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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Crown Heights: Now - (thoughts on the 3/23 Town Hall)

New and old sights around the western edge of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. From top left: The former Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, Bicycle parking racks on Franklin in front of new cafe "Little Zelda", Residential construction on Eastern Parkway and Franklin Avenue, A lot cleared for large residential construction on Sterling Place btw Classon & Washington, A newly opened Animal Hospital on Franklin Avenue, Center, the Brooklyn Museum, Bottom LeftL a long standing bodega gets the "Mini-Whole Foods Make-Over"

On Saturday March 23rd 2013 the Crown Heights neighborhood group known as the "Crow Hill Community Association" held a Town Hall to be an open invitational forum for discussing any resident concerns. The event was held in the auditorium of the still new school building and facilitated by young volunteers, local residents and business owners. I heard a lot of sincere feeling, and quite a lot of love and admiration for Crown Heights and what struck me most was the similarities of the people of came from vastly different places to be there.

I walked into that building for the first time still thinking about what had been on this very same location not long ago. Across the street the Hospital of my birth, stood no longer a care center but an apartment complex home to one of the largest groups of tenants and of the highest rents in the neighborhood.

Besides my concern for the neighborhood I attended because recently I've followed the debate about things as seemingly trivial as whether it's fair and right for a parking space to be given to bicycles on a commercial street. It's a a proxy debate of course. It's meant to take the place of questions of why in a community that had been ignored for so long by much of the city, does the city "suddenly" care whether bikes have parking when they didn't care enough to keep an entire hospital going in a neighborhood that still needs it.

Because of the services that were cut from Crown Heights in the 70's & 80's and the resulting departure of home owners, commercial and industrial businesses and even a major clinical and surgical hospital, Crown Heights in general and in particular the streets surrounding Classon Avenue became a sort of Alamo where concerned residents worked to maintain the remaining good quality of life. One one street like Prospect Place you'd have beautiful homes and under cared for apartment buildings all being held together by the grace of residents and their willpower. Two blocks away on Bergen Street you could find crack houses and it's residents in tragic conditions.

I was one of the those residents, a kid who's family wondered aloud if moving away from it all was the best way to secure a better life, or if it was worth it to stick it out and keep guarding the fort.

Twenty-odd years later home owners began to discover that next their dutifully tended community garden, down the block from the trash cans they may have had to beg the city for, around the corner from local restaurant they faithful supported, there was a new wave entering the neighborhood. New faces, new shops, new habits bringing. Some new people, a noticeable minority of the new in my opinion came with what the kids would call swagger. Some of the new came upon what they say as a barren fertile land ready to be made in whatever image pleased them. Some of the new didn't interact with long term residents as much as might reasonably be expected of new people.

For a neighborhood of long invested concerned residents, it's not hard to see how after years of being under siege and finally beginning to see the flourishing of seeds planted in the community decades earlier, the long term residents of Crown Heights began to feel invaded.

If I had worked hard to keep something good, fighting against physical, systematic and metaphorical attack, the last thing I'd want is for someone new to come and claim that which I worked so hard to maintain. I might rather put a hood over my positions, keep them from sight, keep them for me.

However you can't hide the hood. Crown Heights and hundreds of blocks like it are changing, because to be honest the neighborhood despite the good work and good will of it's residents has been lacking for a long time. We all wanted better. Better schools, better food options, better government service and it is a damn shame and an intolerable insult that we who worked hard we're largely ignored until someone else came along.

Let us all residents of Crown Heights who witnessed the 1980's be honest; we wanted better in this neighborhood. And we knew a neighborhood that is situated like this one deserves better. Thousands of working class home owners live here. Three of the city's cultural institutions are here (Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Main Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library). Five subway lines service the neighborhood. We expected better and so I doubt most people hate that you can buy the New York Times or soy milk on Franklin Ave and on Nostrand Ave instead of having to travel a half mile to Park Slope, most people aren't unhappy that an open air drug market no longer exists on Franklin and Lincoln place. Most people aren't bothered by the fact that unlike in the 80's eastern parkway is once again beautiful tree lined and well lit. What most long term residents are bothered by about the change is the concern that this change might financially force residents out who can no longer afford local rents or prices.

