Last month, participated in a Q&A, sharing her experience as a recent ”gentrifier” to Bed-Stuy. In the next column, and a Bed-Stuy native, shared with us his thoughts on Bedford-Stuyvesant’s changing fabric.
In the final installment of my series, we meet Maryum Karim Whitted: Mrs. Karim-Whitted was born in 1934 and moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1945, 65 years ago, before it became the black enclave it is known as today.
Mrs. Karim-Whitted can recall a time when buying ribbons from the haberdashery and playing potsie were the orders of the day. She remembers living amongst Jews, Italians, Irish and more.
She also recalls the time when they all seemed to have picked up... and left.
Q. What did Bedford-Stuyvesant look like when you were growing up, was it different from the constantly shifting Bed-Stuy of today?
A. It was integrated, in so much as we lived in the same area. In the 40’s, there were about 5-6 Caucasian families on my block. We all shopped at the same stores and all. But mostly [each ethnic group] had [its] own area. We didn’t have any Caucasian children on our block. I remember going to Greene Avenue to play with my friend Joan, but she never came to Lexington to play with me. Maybe I was naive, because in high school, she wouldn’t speak to me when she was around her Caucasian friends.
Around 1947, all the Caucasians started moving out of the neighborhood. A [staple] row of businesses left, and it became deserted property. It wasn’t like they didn’t have the business. It was as if someone said, "run for the hills." A few people stayed…Mostly senior citizens who weren't very mobile. The neighborhood was built up then, so why’d they leave? It’s surprising to me now that they’re coming back.
Q. Some argue that gentrification is a racial issue, others say it’s about class, and some argue the changes happening are revitalization. What is the lens in which you see gentrification?
A. It’s all about money. You have to have the money to buy the houses or build around here. The value of homes has gone up and it’s good for some people. Some sell because they want the money. Taking care of a house is not easy. Some retire, move to the south and other places, and live to do the stuff they didn’t have the chance to do before.
It’s easier to notice when different [ethnicities] move in. Caucasians are moving in, but it’s not like they’re moving in by the blocks. When black people move in, we don’t talk about it because they look like us. They’re in their own neighborhood. I like to see our people make progress. Why make progress and go somewhere else?
Q. What are some of the changes in you’ve noticed and how do you feel about them?
A. We have more sidewalk cafes. If all people can afford it then it’s good. The average person is trying to save money and [businesses] won’t last if they don’t bring the prices down to accommodate all residents.
There is more police presence. When the Caucasians come, the police will too. They listen to them more because they're in power. They have the money and money talks. The police don’t think [black people] are important enough.
Q. Are there any aspects of gentrification that are bad for the neighborhood?
A. You can’t buy property here now, it’s too expensive. Higher property taxes are an issue. You have to be able to pay the taxes. If you’re a senior on a fixed income, it’s hard.
Displacement is also a big issue. Owners have [tenants] that have been living in buildings for years and they want them to leave. They’re trying their best to get them out…they want to fix up that place and raise the rent 3 times to rent to the new people.
Q. Do you think there are any solutions to gentrification, and do you have any advice for the community?
A. It seems like it’s going to keep happening. We don’t have any control over it. We can learn from each other. The way Bedford-Stuyvesant was depicted most [non-blacks] didn’t want to live here…it was ”bad” and now that it's being fixing up they think it’s worthy.
When people move in they shouldn’t sit back and judge...you can’t just come in and criticize. We shouldn’t have people living on the same block without speaking to each other…without knowing each other...without trying to build with each other. People learn prejudice and feelings of superiority early and carry them along their journey. You can’t do that.
Newcomers can’t assume they are better than people that were here before and [we] can’t assume newcomers are taking from [us]. They’re bringing something too. We can continue to build the neighborhood up and live together with understanding, but it takes two to tango.
If we all could just sit down and talk, we’ll find that, we’re the same… just different colors.