Bedford-Stuyvesant is one of more than a hundred distinct neighborhoods in New York City. Located in historically cosmopolitan Brooklyn, the common narrative of this culturally rich area represents a story of immigration and later ethnic enclave, of major demographic shifts and precipitous change. Today, common themes about neighborhood history remain a consistent influence in the area’s community building efforts.
This is in part because Bedford-Stuyvesant’s roots run deep. During the Great Migration of the late 19th century, thousands of African Americans escaping violence and discrimination in the South found respite in the then separate Stuyvesant Heights and Bedford area, later combined to become the neighborhood now commonly abbreviated as “Bed-Stuy.” Following World War II, men and women from the predominantly black Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem, en masse, sought respite in Bed-Stuy’s iconic brownstones, further solidifying the area as a focal point for African-American culture and identity in the Big Apple.
However challenges emerged in the mid-twentieth century, including the years of the American civil rights movement, as racial tensions flared in New York and across the nation. New York Police Department response to drug-related crimes and violence fueled charges of racism, which later lead to riots in the streets, both of which further intensified interracial strife. Widespread unemployment, institutionalized discrimination and disinvestment significantly impacted residents’ safety and security.
The situation remained especially dire in Brooklyn. In the late 1960s, 15 percent of Bed-Stuy’s 450,000 residents owned their own homes, according to author Arthur M. Schlesinger, as compared to 2 percent in the historically disenfranchised, largely black Harlem. Unlike Harlem, however, Bed-Stuy had received almost no financial support from the federal government. A New York University study published in 1967 called Bed-Stuy “[M]ore depressed and impaired than Harlem—i.e., fewer unified families, more unemployment, lower incomes, less job history.”
In 1966, Robert F. Kennedy, U.S. Senator from New York, and other influential policymakers, waded into the fray. Kennedy, responding to concentrated poverty and racial tension in the ghettos of Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere, met with area leaders and embarked on a tour of the depressed Bed-Stuy neighborhood, encountering angry residents dissatisfied and distraught about their future. Chronicling the event in his Kennedy biography Robert Kennedy and His Times, Schlesinger writes Thomas R. Jones, then a prominent black politician and state supreme court judge, told Kennedy area residents felt disenfranchised, and were largely fed up with their neighborhood’s maladies—and continued promises to study possible cures.
“I’m weary of study, Senator. Weary of speeches, weary of promises that aren’t kept… The Negro people are angry, Senator, and judge that I am, I’m angry, too. No one is helping us,” said Jones.
Kennedy believed Bed-Stuy could serve as a model for American urban revitalization. The young Senator, in concert with Mayor John Lindsay and U.S. Senator from New York Jacob K. Javitz, announced plans for a new entity combining the private and public sectors, later to be known as the Bedford-Stuyvesant Development and Service Corporation, (today, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation). Initial funding came from major organizations including the Taconic Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, the Ford Foundation and other area groups. Kennedy believed in a restoration program which focused on both plans for community programs and development, and reinvestment efforts led by business leaders.
“The program for the development of Bedford-Stuyvesant will combine the best of community action with the best of the private enterprise system,” Kennedy told residents. “Neither by itself is enough, but in their combination lies our hope for the future.”
One of the initiative’s first projects remains a substantial outcome of the Bed-Stuy effort. Restoration Plaza, home of today’s Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, Billie Holiday Theatre, civic and commercial spaces, is regarded by some residents as the center of Bed-Stuy. Other projects include housing restoration programs, mortgage financing, economic development, arts and culture and other programming efforts. Kennedy and many of the BSRC’s early proponents and board members figure prominently in modern histories of the area—a bust of Kennedy remains in Columbus Park. A narrative of the area’s struggles, and of redemption, are peppered throughout records of BSRC’s early days.
A more complex understanding of the successes and failures of the corporation’s efforts, Kimberly Johnson suggests, may indeed lie in understanding the political and historical context in which it was founded. In an article published by The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Johnson writes “The organization’s genesis came from Kennedy’s belief that there should be a bridge between the (white) private sector and the (black) community development sector. Much of the BSRC’s first decade was spent in trying to achieve that ideal.”
What followed, writes Johnson, was a period in which BSRC relied heavily on federal funding, and underwent a reorganization when those funding sources dried up. Fortuitously for BSRC’s long-term longevity, “the founding ethos of the organization did not become a straitjacket,” she writes. This ability to adapt may, in part, explains BSRC’s longevity.
Today, residents of Bed-Stuy face new issues and challenges. After a generation of urban decay, signs point to the creeping influence of larger New York City gentrification trends (already well-documented in nearby Williamsburg). Race, too, remains an issue. According to the New York Times, the once predominately black area’s white population has soared 633 percent between 2000 and 2010. BSRC’s role in the coming decades, in establishing a common future and updating the area’s history may, once more, change and adapt to meet neighborhood needs.