Perhaps Brooklyn’s most iconic neighborhood is Bedford-Stuyvesant. The tree-lined streets and grand brownstones have been here for over 150 years, and the Brooklynites who call those brownstones home are constantly changing. In this episode, we tell the story of this neighborhood through the lives of three women who set down roots here in different ways: activist Hattie Carthan, writer Paule Marshall, and novelist Naomi Jackson. 


Episode Transcript

Virginia Marshall I think it’s on this block…? 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras It would be on the opposite side of the street… is it there?

Krissa Corbett Cavouras A few weeks ago, on a chilly Saturday morning, we went in search of a house in Bed-Stuy. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Is this it? Yeah … wow! 

Naomi Jackson I’m going to take a picture even though I shouldn’t take a picture of these people’s house…

Krissa Corbett Cavouras The house that we’re looking at is this classic Brooklyn brownstone. It’s got the high stoop going up to the front steps. It’s three stories. In the morning sun, it looks like every brownstone you’ve imagined lining the streets of Brooklyn. That buzzing noise you’re hearing in the tape is from the firehouse next door. We’re here because this house was the childhood home of the writer Paule Marshall.

The brownstone where Paule Marshall grew up, in Bed-Stuy.
(Krissa Corbett Cavouras, Brooklyn Public Library)

Naomi Jackson I think the thing I’m most surprised about is how close… I’ve been circling this house for years. and just never knew that this was Paule’s childhood home. So it’s really exciting to just be standing in front of it. It feels a little bit like a pilgrimage to be here finally.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras That’s Naomi Jackson. She’s the author of The Star Side of Bird Hill, and she has a special connection to Paule Marshall because she and Marshall both write about Caribbean-Americans in this part of Brooklyn. For Naomi, Paule Marshall, who was born fifty years before her, was an inspiration. 

Naomi Jackson I’m hoping that maybe the next time I come by there will be a plaque to commemorate the fact that this was Paule’s childhood home. But until then I think this will be a really important moment for me as a writer to remember.

Adwoa Adusei Paule Marshall passed away a few months ago at the age of 90. Her first novel was Brown Girl, Brownstones, and it was based on Marshall’s own experience growing up in Bed-Stuy in the 1940s.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Brown Girl, Brownstones bring Bed-Stuy in the 1940s to life. I want to read a section of it, from the very beginning of the book because it does a really good job describing the brownstones that lined the block and the people who lived there.

Row of brownstones on Jefferson Avenue, from Marcy Avenue, in 1954.
A sign reads: "Our block, yours & mine; help keep it clean."
(Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

“Behind those grim facades, in those high rooms, life soared and ebbed. Bodies crouched in the postures of love at night, children burst from the womb’s thick shell, and death, when it was time, shuffled through the halls. First, there had been the Dutch-English and Scotch-Irish who had built the houses. … But now in 1939 the last of them were discreetly dying behind those shades or selling the houses and moving away. And as they left, the West Indians slowly edged their way in. Like a dark sea nudging its way onto a white beach and staining the sand, they came. The West Indians, especially the Barbadians who had never owned anything perhaps but a few poor acres in a poor land, loved the houses with the same fierce idolatry as they had the land on their obscure islands.”

Adwoa Adusei That’s some really powerful imagery, that idea of people crouching in rooms. And that these are all spaces that house life, death, and everything in between.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yeah, and I think one of the things Paule Marshall is asking there and throughout the book is... how people make a home here?

Adwoa Adusei That’s definitely a question people have been asking in Brooklyn for a really long time and a question that we’ve certainly asked on this show. Krissa, in that section you just read, there were a few patterns of immigration and migration and that’s really telling of how people with different cultures and from different places, come in and out of Brooklyn.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yeah, and particularly in Bed-Stuy, those grand brownstones that are always there but different people have been putting down roots and then picking up the roots and leaving for as long as the buildings have been around.

Adwoa Adusei It’s almost like in talking about buildings you are still talking about people. The buildings themselves are alive. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Totally, they feel that way. We imbue the houses with all of these elements that are the way we live our lives inside of them.

Adwoa Adusei So today, we’re talking about Bed-Stuy’s blocks and its brownstones. We’re going to tell the story through the lives of three women who’ve called this place home. I’m Adwoa Adusei.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras. You’re listening to Borrowed.

[MUSIC]

Adwoa Adusei We’re going to come back to Paule Marshall, but first I want to first tell you the story of another Brooklynite who came here and put down roots in a literal way: Hattie Carthan.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Tell us about her. Who was Hattie? 

