Early on the morning of July 4, 2006 was the only time anyone ever tried to mug me on the streets of my adopted home, Brooklyn, New York. I was walking south on Taaffe Place in camp counselor clothes—a blue polo, cheap white sneakers, and tight green shorts—on a nearly deserted block leading to my building’s front door. It was just after midnight. I was having a phone conversation with a friend in California. Half a block from home, a man in a white T-shirt offered me a cigarette, his voice escaping his mouth in a low, dreadful mumble. I didn’t notice it at first, but as I passed him, shaking off the invitation to smoke, I glimpsed what appeared to be a sawed-off bike handle in his right hand. As I continued walking up the block, I gleaned that he was following me from the play of his shadow on a brick wall to my right.
I’m a light-skinned negro who weighs over two hundred pounds. I used to play offensive guard on a half-decent high school football team. But I was dressed like a buffoon, almost never get in fights, and had a man-purse with a brand-new black MacBook in it. Mark. When I realized the man was following me, I was saddened by the prospect of having to smack a motherfucker in the face with my new laptop, the one I’m currently writing this essay on seven years later. So I ran.
Across the street, up the block. He pursued me to my building’s front door, but I was able to open the door and pivot into the building before the man could strike me with his peculiar improvised weapon. He lashed the sawed-off end of the bike handle at me, but I got out of the way and proceeded to smash his arm, several times, as hard as I humanly could, with the very heavy glass and metal door that led to 227-241 Taaffe Place.
A tall, thirtysomething white man looked on in horror as my attacker removed his now surely injured limb from the door. I slammed it shut, my assailant cursing loudly from the other side of the glass, his slender body shuddering. He was in great pain. I never hung up the phone, so my friend in California, hearing the commotion, was loudly asking me if I was all right, as I held the phone near my chest, breathing hard, staring at this man who had meant me harm.
He was clearly much worse off than I was, for reasons no doubt of his (and our) own making, long before the possibility of stealing from me was something he tried to act on. Now, from the other side of the glass door, he said, tears in his eyes, “Fuck you, fuck you, yella ass nigga, I gonna get yal mothafuckin shit, this is Bed-Stuy bitch.” Then he sauntered off. I went upstairs, to the seventh-story loft I lived in, smoked a spliff, and got ready to face the phony celebration of national independence that the day promised to offer.
“This is Bed-Stuy, bitch.” That’s not what everyone else was saying.
It’s difficult to say exactly how long I’ve lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant. It’s not for lack of trying. For some time I believed I first moved to the neighborhood in summer 2008, but by any honest accounting of the neighborhood’s actual geography, I first moved there in summer 2004, into a stuffy two-bedroom apartment on Throop Avenue, just south of the Flushing Avenue border with “East” Williamsburg, across the street from the notoriously shoddy Woodhull Medical Center. I only lived there for four months before a year-and-a-half-long tour of quasi-illegal Manhattan dwellings (Battery Park City! Inwood!), but then I came back. I now believe I have resided in what is geographically Bedford-Stuyvesant, the most historically African American of all Brooklyn neighborhoods, and now the fastest-gentrifying, for fifty-seven months over the past nine years.
When I moved into the apartment on Taaffe in summer 2006, I thought, and my roommate thought, that we were moving to Clinton Hill. This had been one of my roommate’s stipulations when we started our search. My wealthy childhood friend, the type who was awkward, bookish, and intense in middle school, the type who somewhat iconoclastically befriended the Star Trek–obsessed, nerdy, overweight child of black middle-class Cincinnati strivers, simply rebuffed the idea of living in Bed-Stuy. He didn’t want to do it. I blinked twice as he said this, unsure how to respond as he spun out his logic. He preferred somewhere already gentrified, and if not in the ragingly hip precincts to our north (Williamsburg!) or increasingly refined enclave to our west (Fort Greene!), then at least somewhere that wasn’t Bedford-Stuyvesant.
He grimaced and shook his head when I mentioned it again, a bit further into our apartment search. This is a rich midwestern white man who would go on to vote for Obama and has seen Belly and Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood at least three times, who beneath his cool patrician vibe is a genuinely searching and tortured and open person, a lover of jazz and boxing and ’60s soul—who could still passively assume in conversation over dinner with a mutual friend that of course black celebrity X or Y “would squander all his money, they always do.” No one seems to call this double consciousness, but someone should.
