Black Money: Last Exit in Brooklyn

In the first of a three-part series, The Root takes a look at who's holding the purse strings in Crooklyn.

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Jay-Z at the groundbreaking for the Nets' new stadium

''Manhattan keeps on makin it, Brooklyn keeps on takin it ... ''

--KRS One, ''The Bridge Is Over''

 

Brooklyn, New York, has long been stereotyped for its hard-edged hustle, even in a city already known for its unbridled capitalism. When New Yorkers think of black people, Brooklyn and money, clockin' dollars is the old-school vernacular that comes to mind.

Spike Lee, who has arguably fetishized black Brooklyn life and culture more profitably than anyone, famously branded Kings County ''Crooklyn'' in 1994, thus leaving the impression that Brooklyn is where dreams are not so much made as ''acquired'' and then whisked away. If Atlanta, with its new Southern comforts, is the city to which many black folks retreat after they have ''made it,'' Brooklyn, as New York Daily News columnist Errol Louis once pointed out, is the place big black money leaves behind after it has established its street cred. Louis recently reminded me that some of entertainment's biggest names -- Jay-Z, Chris Rock and, yes, even Spike Lee -- have public identities inextricably tied to Brooklyn but have all gone on to live elsewhere.

While it's true that neighborhoods on the western end of Brooklyn -- communities like DUMBO, Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill and Park Slope -- are filled to the brim with wealthy, or at least upper-middle-class, families, there are no significant large concentrations of black money in these areas.

It wasn't always this way. Brooklyn at one time was the destination point for some of New York's most well-to-do black folks.

In Brooklyn, the home to free blacks since the 1600s, black-controlled institutions like newspapers, churches, charities and schools had begun to proliferate by the 1820s. One section of black Brooklyn, the remnants of which are well-preserved by an organization called Weeksville Heritage Center, was established in 1838, 11 years after slavery was abolished in New York. Founded by five black investors, Weeksville was intended to help convey suffrage to black men who were required to own property, with a value of at least $250, and live there for more than four years in order to vote. As a result, Weeksville claimed one of the highest rates of homeownership for black people in the nation.

By the late 1880s, Brooklyn had a reputation as an ''aristocratic'' and ''cultivated'' center of black life, prompting The New York Times to complain in 1895 that black folks routinely left Manhattan to come to Brooklyn when they ''amass a comfortable fortune.''

Throughout the 19th century, blacks were dispersed in modest numbers throughout the borough. By the early 1900s, however, the process of black ghettoization that eventually marked most of the northern urban American centers had begun in Brooklyn. The Great Migration of black people from the South, combined with several waves of immigrants from the Caribbean, resulted in the creation of Central Brooklyn -- the cluster of neighborhoods including Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, Brownsville, East Flatbush and the surrounding area -- which is now the largest contiguous concentration of black people in the nation. According to the last census, more than 900,000 of the 2.5 million people who live in Brooklyn -- 38 percent of the borough -- are black. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, more than half the population lives below 125 percent of the federal poverty level.

A more recent arrival, Monique Greenwood, 50, lives in the Bedford-Stuyvesant enclave of Stuyvesant Heights with her husband and daughter. Along with the Fort Greene/Clinton Hill area, Stuyvesant Heights is considered one of the few areas in Brooklyn that attract black folks of financial means in any significant number. Greenwood has lived there for almost 20 years and is nationally well-recognized within entrepreneurial circles as the builder of several successful bed-and-breakfasts, including her flagship and primary place of residence, Akwaaba Mansion, located in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Emblematic of a newer generation of Brooklyn homesteaders, Greenwood was a professional woman priced out of Manhattan; she came to Brooklyn with her husband-business partner to self-consciously join a class of ''strivers,'' as she likes to refer to herself and her peers. Not simply content to set up shop in Bed-Stuy, Greenwood is on the local community board and is as well-known locally for her civic engagement and community-organizing chops as she is for the properties that she owns.

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