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.
And never mind Manhattan, Bed-Stuy is my gay promised land. And no, it’s not all on the “down low.” I cheered the other day as a kid switched out of Bedford Academy High School in a green, high-collar top and purple skinny jeans with an oversized Louis Vuitton bag over his shoulder. His classmates behind him giggled, to which he responded by throwing his head back and turning Bedford Avenue into a runway. Work, Miss Thing.
That’s the spirit that binds us all—bourgeois and poor, immigrant and native born, hipster and thug. We’re all serving up a good deal extra, because even in a ghetto flirting with gentrification, people can’t afford to be blasé about their hustle. I watched a couple of summers ago as the East African members of a local mosque painstakingly renovated their outer walls using floor tiles. I guess that’s all they could get hold of. Do or die, Bed-Stuy.
But all of this also creates a pressure cooker environment. And when times get tough, love and hate can feel like the same passion. Spike dramatized it in 1989 through a 100-degree summer day; in summer 2009, the real heat will come from foreclosures and layoffs.
It’s hard to imagine a race riot anywhere in New York City these days, let alone Bed-Stuy. Frustrations are more likely to erupt inward—into domestic violence, drug abuse and depression, small beefs that spiral up into shootings. Maybe Spike can make another film about it, and this time Bed-Stuy’s people will actually do the right thing—and take their riot over to Wall Street.
Kai Wright is a senior writer for The Root.
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