The Changing Faces of Fort Greene: A New Skool Report
By New Skool Journalists: Nicoletta Bumbac, Anne Donlon, Oscar Rene Lopez, Dean Mejia, Jesse Theobald-Ellner, and Nicole Bazelias
Edited by: Meghan McDermott, Yamini Nayar, and Knox Robinson
This series of new skool journalism workshops found our writers, all high school students from across the city, reporting on the neighborhood of Fort Greene, a small swath of tree-lined streets wedged between Bedford-Stuyvesant and Downtown Brooklyn. There’s a lot to dig—and dig into—there: depending on who’s speaking. Fort Greene is a predominately black neighborhood with a strong arts tradition now facing rapid gentrification. Or it’s a neighborhood on the rise, full of multi-culti hipsters dipping in and out of bars and bistros. From a mix of prearranged interviews, on-the-street Q&As, and their own unique observations, the new skoolers created narratives that evoked the swift currents of a neighborhood in transition and perhaps going several directions at once.
Mathematics, by Anne Donlon
Fort Greene is a place of theories and equations. Numbers fly through the air, attaching themselves to buildings, signs in real estate offices, statistics, and price tags.
At 771 Fulton Street, Jon Berry’s Exodus Industrial has sat for the past five years. Average age of customer: 35-45, from Fort Greene. And since his store opened, his customers have shifted from artistic to corporate. “Now I have customers with more money, but they don’t understand what I’m doing,” he says. What he’s doing is designing clothes using industrial elements (think wire, rubber, window screens). And in hard times, when the economy’s tight, when most stores go back to the basics, he goes to denim—“denim, but fashionable denim.”
Outside a woman is talking on her cell phone, looking at the denim dress in the window. Red thread swivels down the seam. “I don’t even want to know how much this is going to cost.” She laughs and keeps walking down Fulton Street.
On the sidewalk in front of the Brooklyn Moon Café, poet Tyren (Grfx) explains his theory of creativity. His flow chart goes like this: first there are artists with innovative work. Then, after a year and a half, the copycats arrive: “Commodifiers try to make a buck and compromise the art form.” After three or four years the cycle begins again. New artists come in with original ideas. He says Fort Greene is now approaching a renewal.
The woman walks further down Fulton. On the corner she passes Ray Hand’s tree of hats. Metal branches stem out at acute angles and carry the hats he designs. He’s having a sale this weekend, he tells a woman who has stopped to browse. Ray Hand lives by his fun equation, although he won’t tell you exactly what it is. He stops two girls walking by and hands them cards advertising the party he’s hosting. He calls out to some guys passing in their SUV, reminding them about his party, and gives a wave. “Everyone has their own fun equation,” he says. “You just have to remember the things you liked to do when you were young.” Selling in Fort Greene seems to be part of his fun equation. He also sells his products to stores and on the street in the Village. He likes selling in Fort Greene, though. In Brooklyn, he says, he can let his third eye sleep.
Old Attitudes Die Hard, by Jessie Theobald-Ellner
When I leave the subway station, I’m surprised to find that the light in Fort Greene is the same as Manhattan. The park where we sit is mostly concrete with a playground in a corner and several basketball courts on one side. A basketball game plays out, and the jungle gym accommodates a group of kids that swoop about, but the expected noise of recreation seems swallowed by the peaceful residential quiet that surrounds the park. Despite Fort Greene’s reputation as a tough neighborhood, this is not a nervous quiet. There is nothing ominous about it. But Cas, a member of B.K. Hi, the upcoming rap group of Fort Greene now being produced by Off The Truck record company, says, “I wouldn’t raise my kid here.” Cas is eighteen, small, and talkative. And self-conscious about his appearance; he came to play basketball and is wearing faded red sweatpants, so he’d rather be photographed from the waist up. His cousin, Paparazzi, the other member of B.K. Hi, sits quietly by for the beginning of the interview, shivering as the bright day approaches the coolness of late afternoon.
So why wouldn’t Cas raise his kids here? For one, Fort Greene used to be the home of some of the city’s most notorious projects. Myrtle Avenue, a main street that runs through the western edge of the neighborhood, used to be called Murder Avenue because of gang warfare. The owner of Brooklyn Moon, a Fort Greene café with nightly poetry readings, remembers when half the lights on the block didn’t get electricity. And According to Cas and Paparazzi, the Crypts are still around, and the cops think the park where we sit is a “dope park.” Some of B.K. Hi’s music speaks to the issues of growing up in Fort Greene: hustling as a teenager and hearing murders at night.
But these rappers are in the midst of a changing scene. There is a burgeoning artistic community of poetry, drama, and visual arts. According to Off Broadway Online, Howard J. Aibel recently bought the South Oxford Space in Fort Greene where 20 theater companies are able to pay below-average rent. Many people you meet on the street extol Fort Greene’s vibrancy, its nightlife, and shops where local designers sell their clothes. Most people in the street are young, as the neighborhood is drawing those attracted to the developing culture.
