By Keith L. Forest
On Saturday, March 10, 2018, pillars from the Bedford Stuyvesant community gathered together to pay homage to McDonald’s Diner and its former owner Clara Walker. Once a major destination in the historic Stuyvesant Height section of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the restaurant had long closed its doors leaving a lifetime of memories behind.
“Before there was Clara there was John,” shared Joe Long, a lifetime Bedford Stuyvesant resident/advocate and owner of legendary Birdel’s Records formerly located on Nostrand Avenue. According to Mr. Long, Mr. McDonald looked forward to retiring and returning home to North Carolina, their home state. However, Mr. Long warned his friend to put in place someone to continue the McDonald’s Diner legacy. “He found that in Clara, his former manager. I’m just thankful to be here and share with you the history of this place. I pray that under you Samantha it will carry on the history that we (the residents of the community) built on the corner of Macon and Stuyvesant Avenue.”
Re-christened Mama Fox Restaurant, the new establishment is owned and operated by Samantha DiStefano. DiStafano sponsored the afternoon gathering honoring former owner Clara Walker. “I feel extremely grateful and privileged to take over this space and turn it back into another community restaurant,” declared DiStefano.
The well-attended affair, hosted by Bed-Stuy Resident and Community Board 3 member Evelyn Collier, included an unveiling of Ms. Walker’s portrait. The decorative-framed, black and white image will have a permanent home at the establishment. Ms. Walker was unable to attend. However, her son, Rachiim Ausar- Sahu, a world-renowned jazz artist was present.
Former Councilman Al Vann, who was born and raised in the community, shared how growing up around the corner on Herkimer between Albany and Schenectady shaped his worldview. “We weren’t allowed to live on this side of Fulton Street yet,” He recalls. However, the area referred to as the jungle, was booming with black-owned businesses that stretched from Utica Avenue to Troy Avenue. These establishments were later wiped out when they built Boys and Girls High School.
Vann reflected on how going to McDonald’s Diner was like “stepping out!” A major event that one would have to get dressed to attend. According to Vann, McDonald’s Diner was the one place where renowned black leaders, celebrities, athletes, and clergy gathered. “We are not looking for what used to be. It’s good to know there is a continuation, that a foundation was made here. I know Ms. Walker will be happy to know that there will be a concern here to serve the community.”
In April of 2017, Ms. Walker traveled to Brooklyn from Atlanta, GA to participate in a historic oral history project sponsored by the Macon, McDonough, Lewis, and Stuyvesant (MMSL) Block Association. Along with her son Rachiim Ausar- Sahu, Ms. Walker sat for an hour-long interview in the former home of her McDonald’s Diner reflecting on her legacy. The final footage is available for viewing online at mystuy.org.
Keith L. Forest is a seasoned entrepreneur, Marketing professor, proud Bedford-Stuyvesant homeowner and community advocate. Committed to serving others Forest recently formed A Greater Good, NYC, Inc. a nonprofit organization committed to serving marginalized communities through the arts, entrepreneurial endeavors, educational advancement and explorative engagements.