Adwoa Adusei Very good question. I’ll let Nancy Wolf answer that.

Nancy Wolf Mrs. Hattie Carthan who was one of the beating hearts of Bed-Stuy, was someone who was origionally from Wirginia. She moved into Bed-Stuy with her family. She worked in downtown Brooklyn.

Hattie Carthan in The New York Times in 1982.
(From clips in our Brooklyn Collection)

Adwoa Adusei Nancy was friends with Mrs. Carthan, who passed away in 1984. Mrs. Carthan moved to Bed-Stuy in the 1950s, right around the time that Brown Girl, Brownstones takes place. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So, that’s a time when people from the Caribbean and African-Americans from Harlem and the American South were moving into Bed-Stuy.

Adwoa Adusei Exactly, and with the influx of so many people people, block associations start to pop up all over the neighborhood. Hattie Carthan was right in the thick of things when her own block formed a group, the Vernon Avenue T & T … between Tompkins and Throop. For Mrs. Carthan, the block association was an opportunity to literally change the look of the neighborhood. In 1964, she and her block association held a barbecue in order to raise money to plant trees on the block. That summer barbecue fundraiser became a tradition, and by 1966, Mrs Carthan had invited New Yotk City Mayor John Lindsay to the party.

Nancy Wolf Mrs. Carthan being Mrs. Carthan, Mayor Lindsay was in the palm of her hand and he agreed that the city would match any trees that they could raise the money for. And that was the city’s first tree match.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Wow, really?

Adwoa Adusei Yeah, the parks department promised to plant six trees for every four that were put in by the community. I mean, that’s a lot of trees!

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So hold on, we think of Brooklyn as this tree-lined neighborhood. Right, our neighborhoods are full of greenery because of all the trees that line the block. So, are you saying that that's not what it was like in Bed-Stuy if she was planting that many trees? 

Adwoa Adusei It did not look like that. It doesn't look like what it looks like now. It started with Mrs. Carthan.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Wow.

Adwoa Adusei So, in 1968, Hattie, Mrs. Carthan heard about another Southern transplant like herself that was in danger.

Nancy Wolf Every afternoon she took the B38 bus along Lafayette Avenue, and as she came along our block, she saw this very rare Southern magnolia thriving in front of one of the derelict buildings. And she of course, being from Virginia, she recognized it, and she also recognized how special it was.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Wait, so we’re talking about a magnolia tree… those big beautiful ones with the glossy leaves and the huge white and pink flowers?

Adwoa Adusei That is correct.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yeah, can’t miss them. So what was it doing in Brooklyn? Those trees aren’t meant to survive Northeast winters…

Adwoa Adusei Exactly, so this tree had been in the front yard of 679 Lafayette Avenue since 1880, almost a hundred years old by the time Hattie gets to it. The owners of the building in the 1880s brought the tree as a seedling from North Carolina. And as to how it survived… 

The magnolia tree on Lafayette Avenue, as Hattie Carthan would have seen it in 1970.
(Irving I. Herzberg photograph collection, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Nancy Wolf It’s an ecosystem, it's a little mini ecosystem. There’s no buildings across the street. So there was always a park, there was always there’s extra sunlight. The tree was up against a building that would warm up in the daytime and heat would come back out in the brick at night.

Adwoa Adusei In 1968, Mrs. Carthan heard that the tree was going to be torn down, along with the buildings behind it, to make a … parking lot!

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Wait, so just literally the Joni Mitchell song, "paving paradise to put up a parking lot" … happening right here in Bed-Stuy in 1968? Maybe that’s where she got the idea for the song.

Adwoa Adusei I hope so. Mrs. Carthan wasn’t having any of that ... Sorry, Joni. So what she did was she organized her neighbors, as she had done before.

Nancy Wolf And they started pushing to save the tree. And the slogan she invented: save a tree, save a neighborhood. That became a rallying cry.

Adwoa Adusei And it worked! The tree was landmarked in 1970 and it’s still standing today, almost 140 years from when it was planted. And, it became like this galvanizing cry for other things that happened in the neighborhood. The energy that was used to save the tree also helped Mrs. Carthan save the buildings behind it. Those buildings were then eventually purchased after a lot of back and forth with the city, and turned into a community center where kids and adults came to learn about the environment.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras A neighborhood environmental center in the 80s? That must have been a little bit ahead of its time. 

Adwoa Adusei Yes, and it’s still active today. The organization is called the Magnolia Tree Earth Center, and it’s still in those buildings behind the big magnolia tree on Lafayette Avenue. Marlon Rice, the executive director of Magnolia Tree, talked about the importance of Hattie Carthan’s legacy in the neighborhood.