I’m an agreeable person, perhaps to a fault, so after some time, as it began to look like we might end up staying at our parents’ if we didn’t say yes to an apartment, I relented and agreed to live above my means on Taaffe Place. When walking into the office to sign the lease agreement, I remember saying to my old friend, “I’m going to really have to hustle to make this rent.” He nodded past me, as if a passerby had said something vaguely interesting that he hadn’t quite heard.
I had a bachelor’s degree in film and film history, and I wanted to make movies, but in the meantime I could teach. That summer I taught film history at an arts summer camp in Long Island. This involved driving an ailing mid-’90s Ford sedan from my “Clinton Hill” loft seventy-two miles round trip in rush hour traffic on the Long Island Expressway to teach spoiled kids about movies they had no business watching. Still, we watched The Passenger and Pierrot le Fou and Clerks II. In a way, it was worth it.
And I liked Taaffe Place, whether it was in Clinton Hill or Bed-Stuy. Anyway the idea that an amorphous, systematic conspiracy concerning the geography of central Brooklyn was afoot seemed implausible. I wasn’t deluded enough to think that lofts inhabited by kids with mysteriously inexhaustible checking accounts and spliff-smoking wannabe filmmakers had always existed on Taaffe Place, across the street from the Lafayette Houses and catercorner to the police station where Spike Lee shot the exteriors for that underrated Brooklyn hood/cop/drug/redemption Harvey Keitel drama Clockers (that cop station rests on the Clinton Hill side of Classon Avenue, BTW). But one could step into Sputnik, the Leninist-themed hip-hop bar across the street from my building, which occasionally hosted some of the late greats from a previous era of central Brooklyn rap culture (DJ Premier, M-1, et cetera), and think that some multiracial, class-diverse utopia had found its way to this tucked-away part of the borough.
Those were months, which soon turned into years, of magical thinking. “You were middle class in college,” my godmother had said to me after I graduated, “but now you enter the world a poor negro for the first time in your life.” Maybe so. But in the Brooklyn night, I smelled opportunities to make lasting things and I chose to believe that they would open themselves effortlessly, that I wouldn’t have to struggle, that grinding class and status anxieties would not have to define my way of encountering the world.
As 2006 became 2007, my roommate spent increasingly more time inside our home with his bass, trying to attain perfect pitch by playing incredibly slow chord progressions over and over and over, to the great, unending annoyance of his roommate, who was trying to think. At first it really didn’t seem possible that he would never get a job in the two years I lived there, nor even so much as appear to be looking for one, eventually allowing the sheer fact of his effortless affluence to overwhelm our shared space and, in the end, our friendship. For one thing, I didn’t think his parents would allow it.
I saw the same looks of exasperation on their faces every holiday when they asked me about his job prospects. Really? I thought. Where was the good ol’ boys’ club when you needed it? Surely this intelligent young man, who read real literature and thought about things with seriousness, would find his way in the world. Surely.
After my summer teaching at the arts camp, I took a job managing the office of a well-respected if not well-financed independent film production company for $800 a month—which meant I needed one other job, or several, to make the rent. Although I wasn’t a technician, I took jobs on sets in my spare time, driving trucks for $100 a day on bad indie movies that would sell at Sundance for millions. I edited web videos about dirt biking in Mexico, produced short films about lovelorn redheaded bike messengers, made documentaries about bookstores for travel websites, and ghostwrote a lot: papers on Ermanno Olmi for college students, artificially humane director’s statements for debutante filmmakers, and a comedic screenplay about the conquest of Colombia for John Leguizamo. I drove people I found on Craigslist to odd corners of New York to shoot documentary footage of old trains. But it was never enough to lift me out of poverty; my rent was just too damn high.
Many days, especially after I moved on from the production company job in mid-2007 at the behest of my employers (I would make a “better employer than employee,” they said with odd affection, allowing me to keep the keys and use their office for casting or taking a meeting or even, a few times, a late night joint), I wished I simply had the time to attempt to make meaningful art of my own. I rarely found it anymore. Most of the free time I did have I passed smoking weed in my stairwell or Fort Greene Park, all in order to avoid my melancholy home. It was not the life that had been sold to me in the film school brochures.
