Bed-Stuy: a very brief history

“Senator, we have been studied, examined, sympathized with, and planned for. What we need now is action.”

– community leader to Senator Robert F. Kennedy, 1966

Bedford-Stuyvesant has a rich past, but most notable is its present: it’s one of the few neighborhoods in Brooklyn where the residents have had a hand in its gentrification. Its nadir in the 1960s led to homegrown improvements and a sense of community that still exists today.

First settled in 1662 and named by 1667, the town of Bedford was formally purchased from the Canarsee in 1670. The price was “100 Guilders Seawant [wampum], Half a tun of strong beer, 2 half tuns of good beer, 3 guns, long barrels, with each a pound of powder, and lead proportionable–2 bars to a gun–4 match coates.” That the contract made a distinction between “strong” and “good” beer suggests Delirium Tremens was unavailable at the time.

Bedford (and the later Bed-Stuy) was initially much larger than it is today. Even in the late 1960s, it was considered to encompass much of Clinton Hill (including Pratt Institute), most of today’s Crown Heights, and some of Ocean Hill. It also included Weeksville, including the Hunterfly Road Houses. For the most part, this post will deal with the larger area.

Map from Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation’s 1968 annual report, showing planned and ongoing improvements to the neighborhood. Today’s boundary is in yellow; the area of the Hunterfly Road Houses (then unknown) is in red.

Some residents of Bedford, along with some of Bushwick and Brooklyn, played a role in destroying the King’s arms at the Court House in 1697. It was perhaps karmic payback that the town was a major quartering-area for redcoats throughout the Tories’ seven-year occupation of New York*. It was also where the British launched their attack on the Americans in August 1776.

Leffert Lefferts makes an appearance here in part because he has one of the greatest names in Brooklyn history, but also because his choice of allegiance in 1776 led to a gap in what we know about Bedford’s history. The town clerk when war broke out, Lefferts lent his support (and his money, on faith) to the American cause. Unfortunately, his loyalist assistant, John Rapelje, stole the town’s records; everything from around 1700 through the war was lost as a result.

Map of property-holdings in 1776 (with modern-day grid drawn in). (From Bedford in Breuckelen Town)

After the war, Bedford was a small community: the 1790 census records 132 freemen and 72 slaves. Rapid growth would follow major improvements to public transportation. Round one was in 1836, when the Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad connected the area to the Atlantic Avenue ferry. (Arrt’s Archives has three pages of paraphernalia from the railroad’s early days.) Round two was in 1936 — nine days short of a full century later — with the inauguration of the IND Fulton Street Line.

Both openings increased interest in Bed-Stuy, but for different reasons. In the first case, it made the area convenient for those with jobs in Manhattan. By 1873, the (mostly white) population was 14,000. In the second case, it connected the neighborhood to Harlem, the residents of which could take the A train to Bed-Stuy as a means to escape. The population exploded from 45,000 in 1920 (total, the great majority white) to 65,000 in 1940 (counting just blacks).

Children sit on a stoop on Herkimer Street in this Daniel Berry Austin photograph, c. 1900. (From the Brooklyn Collection)

It was around this time that locals began to call Bedford and Stuyvesant Heights by the combined name. Stuy Heights, which I will cover at a later date, was popular with the upper class in the late 19th century. Probably its most notable resident was F.W. Woolworth.

This significant ethnic shift resulted in at least one positive change for the black community: access to property. Housing discrimination was still rampant in the mid-20th century, but the concentration led to increased purchasing-power. (Recall that Weeksville was founded for the same reason, although in that era property conferred voting-rights for blacks. We’ll see a parallel here in a bit.)

By the 1960s, the outlook was bleak. 450,000(!) residents occupied just 653 blocks, making it the second-largest black community in the country (Chicago’s South Side was first). The area’s high schools had a 70% drop-out rate.  Infant-mortality, delinquency, and unemployment rates were twice the city average. Underemployment was at 28% — astounding even today, but especially so when you consider the city’s unemployment rate was just 3.7%. Many of Bed-Stuy’s brownstones had fallen into disrepair. Crime was high; race riots broke out.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy visited on February 4, 1966 to see the neighborhood first-hand. A year later, he and Senator Jacob K. Javits, a Republican, put forth a plan to revitalize the area. (This was back when bipartisanship was still a thing.) The plan created two new groups: Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (BSRC) and Development and Services Corporation (DSC).

RFK at the announcement of the new organizations, 1967. (From the Brooklyn Historical Society)

The two corporations were to act as partners. BSRC, its board composed of residents, would develop projects for the area; DSC was the financial arm, bringing together leaders in the business world to encourage investment in the area. Within a year, the project had attracted $1.6 million in private funds; I.M. Pei was commissioned to create a pedestrian-friendly “superblock”, which is now part of Crown Heights.

The groups soon consolidated under the BSRC banner. BSRC is still around today, based in Restoration Plaza, once a Sheffield Farms milk-bottling plant on Fulton Avenue. The building’s conversion was part of the initial plan.

From BSRC’s June/July 1980 newsletter.

And what about that comment I made about voting? Well, if the community couldn’t be disenfranchised through housing-discrimination, it sure could be by gerrymandering. After the 1960 census, Bed-Stuy was segregated into five different Congressional districts, each with a white representative. After local journalist Andrew W. Cooper succeeded in a lawsuit (Cooper v. Power) under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the map was redrawn. Shirley Chisholm won the 1968 election to the new 12th Congressional district, and became the first black woman to serve in Congress.

In recent years, the area has undergone further gentrification, as its brownstones offer less-expensive alternatives to those in Park Slope. In the 1990s, Bed-Stuy became associated with the Notorious B.I.G. and other hip-hop acts. Perhaps because of the aura of danger and criminality imbued by Biggie’s lyrics, some realtors, in a tired trick (see “Greenwood Heights”), have begun referring to western Bed-Stuy as Clinton Hill. The irony here, of course, is that Biggie actually grew up in Clinton Hill.

Bound sources:

Annual report of Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, 1968.

The neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Kenneth T. Jackson, Ed. (Yale University Press, 2004).

Bedford-Stuyvesant by Wilhelmina Rhodes Kelly, part of the series “Images in America” (Arcadia Publishing, 2007).

Bedford-Stuyvesant: the anatomy of a central city community by Mary H. Manoni (Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 1973).

Bedford in Breuckelen Town, from 1667 to 1868: an historical sketch, with map by Watson Burdette O’Connor (Burwey Press, 1926).

A history of the city of Brooklyn : including the old town and village of Brooklyn, the town of Bushwick, and the village and city of Williamsburgh by Henry R. Stiles (Heritage Books, 1993 reprint, orig. 1867-1870).

*Sometimes my readings include amateur publications where the writing is of, shall we say, amusing quality. One was Bedford in Breuckelen Town, which had six copies printed. Inside was this gem: “Great fear and dislike of the Hessian troops was felt by the inhabitants on account of their actions and the children were often hidden in the immense feather beds when these marauders appeared.”

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2 Responses to Bed-Stuy: a very brief history

  1. khymowitz says:

    Good piece. You might want to read my take on Bed Stuy gentrification here: http://www.city-journal.org/2013/23_3_bed-stuy.html

  2. I’ve been trying to recall when I first heard Clinton Hill (like Stuyvesant Heights) being taken seriously. When I was at Brooklyn Tech in the 90s, Pratt Institute was in Ft. Greene. Perhaps around the 2000s.

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