In 1998 I moved to New York City from Detroit, Michigan. I ended up in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. At 162 Howard Avenue it was clear I moved to a working class neighborhood. Like Bushwick, it felt like Detroit. Simultaneously full of old architecture, dilapidated and abandoned homes, projects – and history… generations of stories. Coming from downtown Detroit, I fit right in even though I clearly stood out. Standing in the kitchen of apartment 4R with owner Willie Watkins, she told me she needed to be frank about what I was getting myself into by moving into the neighborhood. “If people don’t have a problem, I don’t have a problem, “ I replied. Willie smiled, told me years later, “I knew you’d be alright when you told me that.” And I was. I spent almost as many years in Bed Stuy as I did in the home I grew up in Michigan. Willie became family.
Having been away for three years, I return home to a place in Brooklyn that will always hold a piece of me. The hood has finally started to change. It took a long time for it to reach this far out on the A train. In a past where blocks had plenty of parking spots to choose from, block by block are now lined with cars. Brownstones and buildings no longer boarded up and empty.
But some things don’t change. I pull up to 162 and find Willie tending to the trash like she has for decades. When I call out to her she turns and smiles “You know,” she says. “Just this morning I was thinking of you and now here you are.” Willie has seen so many changes over the decades. She has seen people priced out of their homes. And while sometimes change can be good, it rarely ever comes without a cost. Willie is the kind of landlady you seldom hear of. She would rather keep good people in her buildings rather than make an extra buck.
Decatur Street is one of the prettiest tree lined blocks in Bed Stuy. It is easy to forget the decimated block a couple streets over. Decatur Street isn’t the only gem. Delhi Heights on the corner of Howard and Decatur will satisfy an Indian food craving. Peaches on Tompkins Avenue incarnates down home cooking and barbeque. And Saraghina isn’t just another pizza joint. The interior resembles a rustic farmhouse. Old wooden chairs cluster at the ceiling like a constellation. It is mom’s home cooking, made with fresh ingredients and love. Bed’s Stuy’s best-kept secret, at least it used to be. Word of mouth is catching on. I want to stay long after the proscuitto and funghi pizza is finished.
New places are popping up everyday. Bed Stuy was home to me long before these places arrived. But their arrival made it hard for me to leave. But at the end of the day it is a place to call home.
©dm hall (www.darleenhall.com). Photos courtesy of ©Katya Hall (www.katyahall.com)