We never once admitted to each other that we lived in an overpriced Bedford-Stuyvesant loft, one that was slowly choking away my desires and our friendship. And I never once admitted that despite all this, I loved my roommate, so much. I’d never had a brother and he had become one to me. I didn’t want to move out. So I kept borrowing money on credit cards and deferring my student loans.
Would it have mattered if we’d known we were in Bed-Stuy? I don’t know. It might not have meant much to me then. But maybe it would have helped. “Clinton Hill” was bullshit, but Bed-Stuy was a place of black history—the site of one of the first communities of black freedmen in the 1800s, it later became the “Harlem of Brooklyn,” and then, more recently, Spike Lee’s Bed-Stuy, and Biggie Smalls’s Bed-Stuy. The Marcy Projects, where Jay-Z grew up, were just a fifteen-minute walk north of where we lived. “Cough up a lung / where I’m from / Marcy son / ain’t nothing nice.” I don’t know that any of this would have mattered. But it might have given me the gumption to say to my friend, “Look, I’m drowning. Either we find a cheaper place to live, or help me with my rent.” Of course I never said that, and eventually we moved out, separately.
What was Bed-Stuy? When I brought it up with my family in Ohio, they always mentioned Spike Lee. He was synonymous with Bed-Stuy, even if he’d never actually lived there. And I’m sure the worlds of Crooklyn and Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, forty and thirty years gone, respectively, have some bearing on the Bed-Stuy I’ve lived in, but I haven’t found it. The black barbers and jazz musicians I know don’t live in such elegance; nor do they have such striver-centric social anxiety. Why would they? The brownstone on Arlington Place that Spike and Co. shot Crooklyn in recently sold for $1.7 million. In these days of the form’s increasing cultural irrelevance, there isn’t a hit jazz record on Earth that would sustain for its creator that kind of mortgage. Or a haircut.
After I left Taaffe Place and moved deeper into Bed-Stuy, I frequently walked down the Bed-Stuy block, Stuyvesant between Lexington and Quincy, where Do the Right Thing, Lee’s sole narrative masterpiece, was shot. Whenever I’d ask a young man who was more or less the age Martin Lawrence was in that film if he’d ever seen it, he’d shake his head no or pass me by without a word. It’s almost always empty in the middle of the summer, that block. The busy and bustling community depicted in that film was a fantasy. Which is not to say those early Lee films don’t represent a certain reality of the place. But it was a vision of Bed-Stuy as much less poor and desperate and sad than it actually must have been in those years; a Bed-Stuy that was more like the liberal, middle-class neighborhood where Lee himself grew up: Fort Greene.
When Do the Right Thing came out in the summer of 1989, the media worried that it would cause race riots. They shouldn’t have. In Lee’s films—like in the blaxploitation films he generally found wanting despite his affection for some of the performers—the nationalists, the Muslim rabble rousers, the dudes who “want some brothers on the wall,” always get short shrift at the end: they are embarrassed, or jailed, or, in the case of Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing, they die a violent death. In his more nuanced films (including Malcolm X), they transform into more complicated individuals, people willing to grasp the ambivalence of negro existence and understand that the white man is only part of the problem and naturally an even bigger part of any lasting solution. Watch the films. That’s actually what’s in them, from Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop (Mr. Lovejoy, the sharply dressed, black nationalist gangster antagonist is seen as a shark and charlatan) through Bamboozled (where Mos Def’s nationalist meets a violent, undignified end). The revolution never comes, only imperfect compromise with the nefarious forces of racial animus or institutional corruption. Those forces are rendered benign not through greater understanding, but through mutual resignation to the status quo. Neither Lee nor his cinema has ever been revolutionary. The resilient but embattled negro middle class consumed Lee’s images for years, letting him give the nationalists just enough rope to hang themselves with. Lee was the middle class’s champion no less than Bill Cosby, the scion of their aspirations and the troubadour of their anxieties. But they didn’t show up for his more difficult Brooklyn tales, like He Got Game and Clockers. And eventually he was begging all of us for money on Kickstarter.
