Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Who Moved My Budweiser

My take on the changing neighborhood

Fort Green aka The Fort, was the first to fall about a decade and a half ago. The once notoriously deadly enclave—at least to those who didn’t live there—is now the hip, swanky hub of buppie Brooklyn. The streets are lined with cafes, boutiques, bistros, wine bars and yogurt establishments. The former don’t-you-go-in-there Fort Green park, where many-a-body and shootout have gone down is now a pristine locale for joggers, picnicers, and doggie walkers.

With The Fort converted into Brooklyn’s version of The Village in Manhattan, black folk had a non-verbal understanding that Bedford-Stuyvesant was our last stronghold in the hood, the last stand. Our history of drugs and violence was so pervasive that not even the bravest of “them” would dare cross the battle lines into Do-or-Die Bed-Stuy. Most folks remained firm in their “I shall not be moved,” conviction, whether it be the families that have owned their homes for generations or the real keeper of the flame, Brotherman on the Corner.

So when I married and moved to the faux Brooklyn suburb of Canarsie, I was confident that the joys of hood life would be alive and well whenever I returned.
You see, there is a certain annoying comfort in the familiar, like drunk “Joe” who greets the customers at the 24-hour corner store, beer can draped in the requisite brown paper bag; the summer block parties notorious for excessively loud music, wild-ass kids running amok, and closed off streets that tie-up traffic every Saturday from July to August; and the cookouts on the sidewalk. Only black folk can do up a cookout on the sidewalk, complete with a grill and folding tables for the potato salad and greens. Just give us a slice of concrete and we can have us a barbecue. Ahh, yes, the joys of the hood.

When my marriage came to an end, I packed up my kids and after a few pit stops returned to my roots, mere blocks from where I grew up. But something had happened to me in my years in faux suburbia. I’d been lulled into a mindset of having arrived. Where, I wasn’t sure, but I was there. As a result, the Friday night shoot outs, blaring police sirens and the constant scream of the ambulances shook me rather than soothed me. I looked with suspicion and alarm at my hooded young brothers and loud, brassy, belly-baring young sisters. But I felt assured that once fully entrenched in the life and style of the hood I would regain my muse and submerge myself in all things Negro.

It soon became alarmingly clear, however, that I was no longer back in Kansas. It was subtle at first, hardly noticeable. There was just one or two of “them.” A fluke? Perhaps they were just real light skin with “good hair.” But as winter turned to spring and then summer, their numbers grew. I’d step outside and see them jogging with their teacup pooches in tow. Where a year earlier it was only the few intrepid men who had set out to explore the exotic world of the Negro life and set down their flag, now their women had come, toting many a curly-headed kid.
Other things began to change, too. The once vast wasteland of the avenues began to sprout antique shops, children’s boutiques, coffee shops with internet access, new “affordable” housing filling one-time empty lots. And for the first time in the history of The Stuy, a veterinarian’s office! Obviously to care for the influx of little dogs.

And where the once behemoth Pathmark had stood, complete with their rude, gum chewing, loud-mouthed cashiers, it was replaced with Foodtown, new management and staff that talked to the customer instead of the person on the other end of their cell phone, and smiled at you rather than rolled their eyes when you put your groceries on the counter. An entire aisle was dedicated to healthy and organic food! Imagine that. At least now I didn’t have to travel back to Canarsie to shop every weekend. (Couldn’t stand those heifers in Pathmark).

It wasn’t just Foodtown or the vet. Along with “them” came bike lanes and tree guards, police patrols, sushi restaurants, safer streets and million dollar price tags on homes. Our once black corner of the world grew smaller as they crossed the bridges from overpriced Manhattan and the divides of Crown Heights and Williamsburg to settle and convert as is their way, their history.

So as our new neighbors reside amongst us, strolling, jogging and biking along our streets, joining our churches, rubbing elbows with us at the local laundry, dreadlocking their hair and standing in line on the weekends to get their soul food from Royal Ribs on Halsey Street; we gather in small groups or chat on the phone about “them.”

“They’re everywhere!” “Can’t have nothing,” we complain. “Not even our own ghetto.” We shake our heads in disbelief, as we sip smoothies at the new outdoor cafe and watch their numbers grow wondering how much longer it will be before the block parties are no more, grilling on the sidewalk is a thing of the past, the music isn’t so loud, the 24-hour store closes by nine and the life and vitality that drew “them” here is washed out and sanitized into something unrecognizable.
I ponder these questions even as I enjoy the amenities that have come to the neighborhood because of “them.” I ponder these questions as I sit in my three bedroom duplex condo, looking out on my backyard, listening not to gun shots and sirens but contractors building a new two-family home across the street even as the mom and pop store on the corner has been shuttered for months and I wonder, just briefly, what corner Joe is standing on now.