As the neighborhood becomes more attractive, gang warfare is replaced by new problems. New people bring with them higher rents. And while the influx of people is good for the businesses and designers of Fort Greene, as Moon’s owner notes, the neighborhood is exceeding some residents’ budgets. Lilly Picu, a graduate of the Pratt Institute, a school for the arts in Fort Greene, remembers the tensions between families and newcomers as a younger generation started to move in.
However, these tensions are not always visible. People still call across the street “Hey man? What’s up?” There seems to be a comfortable familiarity between the people. Intriguing old houses with scalloped shingles and large, wooden porches flanking broad, tree-lined streets appear unaware of the changes taking place. Purebred dogs, bistros, and SUVs are the out-of-place evidence of Fort Greene’s metamorphosis; the occasional beer bottle and empty, fenced-off lot speak of Fort Greene’s troubled past.
Perhaps the conflict is more in the mind of the people who do not accept that Fort Greene is not the same as it was a decade ago. Cas’s children would probably not be faced with the challenges he was. There may be fewer guns and fewer drugs, but if you spent your entire life trying to escape Fort Greene, then Fort Greene may always be the place you strive to rise above. It does not matter how many restaurants open or how many gangs leave. For some who grew up in the midst of Fort Greene’s more violent years, success will be measured by the distance between themselves and Fort Greene. It was the place of obstacles in childhood and will never be the place of opportunity. Fort Greene may have changed, but some of its children are slower to follow.
A Different World, by Oscar Rene Lopez
The street was semi-empty and a few cars passed by around 1 p.m. on Saturday. Later on that day it got busier. Fort Greene is full of excitement and music and lots of culture. It was February but there were trees with fully sprouted green leaves, leaves that were still intact and had not fallen off. It felt safe. People seemed safe, like the leaves on the tree. Despite the chilly air, people walked around as if it was summer, not even worried by the cold. It was so alive, music on the streets and across, the way people were exchanging salutations. It seemed that everyone knew each other, or if they didn’t they still smiled and said “hi” or “afternoon.”
It was very tranquil and very noisy at the same time. The only thing missing were the teenagers of this community. There were many mothers strolling baby carriages, and that was the only noise you would hear—rubber wheels sliding along the smooth cemented sidewalk.
It’s Saturday, maybe the teenagers went on a date? But all of them? I don’t think so. Where was the music of hip-hop culture coming from? Was it the adults playing it? There weren’t really kids in Fort Greene Park either, just a few playing basketball, little African American children struggling to shoot some hoops, but no teenagers. Most were accompanied by adults and were about 5 years old. Come to think of it, most of the adults who roamed the streets in Fort Greene were between 20 to 30 years old. They were young adults living in an old neighborhood. But there weren’t any sightings of the elderly population, either. But nevertheless, young teenagers where nowhere. Maybe the old saturated the young and remained young themselves? Irony plays a cool role in Fort Greene.
Back in the park, there was a mother named Patricia Bailey, 41, from East New York, who was watching her son play basketball with the local kids. “I bring my kids here because the parks are safer,” she said while cheering her son on. “No one fights with their hands anymore,” she said. Is that why not enough teenagers were in sight? Could they be scared of each other? Richard Peterson, 68, joked, “most kids stay around the projects, sometimes. Most times they aren’t around, which is a good thing because I have six grandchildren who kill my nerves, so basically, would I have time for a bunch of crazy teenagers?”
The only color to pop up was blue. The day was sparkling, chilly crisp blue. The air passed right through many blue real estate advertisement signs and gave them motion. A shop called Exodus gave a beautiful window street display of the denim clothes it creates. It should have been called Fort Blue. It’s a cool coincidence, or is it irony?
So where have the kids run off to? This neighborhood was so old, but we never really saw any elderly people roam the streets. All we saw were young adults (working in the real estate business, helping other 20-30 year olds in a sale). How funny and cool. Maybe the old saturated the youth and took over.
Fort Greene: Renting an Expensive Culture, by Nicoletta Bumbac
A Saturday morning in Fort Greene—the idealistic setting of everyone relaxing and just going about practicing their routine activities, or just shooting hoops at the park with friends. So how come Fort Greene differs from other areas in New York, if it’s just a normal neighborhood? Over the years, Fort Greene has developed into a unique part of town where it’s almost “normal” to live your life outside the strict business suit lifestyle; it’s a modern subcultural setting where many newer residents spend their days working in the underground music scene, writing, and comfortably going about their daily routine. Well, maybe you can call it a normal area, depending on your definition of normalcy, but the significance of Fort Greene keeping its status comes from the personality of the community and through the contributions of people themselves.
What was once an arsty-craftsy neighborhood has developed gradually into an arty enclave with an edge to it. The immediate result of people becoming attracted to Fort Greene’s lifestyle is one that real estates visibly notice. With more popularity comes a diverse crowd exercising the term “cultural diffusion.”
