Still Do or Die in Bed-Stuy

Spike Lee captured my neighborhood’s drama on a 100-degree day in the summer of 1989. Today, the heat is coming from foreclosures and layoffs.

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With his gold-plated knuckle rings—“love” on the right hand, “hate” on the left—the large, loud, boombox-blasting Radio Raheem was a perfect big-screen personification of Spike Lee’s Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Two decades later, so much still rings true about Spike’s adoring portrait of the neighborhood in his 1989 film Do the Right Thing. When I tell folks I call Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, home, they reflexively offer up a wan smile and a, “Oh, is it safe?”

If you’ve lived in any neighborhood as densely black as this one—nearly nine out of 10 residents are black or Puerto Rican—you’re familiar with the vapid expressions of concern that some folks give about anyplace with such a concentration of colored folks.

It’s true that the neighborhood has seen plenty of poverty and crime. Police militarized it decades ago. But it is also a neighborhood rich with a history of black striving. Bed-Stuy’s character—ambition met by predation—fosters a lively blend of grace and volatility. Where else do you find a group of winos with a flat of marigolds, debating whether the ideal price point for buppie passersby is $8 or $10? (The brother arguing $8 was right; Home Depot up the street had ’em for $9.99.) The magic’s in the mix.

It’s been do or die here since the early 19th century, when free blacks bought Brooklyn farmland from the Dutch and created the historic community of Weeksville. Generations later, the surrounding area ballooned with black families, drawn to the neighborhood by integrated jobs in Brooklyn’s war plants. Duke Ellington’s A train, connecting Harlem and central Brooklyn, greased the migratory rails.

But the homes they bought were sold at dramatically inflated prices, a false market made possible through residential segregation. Overleveraged black homeowners had to rent rooms to poor blacks, creating a class mix that’s unique to black neighborhoods as well as a density of poverty that is hard to overcome.

Today, the mix has returned with black middle-class homebuyers—many arriving on the backs of subprime loans. Because the property snatched up by buyers was largely long-vacant, they again live alongside poor black folks, rather than displacing them.

Much has changed since 1989, my older neighbors say, but much hasn’t. We’ve got a few coffee shops for hipster art students—black and white alike—but Spike’s Sweet Dick Willie, Coconut and M.L. still set up their own corner cafes. They lounge on paint buckets and tumble out of parked gypsy cabs, interrupting their endless debates only to ogle women young enough to be their daughters.

I’m not mad at ’em. I defy anyone to find three square miles with an equal density of hotness. Whether it’s Sunday morning fashion (I swear I saw a dude on Easter with a red and purple suit that actually looked good) or Saturday afternoon tank tops, I’m with Estelle—“don’t like them baggy jeans, but I like what’s underneath them!”

Old black men still do their tense dance with Asian-immigrant liquor store owners, but the latter have learned a bit more finesse with the former, and the exchange these days is made through Plexiglas. Puerto Ricans still have their space, but Jamaicans, Haitians, Barbadians—they’re Bed-Stuy’s real kings. Brooklyn’s the largest Caribbean expat community in the world.