My first visit to Bed-Stuy was to see Mos Def aka. Yasiin Bey aka. Mos Def play a free show with the Brooklyn Philharmonic. I was going to see the artist formerly (and still sometimes) known as Def, but I was also going to check out the neighbourhood. By that point, I was already planning my escape from the hipster wasteland; I already had Bed-Stuy down as a potential future home.
Between songs, when he wasn’t purring into his microphone and slouching about the stage, Mos Def was talking about how much Brooklyn and Bed-Stuy meant to him. He spoke of the rich weave of cultures in the neighbourhood, of the successive waves of immigrants; he shouted out to the Haitians, the Jamaicans, the Trinidadians. He did not, however, shout out to the Australians. I left the show feeling that I had been excluded from this paradisiac melting pot of island cultures.
A few months later I moved to Bed-Stuy anyway. The rent was slightly cheaper and I’d found a(nother) place with a cat.
Despite Bed-Stuy’s ‘Do or Die‘ reputation, the neighbourhood seemed awfully nice. Where in my old neighbourhood I would be woken at 4am by faux-brawls spilling out of faux-dive bars, on my first morning in Bed-Stuy I was woken by church bells and a gentle breeze. Vines and weeds had grown up around the windows of my new apartment, softening the summer sun and muffling the squabbling neighbours. Squirrels surged through the overgrown yard.
Along Fulton St., fried chicken shops stood shoulder to shoulder with hair salons. There were still Obama t-shirts for sale at a few clothing stores; his place in the Bed-Stuy pantheon is probably assured, regardless of the looming electoral shitshow. His portrait shared wall space with those of MLK and JFK in one supermarket. The delis were stocked with strangely familiar produce, evidence that while Australia was not of the Bed-Stuy archipelago, the yoke of Britannia had none-the-less left us with common tastes. The fridges of Bed-Stuy stocked strong, sweet ginger beer, not that pissweak American ginger ale.
It was all so delightful, but word was that it was also doomed. Bed-Stuy was gentrifying; all that doing or dying was having a distinctly evolutionary effect. There were more and more doers about; the area was beginning to prosper.
Gentrification: the death knell of the traditional New York neighbourhood. Newcomers – interlopers from the banished isles – were moving into the area. Pasty-fleshed hipsters were smoking on stoops. Surely it was no coincidence that rent was also going up, and that new businesses – bars, bakeries, wine stores – were edging out older establishments.
Even the place selling $1 pizza slices right above Nostrand Av. station – which I had taken to be a local fixture very much in keeping with the many McDonalds, Crown Fried Chickens, and other slingers of cheap grease – was a new arrival, and was slowly nudging the other pie vendors out of the market. It wasn’t just the fancy folk that were gentrifying.
Mos Def had seen it coming. He didn’t seem too thrilled by any influx that was likely to change the character of the hood. He liked to think of Bed-Stuy as a Do or Die kind of place; a place where rich white kids feared to tread, and where they certainly wouldn’t clamour for their Frenchly-pressed, fairly-traded coffee at sidewalk cafes.
But it was all too late; there was to be no escape from the insidious spread of gentrification. And yet…
The ginger beer was not being pulled from the delis. The roti shops were not being replaced by cupcake boutiques. Food was still advertised as halal, not localseasonalvegan. The Obama images had not been usurped by Jon Stewart banners. The flocks of Sunday churchgoers still wore suits, not cut-offs. The weekend block parties pounded out soca, not Bon Iver.
Bed-Stuy was still doing, was still not dying.