Making Rent in Bed-Stuy, page 1
There are more and more things black people thought they had a handle on that they have seen slowly slip away from them, and they be saying, “Damn, what happened to that? Dot dot dit dit dot dot dash, son, I’m damned if I know.”
2500 Red Bank Road
166 Throop Avenue
227–241 Taaffe Place
551 Kosciuszko Street
158 Buffalo Avenue
730 DeKalb Avenue
75 South Elliott Place
200 Gholson Avenue
5920 Rhode Island Avenue
434 Greene Avenue
485 Lexington Avenue
About the Author
About the Publisher
2500 Red Bank Road
Early on the morning of July 4, 2006, I was walking south on Taaffe Place, in Brooklyn. It was just after midnight and I was wearing camp-counselor clothes—a blue polo, cheap white sneakers, and tight green shorts—on a nearly deserted block leading to my building’s front door. A phone conversation with a friend in California was ongoing, radiation-spewing Motorola Razr glued to my left ear, tucked right next to my brain.
Half a block from home, a man in a white T-shirt offered me a cigarette, his voice escaping his mouth in a low, dreadful mumble. I didn’t notice it at first, but as I passed him, shaking off the invitation to smoke, I glimpsed what appeared to be a sawed-off bike handle in his right hand. As I continued walking up the block, I gleaned that he was following me from the play of his shadow on a brick wall to my right.
I’m a high yellow Negro who weighs over two hundred pounds. I used to play offensive guard on a half-decent high school football team. But I was dressed like a buffoon, almost never got in fights, and had a man-purse with a brand-new black MacBook in it. Mark. When I realized the man was following me, I was saddened by the prospect of having to smack a motherfucker in the face with my new laptop. So I ran.
Across the street, up the block. The man pursued me to my building’s front door, but I was able to open it quickly and pivot into the building before he could strike me with his peculiar improvised weapon. He lashed the sawed-off end of the bike handle at me, but I ducked out of the way and proceeded to smash his arm, several times, as hard as I could, with the very heavy glass-and-metal door that led to 227–241 Taaffe Place.
Another man, pale and older, stood aghast near the elevator, looking on in horror as my attacker removed his now surely injured limb from the door. I slammed it shut, my assailant cursing loudly from the other side of the glass, his slender body shuddering. He was in great pain. I hadn’t hung up the phone, so my friend in California, hearing the commotion, was loudly asking me if I was “all right” as I held the phone near my chest, breathing hard, staring at this man who had meant me harm.
He was clearly much worse off than I was, for reasons no doubt of his (and our) own making, long before the possibility of stealing from me was something he had conjured in his spiteful mind. “Fuck you, fuck you, yella-ass nigga, I gonna get y’all mothafuckin shit, this is Bed-Stuy, bitch,” he said from the other side of the glass door, tears in his eyes. Then he sauntered off. I went upstairs, to the seventh-story loft I lived in, smoked a spliff, and got ready to face the phony celebration of national independence that the day to come promised to offer.
“This is Bed-Stuy, bitch.” That’s not what everyone else was saying.
In the summer of 2006 I thought, and Tony, my childhood friend, thought that we were moving to Clinton Hill, in Brooklyn. Early in our apartment search, Tony rebuffed the idea of living in Bed-Stuy. He didn’t want to do it. I blinked twice as he said this, unsure how to respond as he spun out his logic. Without saying so, it became clear that he preferred somewhere already gentrified, and if not in the ragingly hip precincts to our north (Williamsburg!) or the increasingly refined enclave to our west (Fort Greene!), then at least somewhere that wasn’t Bedford-Stuyvesant. He grimaced and shook his head when I mentioned Bed-Stuy again, further into our search. It wasn’t for him. I neglected to ask why.
We were soon to exit college, Tony and I, and as April became May and May became June, options that would suit him seemed plentiful, but options that I would find affordable, whatever my post-film-school job prospects, did not. Eventually, he suggested his parents would foot the bill for a nicer place than we would reasonably be able to afford on our own. “It’s not my money, it’s theirs,” he would say, absolving himself of the privilege he would temporarily and conditionally share with me. I’m an agreeable person, perhaps to a fault, so after some time, as it began to look like we might end up staying at our parents’ Ohio homes if we didn’t say yes to an apartment, I relented and agreed to live above my means on the seventh floor of 227–241 Taaffe Place.
It was a huge and impressively airy space, all high ceilings, and polished wood floors—four tall windows lined the western side of the building, which faced onto Taaffe Place, the elevation providing us with a panoramic view of Fort Greene and a portion of downtown Brooklyn to the west. The bedrooms were located behind the first two doors on the left side as you entered. They were too close together, the flimsy walls and strange window between the rooms providing neither of us with much in the way of privacy. When walking into the office to sign the lease agreement, which required us to pay $2,400 a month in rent collectively, neither of us could have anticipated how much of a problem our choice of dwelling would become.