Marlon Rice One of the things that I really love about this organization is that it was created by an elderly black woman who at the time was speaking about terms like environment and trees and greenery at a time when, I mean, we know what New York was in the late 60s and early 70s, it was the furthest thing from environmentally sound.

Adwoa Adusei Today there are many off-shoots of the center. There’s an active community garden next door named after Hattie Carthan that grows food to sell to the whole neighborhood. There’s also a program called Project Green that educates young people about everything from urban environmentalism to climate change.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And, you know, I love that Bed-Stuy is now known for this across the city, for being this place of brownstones and tree-lined blocks. And we have working so hard over the last 20 years to put more street trees on more blocks in Brooklyn. But Hattie was doing this all the way back in the 70s. 

Adwoa Adusei Right, and Marlon pointed out that Hattie’s activism really started with her engagement with block associations. And then he pointed out that block associations really are a starting point for any community change.

Marlon Rice All politics are local, right? So, you have the politics of your environment, your neighborhood. So, if you want bike lanes or if you want to charge a developer with certain roles or tasks, or if you want cleanliness on your block, how do you go about doing that? Well you coalesce, you group up as a block association. It’s a hyper local concept of politics that, I think it’s really American. I think block associations are probably the most American form of politics one can get because it says we’re going to get together because we live here and we’re going to ensure that our needs are met right where we are.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras It’s interesting, you know, here at the library, we sort of have the same attitude. We’re constantly thinking about how to serve the particular communities around our branch libraries — what the particular needs of the neighborhood are. And the thing is, neighborhoods are constantly changing in Brooklyn so, as a library, we’re often doing our best to save information about what the neighborhood used to be like. 

Adwoa Adusei Exactly. And here at Brooklyn Public Library, in our Brooklyn Collection, which is our local history archive, we have documents from the Magnolia Tree Earth Center, and articles about Hattie Carthan. But we’ve also got an incredible catalog of block association newsletters and neighborhood blogs. We’re doing our best to document each neighborhood as it evolves …

Krissa Corbett Cavouras You know, and while while many block associations have remained strong since the days of Hattie Carthan’s Bed-Stuy, some groups have been re-forming over the last decade or so. And, for many people living in Bed-Stuy, a sign that they’re back is the yearly summer tradition: the block party.

Adwoa Adusei That’s right! And remember, Hattie Carthan started that whole tree-planting movement at her own block party in the 1960s, when Mayor Lindsay came to visit. Block parties are whole-day affairs, when neighbors move their cars and close off the street. Kids bike in the middle of the road and adults share music and food. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And, here from the deep depths of winter, we want to give you a real taste of Bed-Stuy. So, we visited a couple of block parties back in July and talked to some of the people out on the block.

Martin Franklin Hey, my name is Martin Franklin and I live on Macon between Throop and Marcus Garvey. And, you know, the normal hustle and bustle of living in Brooklyn, you normally dont get to engage with your neighbors. But on a day like today in the summer sun, in the cool breeze, we get to converse, laugh, catch up.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Across the street, we talked to Martin’s neighbors, who were both members of the newly re-formed block association that had organized this block party.

Neighbor One thing to note is that we haven’t had a block party ... it had been like 15 years since the last block party until last year the association sort of reorganized and made its main purpose to start the block party. Which, creating the block party then led to other meetings about other things to address other issues. So, in this weird way the block party was kind of like a springboard for ...

Maggie Fishman Because everyone wants a party and it’s historically associated, this whole neighborhood is full of block parties. It's kind of unique how prevalent it is.

Adwoa Adusei Something else we heard was that even block parties change over time as demographics change. We talked to Simon, who no longer lives in the neighborhood, but comes back for the parties. He’s what he has to say about these changes.

Simon When I was younger, Macon, we called it "Macon bacon." [Laughs] That’s a fact! We called it Macon bacon. The thing is, it's changed, it's not the same. This was like home for me, this was the hood. Like, that visual right there with the kids playing by the fire hydrant, that’s me too. You know what I'm saying? Everything was lit out here. We love each other. The block was united. I lived right there, Kwame lived right there, Ms. D lived right here, Nyquon lived there... like, everyone was united. Now, it's different. Now, it’s all rental spaces. I went to college, my mom moved out, we moved out, we sold the house. Because we just like, we gotta get out of here. But if we knew it was going to grow like... Brooklyn is going to be Brooklyn. I was in the real Brooklyn. It was really dangerous out here. It was really Brooklyn. This is not Brooklyn no more, but it's beautiful. It's beautiful that it changed and it's beautiful that people can grow up and be themself now. But before, it was crazy. But it was beautiful, beautiful chaos.

