by Alan McCarthy
Sunrise, and one is coaxed from slumber by the Muezzin’s call. Like the murmur of a bobbing buoy, it seeps into the sixth sense of safety of the neighborhood’s residents: comforting, reliable, and sustaining a community within a community. In the diverse neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn sustainability has as many faces as the Gods praised and the tongues spoken. With this in mind, I set out to find out what sustainability means in this changing neighborhood and how as a community we meet the challenges to sustain ourselves and those who come after us.
Bedford Stuyvesant is going through now what so many other neighborhoods in New York have experienced. Just like Alphabet City, that went from squats and reclaimed land by tenant’s rights movements to luxury condos and farm-to-table restaurants, today, Bedford Stuyvesant is being transformed at a heightened pace as people compete for space and try to stay ahead of the curve of rent increases and the ever escalating property market. With a population of 157,530 and the median income of $35,000, and one bedroom apartments now renting at $1,700, it seems that this neighborhood too is experiencing the disparity and ever widening gap between the haves and have nots.
The busy thoroughfare of Fulton street mingles with some of the oldest community gardens in Brooklyn. It shares subway access to all compass points and accommodated all indulgences, be it the latest cocktail or latte craze, heirloom tomatoes, or a shaded park bench to escape the thermometers uptick.
Walla Hassan, a student at the New School, is a first generation Egyptian American and works at her family owned restaurant, Al Masry, on Fulton and Bedford. Although their clientele have been traditionally those from the Muslim community, as the community changes they now see diners from all demographics. Through her studies in the evolving field of Micro Lending that is the extension of small loans to people who typically lack traditional employment or credit history, Walla is helping people “not to just subsist on handouts but to educate them in financing their own enterprises, uplifting and sustaining themselves and the community”.
I recently spoke with Shaniqua H, a lifelong resident with a teenage daughter and a son of 9 years old, currently displaced and living in the shelter system. This, despite the fact that she works full time as a chef in a local restaurant. She and her children had lived in the same apartment for 12 years but rent was raised beyond her means and, after she was forced out, the place was gutted and redesigned as a luxury condo to cater to the new demographic swing in the neighborhood. Here are her thoughts on sustainability:
“We as people need a lot to sustain through the many aspects of life. A good education a roof overhead and good healthy food …. Over the years food standards and the pricing has changed, the price of living has gone up, this includes housing. Food has changed a great deal for the better but the cost of the better food is too expensive in the neighborhood. It could be hard for low income or middle class families to eat healthy. If you have a health issue and your diet needs to change, will you be able to afford the foods you need to eat? This topic is very important because we need to eat well. We need to teach our children how to be healthy.”
Shaniqua is currently learning about Micro Lending and hoping to start her own line of pepper sauce in collaboration with a local garden and farmers market.
A little further north on Quincy street, I met Cheryl F. and husband C.J. Both close to retirement, they live in the brownstone home where Cheryl grew up and was purchased by her Grandfather in the late 1800’s. They see both good and bad in the changing neighborhood. Happy to see the variety on offer at the new stores on Lewis Avenue and the lively atmosphere of the new brunch spots, the downside, as Cheryl says, is that “it now takes two incomes for most families to live here and there is a disconnect in the neighborhood when people have to work all the time and Fresh Direct delivers the groceries that were ordered online.”
Like the community itself, sustainability has many diverse representatives. One consistency is that it is on people’s minds. Another: tonight, like every night, all of the community’s residents shall be lullabied to sleep by the Good Tidings Gospel Choir, giving thanks for today and gently greeting tomorrow with the Muezzin’s morning call.