It was far nicer than my first Brooklyn apartment, a two-bedroom affair that had gone for $1,200 two summers before. The Craigslist ad said that apartment was in East Williamsburg. I rode the elevated train there, miles of lonely track, through neighborhoods I didn’t know, to see it one early summer afternoon. I had been squatting at the Harlem apartment of Ray, Tony’s and my friend from Ohio, a recent transplant like us, and was halfway through the State University of New York at Purchase’s undergraduate film school. I had only recently left my dorm and had never found my own apartment before. There are better phrases than “ripe for exploitation,” but none come to mind right now.
It was the summer of 2004 and I was going to live with a club-promoting, tech-utopianist hacker from Serbia and a hard-drinking, backwoods New Hampshire rube—M&M—I knew from film school, during what we hoped in futility would be the final summer of George W. Bush’s presidential term. A Hasid, tall and skinny, stoic and prematurely aged—a Jewish Abraham Lincoln of sorts—awaited me at the door of 166 Throop Avenue, the best lead we had acquired so far. I climbed up a recently renovated wooden staircase with this strange man and came to a maroon door, also recently painted. Once we reached the flat, the air smelled of wood chips and the recent use of electric saws. Unassuming light fixtures and dull white walls in the main room, a tight bathroom down a short hallway. When one turned around, there was a kitchenette, just off the “living room,” that could hardly fit two people. A fire escape, accessible from one of the two bedrooms, allowed for rooftop access; a Catholic church that no one went to anymore stood just a few blocks away, the elevated train that had brought me to this foreign land, this “East Williamsburg,” a bit beyond it.
My mother, a cashew-colored lower midwestern Negro who owns guns, drives trucks, and used to destroy buildings for a living, agreed to be the guarantor; nearing the end of her fourth marriage but at the peak of her career as a home construction executive, she had the means and willingness my friends’ parents seemingly did not. I, nor my roommates-to
The circumstances in which I lived with Tony couldn’t be more different. Whereas my mother was the most well-to-do parent in the previous housing situation, it was assumed from the jump that Tony’s family would foot the bill for our housing deposit, for the most expensive pieces of furniture; my mother provided us with a truck, and a driver named Gus, an ignorant, good-humored, diabetes-riddled cat who kept catcalling girls once we reached Brooklyn. He was a great help and a mild embarrassment. But these sorts of things were where the buck stopped.
I remember saying to my old friend, “I’m going to really have to hustle to make this rent.” My mother had made it very clear that, beyond my share of the deposit, moving expenses, and the first month of rent, she would not subsidize me. I had hardly ever made $800 a month at my various jobs—bookstore clerk, art-house movie theater popcorn sweeper, work-study equipment-room flack—let alone paid that much to live anywhere. He nodded past me, as if a passerby had said something vaguely interesting that he hadn’t quite heard.
I had met Tony at the Seven Hills School, a private K–12 at 2500 Red Bank Road that educated the children of the city’s wealthiest families, just a five-minute drive from my mother’s Kennedy Heights home, a two-story, three-bedroom brick house on a hilly street in a mostly integrated part of our segregated hometown, Cincinnati. My mother, a demolition executive trying her hand at construction in the mid-’90s for the first time, had carved a street out of a thick, undeveloped tract of forest and named it after me: Brandonburg Lane. Ours was the first of nine houses on the row, a tangible departure from the low-slung bungalows and four-family apartments that line the working-class Cincinnati suburbs of Kennedy Heights and Silverton, which surround Brandonburg. I had grown up on those streets, in a house my grandfather had built as his demolition firm began to grow in the 1960s.
The spring before sixth grade, tired of the unruliness and intellectual stultification of the elementary school I went to in Silverton, I asked my mother to send me to the Seven Hills School, which I would pass as we rode along Red Bank Road toward I-71. The gray wood buildings of 2500 Red Bank would float past as I sat shotgun in her gas-guzzling GMC Suburban, gazing at the well-manicured baseball fields, connected by walkways and ringed with neat, inviting landscaping, and the Olympic-sized track and field of rubber and grass. The one I ran and leaped on at the Silverton elementary was made of blacktop, the baseball fields pockmarked with weeds.
As you entered the I-71 on-ramp near the school, you had a dynamic view of the shrubbery lining the hillside, cut in such a way that “SEVEN HILLS SCHOOL” was spelled out in green foliage to those descending from the freeway. I recall my mother being somewhat astonished by the request. The $9,000 per year tuition was the largest educational investment our family had ever made in one of its children at that time—my mother and her sisters went to college in an era, the 1970s, when schooling cost considerably less, even if, like my mother, you began your college career in the Ivy League.
Class was a slippery thing in our family; my mother’s mother had come from a distinctly middle-class household that had sent their entire prewar brood to historically black colleges; my grandfather, a tall and charming light-skinned Negro from the hills of northern Kentucky, never finished high school. It’s a pairing that seems more imaginable then than it would be now, in our time of alleged social mobility; black women with college degrees, even amid the complaints of “not enough available black men,” no longer marry Negroes from the Bluegrass State who have only passed through elementary school.
