In the summer of 1985, after a woman was raped on the concrete steps of the Fulton station of the G-line, the MTA closed the stop’s South Portland Avenue exits. In Fort Greene, at the height of Brooklyn’s crack cocaine epidemic, these seldom-used subway exits were portals into a urine-soaked underworld where purses were snatched and drugs sold, where homeless junkies defecated on concrete floors, and where at night, if you listened carefully, I’m told you could hear the sound of burning cocaine whistling through glass pipes.
Throughout the 1980s, New York City averaged well over 2,000 murders and 600,000 serious felonies per year, with much of this crime centered in Brooklyn's predominantly African-American neighborhoods. Research done by sociologist Morton Grodzins in the early 60s, and later sharpened by Nobel Prize winning economist Thomas Schelling, recognized that when the percentage of African-Americans in a neighborhood reached a certain threshold — around 20 percent — all the white citizens packed up and left. Grodzins coined the moment “The Tipping Point.” In the mid-20th century, as tipping points were reached all across the Northeast, the resulting trend came to be known as “White Flight”, as basic city services like banks, education and health care followed white citizens to the suburbs. Black people were left, without resources in urban neighborhoods that declined steadily through to the early 90s.
Yet despite violent places like the Fulton Street subway station, Fort Greene never really “tipped” like the rest of Brooklyn. Census data shows that though from the mid 50s to the mid 90s Fort Greene’s African-American population more than doubled alongside a declining standard of living, a steady population of white residents always remained.
And 20 years later, after the summer of 2005, when public pressure and the efforts of the Fort Greene Association community organization succeeded in reopening one of the notorious subway exits, it seems this diversity has remained. Long gone are the homeless junkies, but as gentrification pressures neighborhoods across Brooklyn into demographic shifts — this time from black to white — Fort Greene is, again, maintaining its heterogeneous character.
Take the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church (LAPC): Once a shelter for runaway slaves, today the church boasts a congregation that is two thirds black, one third white, with more interracial couples than any church nationwide. This kind of diversity can also be seen at neighborhood institutions like Moe’s bar — on the corner of South Portland Avenue, above the G Train entrance — which is “frequented by a crowd so racially mixed they should shoot an after school special here,” per New York magazine. Karen Brooks Hopkins, president of the locally based Brooklyn Academy of Music, believes Fort Greene to be “the most interesting and diverse community in the United States.”
But today, with the quick advance of the high-end real estate market, the neighborhood is more threatened than ever. Perhaps the key to preserving its future is through the study of its past. Fort Greene’s history, it seems, could teach us all something about building better communities.
The Fort Greene community we know today first began to evolve at the beginning of WWII, when work opportunities at the nearby Brooklyn Navy Yard exploded. After the war, however, the manufacturing- and shipyard-based economy that thrived in the 40s began a rapid decline, leading to the closing of the Navy Yard in the mid-60s. This economic downturn had a serious impact on Fort Greene, as White Flight rippled through all of Brooklyn. Despite relative diversity, Fort Greene lost over 10,000 white residents through the 50s to the mid-70s, and banks stopped lending mortgage money in Fort Greene during the mid-60s.
Yet despite the dire outlook, community groups formed to counter the decline. The LAPC fought hard to combat crime and to create communication across racial boundaries by holding town meetings to discuss and determine the cause of new incidents or problem areas. The Fort Greene Housing Office was established and administered a nonprofit mortgage pool to prevent racial or class displacement in the face of discrimination by major banks. And art institutions like Pratt and the Brooklyn Academy of Music bolstered solidarity with programs and performances that brought people together through the practice of a variety of cultural arts. Thanks to community efforts, by 1985, when the South Portland Avenue subway exits closed, Fort Greene was neither as racially homogenous or financially devastated as other predominantly black neighborhoods.
In the following years, as crime rates declined in New York City and nationwide, Fort Greene institutions like Pratt, BAM, LAPC and the Housing Office, were building residents up from the inside by pouring money and effort into activities that encouraged artistic expression and cross-cultural understanding, while simultaneously protecting affordable housing and reasonable mortgage rates. In the late 80s and early 90s, a powerful African-American artist movement began to emerge, with Fort Greene artists like Spike Lee, Bradford Marseilles and Cecil Taylor redirecting the black community’s energy into empowering jazz, hip-hop, poetry and film. In 1999, the New York Times wrote: “With the revival, Fort Greene stands to challenge Harlem as the pre-eminent center of black life, at least in New York, if not internationally.”
By the turn of the century, it was clear something exciting was happening. The neighborhood had gained chic allure. Things, again, began to change.
Ralph Jawad, owner of a deli perched above the G Train stairway, began noticing a distinct difference in clientele. “It used to be families that did their shopping here,” Jawad says, “suddenly it was just kids grabbing a six pack of beer and a sandwich.”
New restaurants, real estate offices and coffee shops opened. A study by the Real Estate Board of New York found that in 2005 alone, the average cost of buying a Fort Greene apartment rose 81.9 percent.
Curtis Hopkins, a Fort Greene resident for thirty years, is shocked and upset by the new influx of, predominantly white, residents:
“They say this was a bad neighborhood and that now it’s a nice neighborhood. Well, these nice neighborhood people just ain’t that nice. They stand at the gates of their apartments and just stare at us, looking at you like you’re about to rob them. They don’t want to touch you because they’re afraid the black will run off.”
Yet, in the eyes of most, for now Fort Greene is still relatively diverse, and a host of local institutions seek to protect this. The Pratt Area Community Council — contemporary heir to the Fort Green Housing Office — aggressively preserves affordable housing, frequently chasing after real estate giants. BAM, says President Hopkins, has “ramped up our services, quadrupled educational programs and formed closer bonds with the diverse local community.”
“There is great community identity here,” says Rev. David Dyson of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church. “The people who are attracted to this church have open hearts and open minds. Hardly a Sunday goes by that people don’t leave the service and sign some sort of petition.” Today, if you walk up the concrete steps of the recently reopened subway exit, where homeless men once slept and NYPD officers now cluster, you’ll find the aforementioned Moe’s, where the mostly young, multiracial staff and clientele embody the progressive flame that still burns strong in Fort Greene. “(Many) people who have been here for 50 years feel their neighborhood is being taken away from them,” says K. Bodi, the bar’s manager. “But the fact that today (in Fort Greene), you can sit down with someone of a different background or culture and have a great conversation, it shows people are more relaxed with who they are.”
Soon, though, it seems that some form of the Atlantic Yards project will rise up behind the neighborhood. With its luxury condos and new stores, the projected influx of wealth is potentially the greatest threat to Brooklyn’s cultural integrity to date. “This development thing is a monster,” says Dyson. “People need to be ready to combat this.” “(Atlantic Yards) will do away with gentrification,” says Bodi, “It will propose the idea of capitalism in the 16th-century Italian sense of the word.”
Asked how BAM plans to adapt to the potentially massive influx of residents, Karen Hopkins offers a response that represents the approach that built the community of Fort Greene: “BAM, and Fort Greene itself, is a focal point for artistic exchange. It is a galvanizing factor. It is a center for ideas. And people who have ideas tend to gravitate towards the center. Everyone together has fostered this energy that gives us cultural character.
“We will keep doing what we are doing.”