The rapper Lil’ Kim’s younger brother Bo was my third Bed-Stuy landlord. He grew up in the neighborhood, knew Biggie Smalls personally, and, like many a young man I got to know in my time there, was from a broken home. Along with his more famous sister, as an adolescent he cared for himself on those unforgiving corners. He had long since decamped for Queens, although early each month he’d sail by in his Lexus SUV, one with rims that spin on their own, to collect our rent. It was kind of a shock when I first met him—he’s diminutive, like his sister, but with a warm manner, speaking New Yorkese with a velocity that rivals Korean. He counts cash, which is how we paid for the place, faster than any human being I’d ever seen. Never once did he replace or fix anything in our crumbling Brooklyn digs; we’d simply do it ourselves and take money out of the rent for it. Still, I thought it was neat having a black landlord in our mostly black neighborhood. I was beginning to think by law you had to be a Hasidic Jew to own a piece of property in this part of town.
This was at 551 Kosciuszko Street, between Malcolm X and Stuyvesant, just a block and a half south of the Bushwick border. It’s one of the poorest zip codes in the borough; much of the neighborhood is dominated by a series of decaying row houses and brick walk-ups filled with immigrants from the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished countries. I lived in a four-bedroom town house with a hard-drinking white lighting technician friend from film school, who’d given up on making art of his own, and an assortment of other clowns from various stages of our lives. The place cost half what I’d paid in “Clinton Hill,” and the constant, unspoken class antagonism that had taken hold of me and my well-heeled friend no longer existed. I bought nickels from young Haitian or Dominican kids on our block, or from a skinny, gold-grilled thirtyish black dealer named G, who lived around the corner, on Pulaski, with his two kids and Spanish wife. I had been introduced to him by JP, a charismatic Haitian teenager, already the father of a young child himself, who lived with his mother and younger brothers in a squalid apartment across the street. Crackheads lived in the basement apartment beneath them. I’d spy them from my window sweeping the sidewalk or taking out the trash gingerly each dawn before their morning beer, leering at one another and the new day outside in that serene, docile way they seem to have when they aren’t screaming their heads off. From my window I once watched JP, who couldn’t have been much older than 18 when I met him, dropkick one of them, as I entertained a friend from college.
JP was a good man to know in the neighborhood. When he went to jail for a couple years after assaulting a drunk white kid with a taser and trying to coerce him into going to an ATM and giving him and his friend some cash, my home became a de facto day-care center for JP’s little brothers, Roland and Mordecai.
I didn’t really put down roots, though, because as the housing crisis reached a fever pitch my landlord Bo found himself significantly underwater. We were served with eviction papers pretty routinely, always accompanied by Bo’s easygoing assurances that his lawyers were “handling it.” I noticed the mid-six-figure number the bank claimed he owed them and thought there was no surer sign the country had lost its collective mind than the idea that this crumbling home was worth that much to anyone. Especially, I’d think (in bad faith, I know), in this neighborhood.
I wanted, very badly, to ask Bo about Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G., a.k.a. Christopher Wallace, but I couldn’t figure out how. In general he was a very open guy, but I knew he was guarded about (a) the status of our ever impending eviction and (b) his family. His sister Lil’ Kim had a rocky relationship with Wallace, and had been involved in a well-publicized love triangle involving Wallace and the singer Faith Evans, whom he’d married in 1994. All this was dramatized in Notorious, a 2009 biopic about Biggie, and I had to content myself with watching that, several times, while living under Bo’s roof.
It’s not a great movie, or even a good one. Keeping a biopic of a tragic public figure hopeful and reverent, especially one about a hip-hop musician who met with such a swift rise and violent end, is a troubling proposition; in the case of the largely compromised but never less than fascinating Notorious, it’s one that pretty much sinks the entire enterprise. Still, before the phony redemption tale, there are some good scenes of life in Bed-Stuy circa 1990. We see a young Biggie rocking headphones as he sits listlessly on his building’s stairwell, consuming the jams of DJ Marley Marl and Slick Rick. As he gets older, as with so many youth in my zip code, the lure of easy money proves too much, too quickly; Chris begins dealing crack (in front of the Fat Albert’s on Broadway, under the JMZ track, no less!), but after a brief stint in jail and the birth of his first child, he tries his hand at rapping. Pretty soon his demo draws the attention of an ambitious young producer and promoter (Derek Luke gets the dubious honor of portraying Puffy Combs, the film’s executive producer and the picture’s voice of personal growth/moral reasoning, in a truly astounding, sickening performance—“We gonna change the world, Big, but first, we gotta change ourselves”), and the rest is history.
