A Case for Black gentrification in Central Brooklyn

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Longtime residents fight to keep the African-American legacy alive in Central Brooklyn

By Stephen Witt

African-American residents, property owners and activists of Bedford-Stuyvesant are pushing back against the long-held collective society belief that little can be done to stop white gentrification.

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This despite the fact that battle lines are being drawn along fronts like Tompkins Avenue, where the proliferation of storefront real estate agencies are suddenly competing for space with the many storefront churches that have long been a part of the strip.

“We’ve been renting this storefront for the past 12 years and I don’t think the guy that owns the building will sell it, but there is a new real estate agency next to us on the right and another across the street,” said Rev. Nerissa Bradshaw, pastor of the New Beginning Pentecostal Church of God.

Further south along Tompkins Avenue, Common Ground Coffee Shop owner, attorney and lifelong Bed-Stuy resident Tremaine Wright said there are alternatives to selling long-held property despite speculators offering vast amounts of money.

“My grandparents came here in the 40s and a part of the conversation is how (longtime property owners) can become educated to make real estate and property work for them versus believing they must liquidate immediately and relinquish rights in order to cash out,” said Wright.

“We don’t need people to remain static, but if we understand how things work we can transfer wealth to future generations so that families can move where they want to move and be empowered in the way that they do it,” she added.

Among the activist organizations examining how to keep neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights predominately black is the Brooklyn Movement Center on Stuyvesant Avenue.

In a landmark article published on their www.BrooklynMovementCenter.org Web site, author Marly Pierre-Louis makes a case for black gentrification, citing the Brickton Neighborhood in Philadelphia as a case study written in 2009 by K. S. Moore and published under the title: Gentrification in blackface?: The return of the black middle class to urban neighborhoods.

Moore argues in her article that there is a distinction between black gentrification and white gentrification.

“Gentrification led by black middle-income residents has a social justice motivation based on the residents’ experiences of racial exclusion and an explicit desire for racial solidarity. Unlike traditional gentrification, the outcome of neighborhood change is not the creation of a wealthy neighborhood to replace a lower-income community,” Moore writes.

Among the strategies Brickton utilized in keeping the community black was the recruitment of more middle- to upper-income black residents who can afford a more expensive neighborhood, make the choice to remain in the community without promoting the displacement of current low-income residents.

Another critical strategy was  encouraging asset accumulation (e.g., homeownership, entrepreneurship) amongst low-income residents.

Pierre-Louis argues that in Brooklyn the gentrification discussion has become stale as more and more black people are being forced out of the borough.

“The work doesn’t have to be anti-change, anti-development or even anti-white. But it can and should be pro-neighborhood improvement, pro-strategizing and organizing, and absolutely pro-black,” she writes.

But strategies aside, the battle to keep Central Brooklyn as a hub of black culture and life remains challenging and relentless.

Antioch Baptist Church Pastor Rev. Dr. Robert Waterman noted in his recently losing City Council race that the real estate industry poured in over a half-million dollars to back another losing candidate.

“Even though their candidate didn’t get in, real estate market prices have skyrocketed and real estate taxes are going up. That affects longtime homeowners on set incomes, and that becomes a burden. There’s also the aftereffects of predatory lending, where homeowners are still struggling with mortgages,” said Waterman.

Meanwhile, the storefront real estate agents along Tompkins Avenue – many of them with sign displays that they specialize in short sales – continue to exploit the forces of urban capitalism.

“I’m not the one changing the market,” said one. “I’m just a player in the market.”

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