New neighbors in the 'hood

Bed-Stuy: Reasonably priced homes draw buyers to the Brooklyn neighborhood with a `dangerous' reputation.

March 18, 2002|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BROOKLYN - It's happened in so many neighborhoods that the signs are now familiar: On a block where some of the houses are boarded up or sagging with neglect, earnest new homeowners are sanding, painting and otherwise restoring brownstones to their past glory. Where corner bodegas and nail salons have long made up the bulk of area businesses, suddenly there are also places to buy a latte, a politically correct children's book and food that doesn't come from behind bullet-proof Plexiglas.

Creeping gentrification is nothing new in New York, where the search for affordable housing has long sent the yuppie class into marginal neighborhoods - usually followed by the coffeehouses, bookstores and restaurants that they can't live without. But what is new is the locale of this latest discovered neighborhood: Bedford-Stuyvesant, perhaps best known as the racially tense and grafitti-scarred 'hood of Spike Lee's movie, Do the Right Thing.

If all you know of Bed-Stuy is that movie, in which a hot summer night explodes into racial violence, seeing it up close comes as a revelation. Victorian brownstones, some with original stained glass and ornamented facades, line quiet tree-shaded streets. Neighbors greet one another, children wave from playgrounds and there's a satisfied buzz in the air of a community on the upswing.

"Bed-Stuy's always here and it's our little treasure," Walston Bobb-Semple says a bit wistfully. "The only reason it's booming now is this is the last stop for brownstones in New York."

Walston and his wife, Crystal, live and own two stores in Stuyvesant Heights, an L-shaped historic district within Bed-Stuy that has become highly coveted real estate in recent years. While the district received its historical designation 30 years ago, the name provides today's savvy real estate agents with a way of luring buyers who otherwise would be leery of moving into an area with such a reputation for inner-city woes.

"Now the Realtors call every street Stuyvesant Heights," Charles Atwell notes drolly of his compatriots.

Atwell, whose company is called Stuyvesant Heights Brokerage, lives in and has his office in the historic district, and he was born just two blocks away. He currently has no houses to show in Stuyvesant Heights, but a waiting list of buyers ready to pounce when one does becomes available.

With Manhattan one of the priciest housing markets in the nation, buyers are pushing farther and farther into Brooklyn. They first hit the neighborhoods just across the East River that offer the quickest commutes to jobs in the city. But as those neighborhoods became desirable, and housing prices began to approach and match those in Manhattan, migrants pushed farther eastward to outlying areas still connected by subway to the city.

In other words, they took the A-train to Bed-Stuy.

As prices in even once moderate Brooklyn neighborhoods soar into the seven figures, Stuyvesant Heights remains reasonable, at least by New York standards. Atwell says most of the brownstones here go for under $400,000, although there are reports that some have sold for as much as $500,000.

But you pay in other ways. Bed-Stuy has few of the basic amenities other neighborhoods take for granted, such as good grocery and clothing stores and more upscale restaurants. Even the largely well-tended historic district is just steps away from public housing projects and a mile from the hard-core Bed-Stuy block that Lee's film depicted.

Yet for those who have always lived here or have recently discovered it, Bed-Stuy represents an opportunity for that elusive commodity - a largely black neighborhood of mixed incomes, with the kinds of amenities that reflect such a range.

"I think it will become a black Park Slope," says Stuart Joseph, referring to Brooklyn's hottest upscale neighborhood.

Joseph, who moved with his wife, Laura, to Stuyvesant Heights a year ago, is among the handful of new white residents drawn here for the same reason as their black neighbors - the stately architecture, the warm sense of community, the trees.

Joseph, a carpenter, says he feels welcome here. But there are some who view Bed-Stuy's sudden appeal to other races with trepidation, fearing that they could eventually become priced out of what has traditionally been a black neighborhood.

"People in the dominant classes ... when they arrive, it's not to co-exist, it's to co-opt or take over," says TRUE, an artist who has replaced what he calls his slave name with his current moniker. "It's been the death of communities of color throughout history."

TRUE realizes what he says sounds like reverse racism, but says he has seen any number of neighborhoods become so attractive that, given the economic disparities between the races, fewer blacks can afford to compete should a bidding war for property break out. But he also says Bed-Stuy is still probably years away from his fears being realized.

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