Finding Ground to Stand On

Many months have passed since “Stand Your Ground” was published and Bed-Stuy is still in transition. In my earlier essay, I attempted to show the complicated, and at times complicit, forces behind gentrification. The forces, which place us at the point of gentrification are larger than any personal narrative—mine included—but it is the only way I can contain and understand these forces. The people are changing—partially by choice, but overwhelmingly by circumstance—and what I’m finding out is how lost I am.

Beside going to friends, family and girls’ houses in my neighborhood, I rarely explored Bed-Stuy. I learned that wandering without a passport into other neighborhoods wasn’t wise—especially if you were coming to see a girl. Honestly, girls were the only reason why Bed-Stuy ever expanded in my mind. Even with distinct directions, there were male friends who I refused to visit because they lived in Brevoort, or Marcy, or Roosevelt or LG—and especially Brownsville. When it came to girls I was Christopher Columbus, looking for any shortcut to the Silk Road.  But even when I set out for uncharted territory in my own backyard, I never paid attention to how I got to my destination. I was too afraid to. So for a long time, I walked with my head down, not looking up until I reached the corner to look at the cross streets. Once I crossed the street my shoulders went up, head went down, and my eyes fixated on cracked concrete. I probably knew the sidewalks better than anything else since I was always staring at them. Now, I look at the faces and facades of the people and property and, it’s not the same.

Before “Stand Your Ground” was published, my editor asked if I had any pictures of Bed-Stuy to complement the essay. I didn’t. She assured me that it would be fine if I didn’t have any pictures; she would find pictures of my neighborhood on Google. I was afraid of that. I did not want to confront what images Google held of Bed-Stuy, be represented by that image and become responsible for this representation, so I opted for my own image. What I discovered about myself in the process, proved to be worse.

My initial intention had been to take a candid shot on the corner of Bedford and Stuyvesant Avenue. This did not work but it didn’t hit me until I approached Throop: “Bedford and Stuyvesant don’t cross each other… they’re parallel streets.” So where was I going? Here I am, worried about my neighborhood being misrepresented by “outsiders,” and I’m lost—in my own neighborhood.

I turn around and decide to walk back to Stuyvesant and Bainbridge, one of my favorite blocks in the neighborhood because it was the cleanest block, with the nicest houses.  I never paid much attention to how I got to this block; I just knew where it was. Walking back, however, proved a revealed something to me. Up until the point where I was trying to disprove myths about the barrenness of Bed-Stuy, I was not aware of how beautiful my neighborhood is.

Valiance brought me to the corner of Bainbridge and Stuyvesant where, camera phone in hand, I notice two things: two dudes and a girl walking down the block looking at me and how I looked taking pictures of the block like a tourist. To them, I was an outsider and I felt it. It was at this point, on the corner of Chauncey and Stuyvesant (I had walked to the other end of the block for more pictures), that I see a white kid that I went to college with. I needed him to act like he didn’t know me. Coming from the north were black kids that I did not know. From the east, there was a white kid that I did know. I stood in the middle of a moral compass hoping to navigate out of an encounter from both directions.

I wished that these black kids and this white kid paralleled, like Bedford and Stuyvesant—but paths don’t cross at your direction. Much to my dismay, the white kid spoke.

“Hey man what’s up?”

“Oh what’s up?”

I embraced him because I knew him. But for the group of black kids staring at the interaction, I could only stare back. I was at a crossroads with my romantic ideals of what it meant to be black and had to admit, at that point, that I was having a tryst with real life. I was mad that I knew the white kid and didn’t know the black kids. It should have been different but it wasn’t. Here I am writing about how “they” are transforming bed-Stuy and I know “them.” If Bed-Stuy was lost city, from where those kids were standing, I had just opened the gates to an outsider. Although it wasn’t what it looked like, I had to accept it for that.

I continued down Chauncey, suspended, still, by the encounter. It hadn’t registered that I was now back on Malcolm X, across the street from where a mural stood. It was painted by a white dude. I knew him too. The mural was painted on a Post No Bills board which guarded a building on the verge of renovation. What was innovative about the mural wasn’t even the subject matter—the mural was a painting of black bodies with African masks for heads—but the way in which the neighborhood interacted with the mural.

Rae McGrath Mural

This mural had been up for about 4 months, maybe even longer, and at no point did anyone touch it. There was no vandalism, no missing masks, no makeshift penises or other obscenities, just black bodies with their masks, unscathed, unharmed, and sacred. It was like the mural wasn’t there, but it was. I could accept this fact I observed of the mural if the sidewalks and façades—sharing the same neighborhood—were treated with the same reverence, but they weren’t. I was beginning to realize these things for the first time and maybe it’s because I now know that what was Bed-Stuy won’t ever be Bed-Stuy again. This realization bore its weight on the night of the George Zimmerman verdict.

I was sharing space, time, and conversation with a friend when my phone had vibrated with the message, “not guilty…wow.” I looked to my friend,

“Not guilty.”

“WHAT?”

“Not Guilty.”

“You’re lying.”

“Not according to this text message…”

Silence had stolen what was shared between us and we could not get it back—not today, at least. My phone continued to vibrate, and now knowing the reason for my phone’s incessant convulsions, I decided to walk my friend to the train before anything could happen.

I had anticipated a stark emotional reaction from Bed-Stuy but there was nothing. The cars, usually clamoring for direction and purpose, had been as quiet as they were in the winter when roads were blanketed in snow. The façades of once bright buildings had surrendered their vibrancy, looking as though they were renovated with dimmer pastels. The people weren’t peaceful, but they were quiet. There was a screaming dumbness on the faces of nearly everyone I passed walking my friend back to the train. There wasn’t any screaming, crying, protest, burning, riot or looting—none that I had seen or heard, anyway; there had only been resounding silence. Emotions had been transplanted elsewhere that night. Once people ceased reacting against Bed-Stuy, I knew it wasn’t the same. Bed-Stuy no longer summarizes the fears, phobias and prejudices of the people who used to live here. It is perennially becoming a reminder of what was.

–Yahdon Israel, Live from Bed-Stuy



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