Kanye West performing at a block party in Bedford Stuyvesant. The exact location is unknown.
(Jamel Shabazz photograph collection, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Krissa Corbett Cavouras You know, as it did several times in the 20th century, here in the 21st century, the neighborhood is going through yet another demographic change. The neighborhood was nearly 100 percent people of color and predominately African-American in the 80s and 90s, and it’s now almost 30 percent white. But the demographic change is only what you can see. 

Adwoa Adusei Right, on a deeper level, it’s an indicator of gentrification, which raises important questions like: what does it mean to make a home? How do you set down roots? And what does it mean when the place where you live changes almost beyond recognition? At another block party that same day, we met Dorian and Tyson, two friends who grew up and still live in Bed-Stuy, and who were talking about exactly that.

Dorian We used to get a bouncey house, the ponies, the icey ladies would come out. We used to have sack races, bike races, little kids used to run, everybody … it used to be different. Block associations now these days is more like a politic thing. Back in the day, people in the block association used to do it for the love, families. And the block parties, it seems like nobody knows each other no more except for the people that have been living here for thousands of years. Well, not thousands of years, but you know what I mean.

Tyson Brooklyn has really changed. It's good to be diverse, but the demographics of the neighborhood, they dont respect the culture. And, to any place you go to, you have to respect the people who came before you. My family came to Bedford-Stuyvesant in the 1940s. 

Dorian My mother and her family was born and raised here. My grandmother was literally born on Decatur and Marcus Garvey. Like, I could bring her birth certificate. We Brooklyn natives! Where we from? Brooklyn! No where else but Brooklyn.

Tyson It’s still Bed-Stuy do or die. Ain't Stuyvesant Heights. [Laughs]

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Adwoa, we started this episode just one street over from Macon, on Hancock, in front of Paule Marshall’s former home. The writer Naomi Jackson was with us, and she pointed out that it’s interesting to read Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones today because Bed-Stuy is so different than it was in the 1940s and 50s. 

Naomi Jackson I mean, I think what's really exciting about reading this, I guess 70 years later is that now there's a whole other wave that’s happening in terms of gentrification in Bed Stuy specifically, but in neighborhoods throughout Brooklyn. And so it's actually the opposite thing that's happening where black families are being replaced in a certain kind of way by newcomers. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Before we went on that hunt for Paule Marshall’s house, Naomi and I sat down at Macon Library to talk about Brown Girl Brownstones. Naomi said she was deeply influenced by that book, particularly now that she’s working on a novel about a successful Caribbean-American woman who is trying to buy the brownstone where her grandmother once worked. 

Naomi Jackson I'm interested in the ways that even though she has experienced all this outward achievement, she's still doing the same thing, which is organizing her life around buying property. And this is what Brown Girl Brownstones is really about, it's about the striving and aspirations to achieve through the purchase of property.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And what do you think that is? Because it really is to some extent ... I mean, I have lived in Brooklyn now for fifteen years. And it really is, it's amazing how much comes down to not necessarily just where you live, but whether you own where. And how is that story specific, do you think, to the West Indian population?

Naomi Jackson I think for Caribbean people, it feels as if it's the only way to have a toehold in America. You might not be able to have the job that you want because of many different things. You might not be able to achieve in your career. But if you can just save your money and buy your house, there's a way in which nobody can take away security, that you can then pass down through generations. So it’s a way to not get erased, I think, for most people.

Adwoa Adusei It sounds like what Naomi is saying is that this book really has staying power. It’s a marker of how rooted you can be in a community, whether or not you own a brownstone or a property. So, even this year, the 60th anniversary of the publishing of Brown Girl, Brownstones, the narrative feels relevant.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Definitely. And just like in the 1940s, there is still a large Caribbean-American community in Brooklyn. Naomi was part of that community, and she talked about how important it was, growing up in the 1980s, to read the story of Selina Boyce, the protagonist in Brown Girl, Brownstones.

Naomi Jackson And so I think probably for me, growing up in such a strict and conservative West Indian family, I was really hungry for these models of Caribbean girlhood that were completely wild and rambunctious. So, Selina Boyce in Brown Girl Brownstones, is just so bad. She is always talking back to her mother. She's like carrying messages between her mother and her father. She has a lover, which she's not supposed to have. She throws back the scholarship in the face of this Barbadian homeowner's association. So she's doing everything that she's not supposed to do. So I think that's why it was so resonant, partly because I hadn't seen this model of Caribbean girlhood before. Like, there's just not that many books that are centered on Caribbean girls in America who are kind of torn between the Caribbean that they don't know very well but they feel very steeped in because of their family's legacy, and the Brooklyn that they're raised in. But also because she's just fighting back against all the strictures of her community. 