Many tend to adapt each other’s ways over time, and Ginny, a full time teacher at P.S. 44 (about a mile from Fort Greene) and part-time DJ in her mid-20s can tell you Fort Greene has become more gentrified. Her reason for moving here is because she claims Fort Greene to be a small neighborhood with a lot going on, exhibiting an energetic vibe which seems to be contagious, which explains the friendliness of the conversations. Of course there are consequences—you have to pay to reside in Fort Greene, just as Ginny splits her $1,800 monthly rent with her roommate off her teacher’s salary. The living conditions in her apartment aren’t as attractive as you would expect, but the creatively arranged decorations and paintings on her walls somehow keep you from noticing the slant from the way her wooden floors were built. There is no doubt about it—prices are greatly increasing and even the New York Times stated a year ago how people who can no longer afford it are being pushed out of Fort Greene, and one landlady raised her rent from $1,400 to $2,400 for the next tenant.
Some might say Fort Greene has a dark side to it, but residents believe it’s whether you choose to stand under the sun in F.G. that makes the difference. The experience of going to Fort Greene shows how a local neighborhood can prosper by the genuine smiles of the people there. The brownstones being renovated keep Fort Greene modernized, but the people become the spices adding flavor to the melting pot of the neighborhood.
Progression Evidently Hits, by Dean Mejia
Most of the talk by long-time residents of Fort Greene regarding its “changing face” is accompanied by negative connotations. These people generally fall into the colorful urban/Latino category and have gone through the worst that the neighborhood had to offer. They are hard-working people who just want to find a place where they can rest their heads at night. They tend to look out for each other, because they feel that no one else is going to look out for them, now the residents see more white people moving in and their rents simultaneously getting higher. They have a right to gripe. Many of them are being forced out of their apartments because they can’t afford to pay.
It’s a real tear-jerker! Crying won’t stop this environmental evolution, though. This is how things work. When a piece of property is cleaned up, it becomes more desirable. This makes more people want to own it, or in Fort Greene’s case, live in it. The neighborhood is culturally rich. There were Revolutionary War battles fought in the area.
Celebrities put it on the map and make it stand out more. Thus prices go up and the people with the least amount of money tend to end up on the short end of the stick, or off the stick altogether.
To coin a word that I presume to have been accidentally made up by Paul Castellano (the alias of a member from an up-and-coming rap group out of Fort Greene known as Brookyln Hi)—“evidentually.” If I had to make sense of the word, I’d define it as: it’s evident that eventually a certain thing has to happen. Evidentually things had to change. Like the cliché about change being the only thing that’s constant, some residents of the neighborhood may say that the only thing that’s constant is change that negatively affects them in the long run. On a wider scale, though, change in the neighborhood has been beneficial. Fort Greene used to be a pioneer in drug-related crimes and its Myrtle (“Murder”) Avenue was once infamous for its violence. I figure that the residents would welcome the change.
I compare Fort Greene’s situation to the N.B.A. draft. When the N.B.A. draft rolls around, the team that has done the worst all season usually gets the best new players. When these players join their respective teams they generate more excitement. The new player also usually takes the place of an older player on the team. Fort Greene was one of the worst teams in the league (or neighborhoods in the city), so it needed a faceliFort Now it generates more excitement. Some unfortunate players are left sitting on the bench. Those that are really out of luck are left only with park benches.
They’ve been in Fort Greene since before it was trendy. They were living in it when it was like a war zone. They’ve survived! Brooklyn Hi survived! Ray who sells his custom-made hats on the corner of Fulton survived. Now they’re just being put in a different scenario, but it still calls on them to survive. Mike from the Brookyln Moon Café just recently acquired his liquor license. This means that he’ll be able to stay open later. He’ll make more money. This means that for him, it’ll be easier to survive.
Personally I think that it’s good that new and fresh faces are moving into the neighborhood. It makes for a good balance of tradition and innovation. I know that by saying this I’m not winning any votes for president of the “keepin’ it real” fan club, but the gentrification will keep things moving. The neighborhood will be “keepin’ it interesting.”
Notes from Fulton Street, by Nicole Bazelias
Brooklyn is defined by a troop of streets that call for the treading of feet, while beckoning their communities to accept them as legitimate members. Fulton Street, like a much appreciated but not fully acknowledged parent, hangs onto minute displays of affection that say so much. Reaching across the blocks of Fort Greene, it travels like a loving, bending, flowing river to pass messages from tire shops to customers in the Exodus clothing boutique, then pushes on a tide past Not Ray’s Pizzeria, and then the iridescence of the Brooklyn Moon Café. It waits as the sun wakes soles that have never pounded pavement but only dance on the surface of it, soles that momentarily wind their rubber fingers around the slivers of glass that chose to embed themselves in the concrete—accepting existence among rebellious tree roots over uselessness. And the street accepts its own existence while relationships continually sprout on the banks, faces, and stories flowing around Brooklyn.
This project was funded by a grant from Poets and Writers, Inc., with the support of the New York State Council of the Arts.