Eventually he made enough money in the demolition business to purchase, through his white lawyer, a plot of land in Walnut Hills, an exclusive east side community that was normally protected from Negroes by restrictive covenants. With his second wife, whom I’ve always known as my grandmother, he built a handsome house, one he designed himself. By 2002 they were respected enough in society to be the subjects of a glowing Cincinnati Enquirer profile that referred to them as “generous philanthropists, willing to write a check when needed, willing to chair a gala, willing to roll up their sleeves when necessary to make something happen.”
Yet behind closed doors, they complained of the same corruption and racial graft that common Negroes did. Even in the loom of success, discontent among “our class” of Negroes seemed high. The white folks with whom my grandparents share their social calendar, be it at their country club or a benefit to induct them into the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame, see them as pillars of the community and probably wouldn’t recognize the deeply distrustful version of their neighbors that springs forth in the privacy of black company. Their dissatisfaction, through which I first learned that America allegedly had a race problem, was not restricted to the behavior of whites.
Skepticism about our ability to forge a commonwealth within our ranks became a form of received wisdom in this period of my life. The complaints my family members launched at the ineffectiveness of black collective action made me so. “If only we were like the Jews” was a common refrain. Jews reminded one another of their history, their oppression, while collectivizing in ways that provided their ranks protection and wealth, so went the legend. You would hear it at kitchen tables littered with Little Caesars pizza or at a barbershop in Evanston while awaiting a fade, but not out in public, among whites. These conversations were kept at bay there.
In these days, I watched elderly black fingers wag at the sagging pants and billowing white T-shirts and fat girls with expensive weaves and too many kids. To replenish the spring of self-loathing from which so many well-to-do blacks draw was to lack a vision of transcendence and, like so much of America, to remain deaf to the sounds of justice. My grandfather is a man who, like so many of his generation, did his best to assimilate and segregate at once, to upend and uphold an old order. He grew up in a Kentucky where you didn’t look at white women for fear of your Negro life.
So perhaps ours is an uneasy truce with the future; I’ve never taken my white girlfriends home to meet him and I know he prefers it that way.
At my new school, Tony and I became friendly almost immediately—we sat next to each other in sixth-grade science class—but we didn’t become very close until high school. Tony was, in his early youth, gangly and awkward, bookish and intense, a child of silver spoons that he kept mostly private. His parents had done well in the world of plasma centers and lived in an elegant three-story white frame house on the top of a hill that lined one of Cincinnati’s most exclusive east side neighborhoods, but he carried himself with an unassuming air in his flannel shirts and Chuck Taylors. Like many a young rich person I’ve known, he liked to brag about how his father was a self-made man; it’s often an easy way to signal that they haven’t been terminally spoiled, that the successful people who’ve spawned them imparted a knowledge of struggle and belief in a work ethic. Still, in the middle ’90s, it was somewhat iconoclastic of him to befriend the nerdy, overweight, Star Trek–obsessed child of black Cincinnati strivers whom he sat next to in sixth-grade science.
He had a reserve, an aloofness, that I envied and had tried, mostly with little success, to cultivate in myself. I thought the dispassionate way his class of whites went about their business was what you had to emulate to get ahead. There were two other black boys along with me in our sixth-grade class that first fall, but I was the only new one; they were already acclimated to our surroundings, where we were given “fruit breaks” and the assumption of our innocence and burgeoning intellect was never in question, so I thought. But when, in that same science class in which we sat together every day, I was accused, the only black child in the section, of stealing a hissing Madagascar cockroach, I recall no one coming to my aid. No one leaped forward to speak for my char
Our teacher, Mr. Barker, had prized his cockroach, which he dubbed Seymour, ordering it all the way from the island off the southeast African coast for which this particularly rare species of cockroach is named. It mysteriously ended up in my bag, likely as a prank by a classmate who didn’t approve of my presence or what I wore. After arriving home that afternoon, I placed my bag down near the doorway and retreated to the living room so my father, who had picked me up from school, could make me a sandwich.
When I returned to the office to start my homework, my right hand instinctively went for the light switch. When I brought it back toward my body, a hissing Madagascar cockroach was staring at me from just below my knuckles. They really do hiss. I screamed and threw it across the room. My father and I trapped it and, a few days later, I took pleasure in gassing it to death in a mason jar.
Via Encarta for Windows 95 I discovered that the bug I had found was quite a rare coup, and I included it with pride in my insect classification assignment for Mr. Barker’s class. He recognized Seymour immediately and hauled my mother in for a meeting. Suspicion remained, but no proof emerged, so no punishment was meted out, just a lurking sense that the standard upon which I would be judged was always to be different than my peers. The look on my mother’s face as we left our meeting with Mr. Barker let me know she had been putting up with bullshit like this her whole life.
Although one of the other black students became a lifelong friend, I gravitated, in my three years there, first toward a cadre of short, swarthy nerds, people who would take an interest in Star Trek cards and nascent attempts at fantasy baseball, before turning to the jocks, among whom I was a natural leader and far from the only black, and then steadily toward the kids that experimented with drugs and liked edgy movies, almost all of whom were white.