MY OLD NEIGHBORHOOD
Golden Days of My Bed Stuy
By Ron Howell
IT WAS 1962 or thereabouts, lunchtime on a sunny day, and I was walking from my grammar school, Our Lady of Victory, to my home on Jefferson Avenue in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Strolling several feet ahead of me were two police officers.
The officers noticed the black Chrysler sedan of my grandfather, the late Bertram L. Baker, with its low-number license plate and State Assembly shield, parked in front of the house. One of the officers glanced at the car, and then turned his head to the beautiful, single-family brownstone where I lived with my mother and grandparents.
"Must be somebody's chauffeur," he said.
That remark, cold and clipped, woke me to a harsh truth about the way whites, especially the police, perceived the neighborhood in which I grew up. Where I saw beautiful homes, and yards where children played marbles and slapball, they saw a ghetto. Where I saw people who worked as train conductors and salespersons and doctors and lawyers, they saw the residents of a ghetto.
Don't get me wrong. I don't mean to say that mine was the childhood of "Leave It to Beaver. " The scourge of gang warfare that took hold of the city in the late 1950s struck fearsomely in Bedford-Stuyvesant. When I was about 11, I listened intently with a group of friends as a skinny little teenager who lived a block from me regaled us with tales of battles with rival gangs. I wondered how much was fiction and how much fact. Within a year came the news he had been shot to death in a street fight several blocks away.
The violence committed by a few seemed to become a convenient excuse for the city's police, who appeared to write off communities like Bedford-Stuyvesant as morally intractable and unworthy of protection.
When I was about 9 years old, I saw a policeman from the 79th Precinct stand in a grocery store and observe coldly while an enraged black woman repeatedly swung a long kitchen knife at a black man. As a crowd gathered and tried to subdue the woman, the white grocer locked the glass door to his store. He and the officer stood and watched until the violence ended.
The reaction of that police officer was part of a continuum of neglect and disdain that afflicted the neighborhood for many years. It was, after all, Bedford-Stuyvesant where rogue police officers from the 77th Precinct during the late 1980s stole drugs and beat people up. And to this day there are complaints that police routinely stop and frisk young black men in the community.
There is a numbing quality to this, in its persistence. Back in the 1960s, when I went to Brooklyn Preparatory, a Jesuit-run high school in the then mostly white Crown Heights section, I was one of about a dozen blacks
among 1,000 students; and for all four years I was the only black in my class.
In a free-wheeling social-studies class, I once tried to explain to students from Bay Ridge and Long Island
that the standard rules of justice didn't apply in my neighborhood. I told them that black-on-black crime was seen as inconsequential, and I even brought in as evidence a book entitled "Bedford-Stuyvesant," in which the author stated that blacks who murdered blacks generally spent no more than six months in jail.
My assertion was met with disbelief and hostility. "Give me a break," one kid said sarcastically.
My affair with Bedford-Stuyvesant runs deeper than the on-again, off-again hostilities with which it has left me. In wistful moments, I'm transported to the summer streets where I and my partners used to walk toward Bushwick, challenging other boys to games of stickball. We also had a hardball league, organized by my grandfather, and I played first base every spring and summer.
My affection for Brooklyn goes back even beyond my birth, to my maternal grandmother who was born in downtown Brooklyn in 1901 to immigrants from the Caribbean island of Nevis. She and my grandfather, who came from Nevis as a teenager, were among the first blacks to move into the area later to be called Bedford-Stuyvesant. That was back in the early 1920s, when it was a largely Irish, Italian and Jewish neighborhood.
During the course of those roaring years, my grandfather Bert Baker became an accountant and then a politician, and in the 1930s he and my grandmother purchased the three-story home on Jefferson Avenue where my mother and her sister grew up, and where later I was raised too. In 1948 my grandfather was elected to the State Assembly and thereby become the first black person elected to office of any kind in Brooklyn.
One block to the west of the Bakers' home, in another Jefferson Avenue brownstone, my father and his brothers and sisters were reared by their parents, who had immigrated from the island of Barbados.
My mother remembers the 1920s and '30s as the early and golden days of black Brooklyn. Lena Horne (see photo) came to the house as a teenager and used to play with the family dog, Jambo. My mother's sister was pals with a little boy by the name of Anatole Broyard, nicknamed "Buddy," who would go on to become a writer of note for The New York Times, passing as a white person.
By the time I came into the world, Bedford-Stuyvesant was entering what many considered to be a decline. One-family homes were being broken into apartments and rented out to families who had moved from elsewhere in New York City and from the South. And nearby public housing projects turned into lower-income enclaves, where gang fighting and later drugs became troublesome.
THE FEW WHITES who still owned grocery stores, candy stores, pharmacies and cleaners packed up and left the neighborhood after the riots of 1964. Having lived through it, I can understand why those disturbances were called rebellions. From the safety of my home, I heard gunshots ringing out through the night and the smashing of store windows. An older friend was shot in the leg by police as he allegedly tried to help himself to the wares of a shop near Fulton Street.
That episode was a sort of watershed for me. Soon I was off to college in Connecticut and then to jobs and prolonged visits in other cities around the country and the world.
In recent years, I returned to Brooklyn with my wife and child, and we bought a home in the historic area near Prospect Park called Lefferts Manor. My grandfather died in 1985, my grandmother in 2001, and my mom and I now care for the Bedford-Stuyvesant home that our family bought more than 70 years ago.
The crack years of the late '80s ravaged Bed-Stuy as it did other areas of the city, but that era has come and gone.
The neighborhood is home these days to a new cadre of professionals and other strivers, many of them white; and pressure is being placed on many old guard black residents by the forces of gentrification.
Sometimes as I walk or drive through Bed-Stuy I imagine – no, I see – redevelopment projects being erected side by side with those wonderful brownstones that are like ancient galleons in ever-shifting waters. And I envision – no, I see – curiosity shops and boutiques of the Park Slope variety, competing in my mind with memories of people who once lived there.
I've lost touch with most of the old crowd. But I no longer fret, because many oldtimers are coming back, in ways that are both dreamy and literal, as they profess to see good in changes taking place in the old neighborhood.
Every night, however long, is followed by a dawn.