White People Are Moving to Bedford-Stuyvesant—Again

For newcomers to Bedford-Stuyvesant, gentrification allows them to move into a neighborhood with decreasing crime rates, cheap rents, and bigger apartments.  For long-term renters and homeowners, it means increased home prices and property taxes, and sometimes forced migration further east.

Between October 2013 and October 2014, property values in Bed-Stuy have increased from an average of $455,000 to $621,000.  Rents have also increased, going from $1,010 in 2010 to $1,700 today.  These two figures, on the surface, indicate that this Brooklyn district is now an increasingly desirable place to live. Brownstones are being restored to their former glory and easily selling for over $1 million. According to Zillow.com, a real estate marketplace website, 144 homes in Bed-Stuy sold for over $1 million in the past year. New businesses, such as cafes and art galleries, are being set up and increasing the variety of services locally.

Bed-Stuy was once a predominantly white community.  The construction of the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges all helped populate Brooklyn with white, working class immigrants during the early 20th century. Blacks from the south started arriving in Bed-Stuy during the interwar era, and especially more so during the Great Depression. The upper middle class character of the neighborhood began to change and many whites began contemplating selling their homes as a result of the social changes taking place.  “Realtors wanted to make fast cash and told people to sell their homes because of massive, unpredictable changes that were going to take place in the district,” Ron Schweiger, a Brooklyn Borough historian with the Borough President’s Office, said. Block busting, as he called the practice, coupled with other factors such as increased crime and black migration into Bed-Stuy, were important in the decline of the white population.

Since reaching a low point of just 1.4 percent in 2000, the white population has rebounded to now constitute over 10 percent of the district. Cheaper rents and a pioneer feeling of discovering a former no-go zone attract newcomers. “It’s the place where everyone wants to be,” Matthew Wills said, a native, white Brooklynite who blogs about demographic and urban change in the borough. “By everyone, I mean wealthy white people.”

And they are predominantly renters, unlike many long-term black residents of the district, who compose the majority of the area’s homeowners. But, the explosion in real estate activity has had a positive effect for a district where black home ownership stands at 20 percent. Willie Watkins, who came to Bed-Stuy from North Carolina in the 60s, said her brother recently sold his home.  “My brother sold his home in 2010 and moved to South Carolina,” she said.  “He bought a big home in a development.  There are a lot of tenants who took buyouts that were substantial enough that they could leave with lots of money.”

The combination of increasing real estate values and rents means that both black homeowners and long-term black tenants have been moving out of the area.  The rises have not benefitted long-term black renters, who have been forced to move to poorer and more crime-ridden areas like Brownsville and East New York. Bed-Stuy natives who have stayed put complained about a loss of community as a result of the changes.

“There used to be a butcher on the corner and when I would be waiting for the cuts of meat, I used to make patterns in the sawdust that he used to soak up the blood,” said Jean Jones.  “I didn’t even need to bring money, my mom would pay the tab at the end of the week.”

Today, the butcher shop has been transformed into apartments.  And nobody gets a weekly tab anymore.

Jones was born and raised in Bed-Stuy and currently lives in the home her grandmother bought in 1948.  She is like many of Bed-Stuy’s multigenerational inhabitants, whose family has grown up in the same home for decades. She remembered the sense of community back in the 60s.

Bed-Stuy is also home to over a dozen New York City Housing Authority housing projects, whose residents have little experience of the verdant and lush tree lined streets the district is known for.

Jako Borren, the director of program operations at Restoration Plaza, a community development initiative set up by Robert Kennedy in 1964, said the rapid changes have not been helpful to residents who have had to move out. The prices long-term Bed-Stuy residents can sell their homes for makes it logical to sell, he said, but resulted in the erosion of the community culture.

“You have more options in business and shopping, but if you have to move from this area, it doesn’t benefit you,” Borren said.  “People move there for the culture, but in the process they make it disappear.”

Bed-Stuy, however, will not become the next Williamsburg, according to Matt Dunbar, the vice president of government relations and advocacy at Habitat for Humanity New York. “Williamsburg was an industrial area that was rezoned,” Dunbar said, “it was the product of targeted redevelopment.” Bed-Stuy has historically been almost entirely residential, which will make it much harder for market forces to push out all the long term residents of the district.

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