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.
In explaining her decision to move from Chelsea in Manhattan to Stuyvesant Heights rather than to the more historically well-known Harlem, Greenwood said, ''Stuyvesant Heights had a greater concentration of progressive people, people who are active in the community, want to live a certain quality of life and will do what's necessary to make it happen. There's a real sense of community and self-sufficiency here that is cross-generational — civil servants, retired doctors, investors from the corporate world, recent college grads with a Wall Street gig … there's a strong sense of pride and appreciation for the legacy of the community as well as an appreciation for its future.''
This pride is unmatched throughout the city. Nowhere has race and class consciousness been so seamlessly interwoven than in Brooklyn, where artists, young families, single professionals and black, upwardly mobile folks of every kind increasingly see Brooklyn as being the place where they will make their mark. Even if that means eventually moving out to the suburbs. Or to Atlanta.
Of course, now that Brooklyn is no longer seen as such a scary place, black folks are not the only ones attracted to its vintage housing stock, civic intensity and relative affordability. In fact, there is a steady breeze of gentrification blowing in from the western part of the borough, aided in small part by the rapid development and transformation of downtown Brooklyn, which will soon be the home of the Nets basketball arena and a new Manhattan-like skyline of residential towers and office buildings.
As a result, the big question for Central Brooklyn is whether it will follow the fate of Harlem, which suffered the indignity of losing its distinction as New York's black mecca when a New York Times article recently reported that not only is it no longer a majority-black area, but it hasn't been for years.
In the meantime, who knows? Maybe Jay-Z, a part owner of the new Nets arena who was born in Bed-Stuy's notorious Marcy projects, will return to Brooklyn to be closer to his investment and relive Brooklyn's ''big black money'' glory days.
If so, there goes the neighborhood.
Mark Winston Griffith, a nationally recognized economic justice advocate and co-founder of the Central Brooklyn Federal Credit Union, is now a executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, a community-organizing group based in Central Brooklyn. He was born in Brooklyn and has lived there all of his adult life.