And of course most long term residents still feel the stinging insult of a city that didn't have good reasons for lackluster polices in the 80's and 90's now almost instantly providing that clearly essential bicycle parking space. (for the record I'm all for the bike parking space)

So the other largely understandable thing my ears heard at the Town Hall, in the discussion I was part of was pain. That pain. That "we've keep this place whole for 20 years and made it possible for you to even have a place to move into with your new community organizing, and your "$15 dollar hamburgers" and your "craft beers" and yet "you don't even say hi when you see me in the street"

But streets, sidewalks have a tendency to go both ways.

Community means sharing obviously and their are expectations of community. It's up to the long term residents to share and correct new people in what is reasonably expectable of neighbors here But I really don't think most people moved into Crown Heights to be brow beaten. That's the challenge. To remember that despite all we have suffered, the chances that the blond girl from Kentucky who moved with four roommates next door came to personally oppress us and deprive us of a neighborhood is slight.

The changes that Bjorn from Scandinavia who moved here to become a filmmaker is purposefully trying to ignore us, as opposed to say, not sure what to expect from us and afraid he'll offend, is slight.

I think we can agree that most people moved to Crown Heights for an improvement in their lives some of which has an inversely negative effect on the lives of long standing members of the community. But on the micro level that is not a conspiracy. For the couple that moves uses their income or their inheritance to buy a house that is a plan yes, but not necessarily a plot. And just as long residing members of the community expect our new coming neighborhoods to adhere to certain basic social communal norms, (saying hello to neighbors, investing in the community interests, supporting local business) they should also expect us not to see the enemy in each of their faces and stories unless new comers to the neighborhood give us reason to.

The cat is long since out of the bag and the bag has blown away. This neighborhood wasn't gentrified yesterday last year or last decade. Gentrification started right after the embers of the burnt out buildings in Bushwich began to cool. It started when members of the city government began encouraging an environment that fostered red-lining, police cuts, social service cuts, negative redistricting and cuts to basic services. It started with a Mayor who's no longer living. It started long before most of the newest new comers were born. Long term residents of Crown Heights have a reasonable expectation that new-comers will at best contribute to the community they've come to reap the benefits of, and at least that they won't make it any worse for the community as a whole than they found it. But every newcomer and shouldn't be made the straw man for the indignities the community has suffered since the 70's.

Besides that being unfair and and foolhardy, its misdirected. Gentrifiers are people of all backgrounds and a few income levels. The average person can no better presume on appear who is a new coming hipster gentrifier than the NYPD can judge by appearance whether or not I should be stopped and frisked and arrested. In the last two years I've been accused of both out in these Brooklyn streets that I love and I guess that makes sense if its a crime to be a black man born in Brooklyn and a professional who can afford to eat out at restaurants with $15.00 hamburgers and craft beers.

I had to leave the Town Hall because of a prior commitment, but as I left I hoped for the best. There's a lot of interest in Crown Heights, a lot of positive interest and a lot of rightfully lingering pain.

The life, the edge the spark of communities like Crown Heights that draws the new like moths to a flame is available because civic minded people, most of them African-Americans and Caribbean-Americans, kept a loving torch burning for this neighborhood. They kept alive hope it'd come back from the brink. When those long term residents are excluded from conversation, from participation, that flame burns and resentment smolders.

In 1990 the corner of Classon Avenue and St Marks in what was then undisputedly Crown Heights, an enormous public school building in the classic style of New York City that can easily be found from borough to borough sat continuing it's slow and glacial decay. The decaying school was the same in 1980 and I wouldn't be surprised if it was the same in 1970.

By 2000, the old worn decayed school had been torn down. A new school building was constructed at St. Marks Place and Classon Avenue, PS 22. Part of me misses the old, because it's what I grew up with as a kid walking with his grandmother, a hospital worker, down Classon Avenue on the way to get her check cashed and for myself maybe an icy.

On Saturday March 23rd 2013, hundreds of people, local residents, renters and home-owners, black, white, brown, yellow, green purple and every other classification we can toss up, came together in the still new PS 22 school auditorium to positively consider this neighborhood. Things have changed. Some of that change is better and if we can work together we can make it better still, for all of us.

A photo taken prior to the March 23rd Crown Heights Town Hall.


  1. What a wonderful, thoughtful piece. Thank you.

  2. I like your piece. I've responded to it on Brooklynian, where I post too frequently. Here's the link:

    1. Thanks MikeF, I read the Brooklynian posts and got stuck trying to recall my login info so I havent responded over there. Please feel free to post thoughts on the Crow Hill meeting in this space as well.
      Brooklyn Born


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