What We’re Not Saying: Gentrification

You can’t live in New York without hearing the word gentrification play around you like background music. It’s the elephant lurking in stories like “What does $1M buy in NYC? Not as much as it used to.” It’s the sight of new coffee shops and restaurants popping up on a block that seemed immune to development. Signs in the neighborhood like the one pictured below, encouraging owners to "sell your property" and "buy your dream."

Sell your property, Buy your dream, Guaranteed. A sign photographed in Bed-Stuy last year. Photo: Regina Mogilevskaya

For 20 years now, Bedford-Stuyvesant has been experiencing this kind of condo-building, bar opening, home-buying wave that alters the feel of a place, and most importantly, its affordability. As part of a report on New York’s “New High-Rent Districts,” The New York Times found that rents in Bed-Stuy shot up by 41% in the past 10 yearsplacing it third on a list of the biggest rent hike areas in the city. In the decade prior, according to The Center for Urban Research, the growth of the white population in the western, Bedford side of the neighborhood was the largest percentage increase—633%—of any other group in all of New York City.

Race, class and privilege are bound up in the story of any changing New York neighborhood, but the conversation becomes more fraught and prone to stereotypes when a historically African-American neighborhood like Bed-Stuy gentrifies. As delicate and vexing as the subject can be, I wondered what we might learn about gentrification if we could hear residents in Bed-Stuy speak candidly about the changes they were seeing. Was there anything new, in fact, to learn about a phenomenon that is as old as New York?

Inside Mina Wombel's restaurant Ma' N Pop, which she co-owns with her sister. She's been in Bed-Stuy for 14 years and says, now, "Everyone is new." Photo: Regina Mogilevskaya

To get people to open up, I thought of my friend, journalist Kathleen Horan. In her Audible Original show, “Mortal City,” she goes deep with everyone from sanitation to sex workers, so I asked if she could interview a similarly diverse group in Bed-Stuy. The cross-section of people she spent time with—a real estate broker, bar and restaurant owners, a longtime resident, and local assemblywoman Tremaine Wright—help paint a more nuanced picture. We encountered perspectives we expected, opinions that caught us off guard, and welcome pointers for newcomers to the neighborhood. 

Samantha DiStefano, who was pushed out of her previous bar in Williamsburg because of rising rents, opened Mama Fox last year in Bed-Stuy, where she lives. She placed a portrait of her predecessor, Mrs. Clara Walker, owner of the legendary McDonald's Dining Room that operated in the same space from 1948 into the 90s, in Mama Fox. Photo: Kathleen Horan

What follows is Brooklyn Based’s first-ever audio narrative, What We're Not Saying, produced in partnership with Brooklyn Podcasting Studio in Park Slope. It’s not a podcast (yet), but it could be the start of one, so if you have suggestions for future topics of What We’re Not Saying, get in touch here.

Once you have a listen, we’d love to hear your thoughts. We didn’t capture every side of the story, and welcome you to share yours or keep the conversation going: you can leave a voice message here