Growing Up in Brooklyn
Nelson George is a novelist, cultural critic, and filmmaker. After receiving his degree from St. John's University in 1982, George first worked for New York's Amsterdam News, later becoming an editor at Billboard and a columnist for the Village Voice. Many of his books -- both fiction and non-fiction -- have focused on black popular culture. George is the author of Hip Hop America and The Death of Rhythm and Blues, both studies of black urban music, as well as the novels Night Work and Urban Romance. George co-wrote the films Strictly Business (1991) and CB4 (1993); he also directed To Be a Black Man, a short based on a piece he wrote for the Voice that starred Samuel L. Jackson.
Nelson George: My name is Nelson George. I’m an author and a filmmaker. I’m from Brooklyn, New York from areas . . . a number of neighborhoods. Crown Heights is where my family started. My mother and father lived there when they moved here from Virginia in the ‘50s. Then we moved to an area called Brownsville which was notorious for years and years as the home of Murder, Incorporated. That’s where the real tough Jews come from. A lot of the biggest Jewish gangsters of the ‘30s and ‘40s, into the ‘50s lived there. And we were part of the wave of Black and Latino sort of immigrants from the South and from Puerto Rico who moved there. And so I grew up in this area which was . . . has echoes of Jewish and . . . There’s temples, and their streets, and there’s institutions that go back to the ‘30s. Tenement buildings . . . ___________ wrote a book called Walk in the City, which is actually about Brownsville. And it’s kind of about Brownsville as it was becoming . . . It was a Jewish ghetto. Then it became a Black and a Hispanic ghetto. And we lived in some great society housing projects that were built during the ‘60s under Kennedy and Johnson, and we lived there more or less into the ‘70s. Then we moved into an area called East New York which was farther out toward Jamaica Bay. And we kind of were part of a group of folks who . . . I always say we chased the White folks out of Brooklyn because we were . . . Every neighborhood we’d basically lived in had been either a Jewish or Italian neighborhood pretty much. And by the time I had been there three years, they’d all basically left, or gone to Long Island, or Florida, or wherever people went back then. So that’s my background. I’m very much a Brooklyn guy. I live . . . Now I’ve lived in Fort Greene, Brooklyn for over . . . most of my adult life now. I would say I moved there in ’84 maybe? Late ’84, ’85. So I’ve lived in Fort Greene when that was kind of a dodgy area. And then it became kind of a Black arts area where Spike lived around the corner from me – Spike Lee; tons of musicians from __________ World Saxophone Quartet guys; to Vernon Reed; to just tons of artists, and painters, and designers. And that’s sort of in my area. Now it’s become an incredibly gentrified area. And in fact Fort Greene has probably changed more . . . I’ve lived there since ’84, I’d say. So it’s probably changed more in the last three to four years than it had in the previous 20. So all those things shaped me.
Question: Is gentrification a good thing, or a bad thing?
Nelson George: It’s something you have to have very mixed feelings about. One thing that I liked about Fort Greene was that it was a predominantly a Black neighborhood that had White people in it. So it wasn’t like living when I grew up in the projects where it was basically just working class to poor folks. It had a really nice mix of working class people from the projects, Black home owners, White homeowners. It had . . . BAM is in that neighborhood. It’s been there forever. So you had art institutions there, and the area always had a very artsy vibe. The first time I saw Erykah Badu and Mos Def was at a poetry spot on Fulton Street. So it had that kind of . . . It had at least . . . I witnessed at least two to three generations of Black artists who lived there. And now that’s . . . Those folks have either made a ton of money and moved out or have been replaced by younger Black artists. But now you have a White presence. Like we used to have sort of older homeowners who lived in the neighborhood. Now we have . . . It’s a, you know . . . All the people who got chased out of Chelsea, and chased out of Lower East Side, and chased out of Manhattan are there because you can live in Fort Greene and have access to the city. At most, depending on the subway, three subway stops from Lower Manhattan. And you have a great park, and you have BAM, and you have a number of great cultural institutions. So I’m . . . I like the fact that gentrification has brought in more restaurants. I mean we always used to say it was only like three places to really eat in the neighborhood. Now we have about five French bistros, and Mexican, and you name it we have it. You can actually spend your entire weekend in Fort Greene . . . the Fort Greene area and go to movies, go to plays, go to jazz, go to a club, have great food, go shopping, but that definitely has been at a cost. The neighborhood is beginning to resemble aesthetically not even the Village, but the Upper West Side. We’re having an incredible expansion of skyscrapers into a brownstone neighborhood. Like out of my bedroom I can see two being built, and there’s a lot, lot more coming. So I think that the neighborhood that I loved is being changed by gentrification profoundly, just as the city is. And the bottom line is that Giuliani sort of made the city safer along with _________ and that whole strategy. Bloomberg has made the city safe for real estate developers. And so places like Fort Greene, even places in South Bronx . . . You go all over the city there’s probably more big buildings being built in Manhattan, and in Bronx, and Brooklyn-Queens then there’s been . . . Again in my lifetime there’s so much development which is driving out not just, you know, middle and lower income people, but also driving out the businesses that support them. So I don’t know where someone on the West Side gets their shoes shined. Or you know the laundry. Or the, you know, watch maker. There’s all those little craft shops that died at the city; little businesses that supported residential neighborhoods; and now you have these skyscrapers, these little buildings. Get your keys made. I don’t know where you get your keys made. Just things like that that are very simple parts of life. But finding . . . When you don’t have them you suddenly realize how essential the key maker is, and the shoemaker is, or the shoe fixer is more importantly. And those things are being pushed out of the city. And so we have this really weird . . . We have people with lots and lots of money, and lots of lots of skyscrapers and not actually . . . and lots and lots of restaurants. But every other kind of service to . . . that’s important to living a good life is kind of being chased out of town by real estate.
Back when there were Jewish gangsters and Fort Greene was a dodgy place to live.
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