I guess you could say.”

In the Thirties, a postal worker named Walter Taylor bought a brownstone at 598 Jefferson. He had an enviable job for a black man during the Depression, and his wife, Viola, believed that property held the key to building a family’s wealth. While raising nine children on the block, Viola set out to acquire a house for each child—beginning with the two next to their own, at 598A and 600, to be used for rental income. After Viola died in 1998, at the age of 99, it fell to one of her daughters to sell all three houses on Jefferson. The family’s private home would be the first to go.

Meanwhile, Ton Dejong was house-hunting with his fiancée, Leslie Wade, and their two young daughters. A fortysomething native of Rotterdam, the international-relations analyst was renting in Fort Greene, an area well out of their price range by 1999. When his landlord tipped him about a house on Jefferson, Dejong drove out to investigate. The house in question—across the street from the Taylor bloc—wasn’t right, but Dejong was impressed by the friendly neighbors.

Wade had her doubts. Though she’d lived in Harlem for three years and felt comfortable there, she’d heard nothing good about Bed-Stuy. “Whenever you saw something in the newspapers about Bedford-Stuyvesant,” she says, sitting in her country-size kitchen, “it was some kind of criminal activity.”

Dejong prods her: “It might not be comfortable to talk about, but you were concerned about my being of the Caucasian persuasion.”

Wade: “I thought that there could have been some tensions because he was a, quote—”

Dejong: “—interloper.”

Wade: “Ton is very special.”

Dejong: “Yeah, I’m special in the sense that I’ve lived in Africa and I’ve lived in Haiti, so I don’t have any—”

Wade: “—fear of black people.”

Dejong: “Exactly.”

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.

The Tipping of Jefferson Avenue