Adwoa Adusei Selina Boyce sounds like a pretty amazing character. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras She is! And I have to say, Adwoa, we recorded the interview at Macon Library, in Bed-Stuy because that was Paule Marshall’s home library. She went there as a kid, and there’s this one essay she wrote called “From the Poets in the Kitchen” where she talks about learning to write from going to that library, but also just from sitting in the kitchen and listening to her mother’s friends talk to each other. I brought up that essay with Naomi and here’s what she had to say.

Paule Marshall shakes hands with Francis St. John, Chief Librarian of Brooklyn Public Library in the 1960s. 
(Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Naomi Jackson There are so many ways to be an orator, and so many ways for a writer to get an education. And so it's not all about going to the university and reading a lot of books, but it is about feeling like you have a deep capacity to listen to other people, to understand their patterns of speech and to understand what lies behind their patterns of speech. So, what are the meanings that are being made by just the way that people turn a phrase? But I love that that essay and I assign it to students every single semester no matter what I'm teaching. Like, students from high school to retirees because I think there's so much in there about how you become kind of familiar with the language of your community and your family. And who are the storytellers in your family? How did you come to know stories? Why do you tell stories now?

Adwoa Adusei Krissa, this conversation really makes me wonder what the next stories will be coming out of Bed-Stuy.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yeah, and if you're out there writing them, publish them We want them on our shelves. 

Adwoa Adusei Very true! We definitely do. But, in the meantime, you can read some wonderful, already-published Bed-Stuy stories: we’ve got Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones at Brooklyn Public Library and also Naomi Jackson’s novel,The Star Side of Bird Hill


Krissa Corbett Cavouras And, Bed-Stuy is not the only neighborhood in Brooklyn, as cool as it is. For our Book Match segment, librarian June Koffi put together a list of books about the power of community in two other Brooklyn neighborhoods. She joins us now in the studio. Hi, June.

June Koffi Hey!

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So, what’s the first book you’ve got for us? 

June Koffi The first book I recommend is Visitation Street by Ivy Pachoda. It’s set in Red Hook somewhere in the 2000s. So it’s pre-gentrification. But you can tell it’s creeping up. Best friends Val and June, they’re 15-year-olds, they’re teens, they’re bored, it’s the summertime. So, one evening they decide to just go out into the bay to see what they can see. One of them has a raft, a pink raft that they won in some kind of contest. So they go out on the raft, but the next day, only one person comes back. Only Val comes back. So, the book is about how June’s disappearance affects everyone in that community. And, just the neighborhood itself of Red Hook you know, plays a part.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Right. Oh, that sounds really good. So what’s the second book you have to recommend?

June Koffi The second book is a photography book. It’s called Brooklyn Before: Photographs, 1971 - 1983 by Larry Racioppo

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Who is a beloved friend of the library.

June Koffi Yes, definitely. Most of these photographs are of the Park Slope South area. It explores the Irish, the Italian, the Puerto Rican families that lived there. Most of the photographs are taken outside. So you see a lot of street activity, lot of children playing in the street. Playing, you know, volleyball, stickball, street jam sessions.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yeah, it’s such a beautiful slice of life book. And people are really living life on the sidewalks and on their stoops. 

June Koffi Yeah, there’s a sense of freedom there that I think is missing.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yeah, I love that book. All right so everybody that was Visitation Street by Ivy Pachoda and Brooklyn Before: Photographs, 1971 - 1983 by Larry Racioppo. Thanks, June!

June Koffi Thank you.


Adwoa Adusei Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library and is hosted by me, Adwoa Adusei, and Krissa Corbett Cavouras. You can find a transcript of this episode at our website, B-K-L-Y-N Library [dot] org [slash] podcasts.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras We’ve put a link to Paule Marshall’s essay, “From the Poets in the Kitchen,” as well as links to more information about Hattie Carthan and how to get a free tree from the city to plant in your neighborhood. 

Adwoa Adusei Borrowed is produced and written by Virginia Marshall with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer, Jennifer Proffitt, Meryl Friedman and Robin Lester Kenton. Our music composer is Billy Libby.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras We are recording from Central Library’s Information Commons Recording studio. And, guess what, if you have a BPL library card, you can reserve time here too and make your own podcast. 

Adwoa Adusei Until next time, have a great holiday, wherever you call home.

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