As the film draws to a close, Biggie, in “generating cinematic tragedy 101” fashion, proves what a stand-up guy he is, realizing the faults of his ways and making amends to everyone he’s fucked over. This includes his first girlfriend: overweight and dark brown with nappy hair, she’s the jilted mother of his largely ignored child. That he left her for a thinner, lighter-skinned woman (my landlord’s sister!), whom he then left for a prettier, even lighter-skinned woman, whom he then cheated on with a blond-haired white woman (who, in the film’s only legitimately gruesome scene of violence, is beaten up by Faith Evans after she catches Biggie in the act), is never explored as a symptom of the sexual neurosis the darker-than-midnight Wallace probably suffered from. Then on a March night in Los Angeles, Biggie is shot. Suge Knight, as in Nick Broomfield’s documentary Biggie and Tupac (2002), makes an easy fall guy, while Puffy gets to be a mentor and executive producer of this film. The winners do get to write history.
But does Notorious do an injustice to Biggie’s memory? Yes—and no. Because it was, unfortunately, exactly how Biggie would have wanted it. Have a look, if you can, at some old rap videos from the ’90s online. It was the golden age of the genre, with real auteurs emerging in the format, and lavish production values, totally unimaginable in our era of austerity, being put to use in their making. Watching them again, it’s clear how governed by a type of repression, a persistent need to deny social reality, Wallace and his handlers were—much more so than their counterparts on the West Coast in the early ’90s, who were much more interested in displaying that social reality in their own three-minute MTV fever dreams. The music videos for Wallace’s tracks from that era, the ones that also introduced young teenagers like me to more enduring, unmartyred, now remarkably wealthy rap icons like Shawn Carter and Sean Combs, never dwell on the realities of the streets from which these men came; they’re always too busy depicting themselves throwing money around some impossibly well-lit island nightclub stuffed with beautiful barely dressed women or lip synching on a yacht while some well-dressed but clearly overmatched goons on Kawasaki Jet Skis chase Mariah Carey to no avail.
It was Biggie’s great achievement in his remarkably dexterous lyrics to express this other kind of double consciousness. The songs are rife with tales of Bed-Stuy violence and social decay, even as Biggie clearly yearns for a different kind of world—one that he claims to have reached already by robbing and drug dealing, but actually hopes to reach through his art.
Play ya position, here come my intuition
Go in this nigga pocket, rob him while his friend’s watchin
That ho’s clockin, here comes respect
His crew’s your crew or they might be next
Look at they man eye, big man they never try
So we roll wid em, stole wid em
I mean loyalty, niggaz bought me milks at lunch
The milks was chocolate, the cookies, butter crunch
88 Oshkosh with blue and white dunks, pass the blunt
Sky’s the limit and you know that you keep on
Just keep on pressin on
Sky’s the limit and you know that you can have
What you want, be what you want
It wasn’t just the Craigslist hustlers and neighborhood-inventing realtors who had an agenda of obfuscation. Come to think of it, Biggie was from Clinton Hill.
In 2008, when Obama was elected, I was still at 551 Kosciuszko, working as a critic and festival correspondent for Filmmaker magazine and a few other dying film publications, and I still didn’t have any money. After the election, I finally signed up for food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, at 500 DeKalb Avenue, a mordant-looking, mostly windowless five-story brick structure that would have been at home in 1970s Minsk. It was a stone’s throw from our old loft on Taaffe Place.
I waited among the multiple strollers, pushed by either Hasidic women or blacks from various Caribbean nations, a few slumming hipsters in beat-up New Balances, a few tatted-up Crips in throwback Brooklyn Dodgers hats, and then the polo-wearing men with unshakably weary faces, faces that had seen two- and three-hour waits at 500 Dekalb many times. This collection of diverse human misery and mundane suffering was mostly muted by the white cinder-block walls and the seemingly sterile, almost clinical quality of the building, but occasionally an eruption of emotion, usually over denied benefits due to a lost wages report or a botched falsification of income, jolted us all back into consciousness, away from our private tales of trying and failing to make it in a new, winner-take-all America. I had found Bed-Stuy at last.