When Henry Butler hears someone blurt out, “The New Bed-Stuy,” or “Bed-Stuy is changing,” he can quickly become irritated, depending on the person saying it. It’s not that Butler doesn’t recognize that Bed-Stuy is facing socio-economic forces that have noticeably changed the neighborhood’s present and future streets, schools, businesses, and overall demographic. Instead, Butler feels that some people who stress the word change don’t recognize Bed-Stuy’s cohort of successful black, middle-class residents.
Walking throughout District 3, there are noticeable pockets of black middle class areas of families gathered on brownstone stoops, watching their kids play in the summer evenings. However, signs of poverty are equally if not more noticeable with vacant buildings and wandering panhandlers with struggle in their eyes. Numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010-2012 American Community 3 Year Estimates Survey indicate that the black/African American population is just shy of of 65%, with a significant decrease in its median family income at roughly $41,000, compared to the five boroughs at $51,865. Bed-Stuy’s median is still considered a middle class wage to many economists, although the definition of this term is vague and therefore constantly debated.
Butler is currently serving as the District Manager of Community Planning Board 3. One of the things Butler focuses on in that position is educating the Bed-Stuy community on issues that have the potential to affect their properties. “Part of my role,” he explains, “is to educate homeowners, and especially the elderly, in order to help enable them to be in a better position to make wise economic decisions for themselves and their families.”
Butler says he always knew that one of his long-term goals would be to own a home. Growing up in the Bed-Stuy’s Tompkins Houses, public housing apartments, Butler envisioned raising a family in one of the iconic brownstones of Bed-Stuy while walking through his neighborhood. By 2005, with assistance from the Bridge Street Development Corporation, a faith-based non-profit, Butler was able to fulfill his dream and become a proud homeowner on Macon Street.
Shortly after joining his block association, Butler was elected its president. NYC Councilmember Darlene Mealy recognized Butler’s hard work and leadership potential, and appointed Butler as a member of Community Board 3. Butler rose quickly and was eventually elected chairman of the board, a volunteer position he held until August 2013 when he was hired as the District Manager of CB3.
Asked if living and working in Bed-Stuy were always part of the plan, Butler pauses and says with a confident grin, “that was always part of the dream since I was a little kid—to work hard and raise a family and buy one of those brownstones.”
Last year, Butler also became a Bed-Stuy business owner, when he and his partners opened Brooklyn Burger & Brew Co., located at 202 Ralph Ave. His restaurant offers live music and performances along with the option for customers to create their own custom burgers. “I love it, but it’s hard,” he says.
Butler wants people from the outside looking in to understand that his success isn’t a deviation from the rest of what he says his friends and neighbors have also been able to achieve. For Butler, what’s much more important is for him to continue to encourage residents to remain active, educated and passionate about the growing wealth of their homes and supportive of community programs that help enable self-made, hardworking Bed-Stuy families continue to live in Community Board 3 despite the current financial pressures.
Shawn Whitehorn, a Community Outreach Coordinator at Bridge Street, says that he and his organization have also recognized the socio-economic, cultural and political shifts that have taken place over the last decade. Whitehorn explains that on one hand, there are individuals and businesses moving into Bed-Stuy with a range of influences and changes that potentially run counter to the neighborhood’s landscape. For instance, Brunswick, an Australian-style café serving coffee, brunch and freshly baked foods daily, opened one of its stores at 144 Decatur Street this past spring. Hayley Dibben, Manager of the Bed-Stuy location, says she sees Bed-Stuy as “an up and coming neighborhood with an eclectic mix of people.”
While Brunswick may be welcomed by some for enlightening Bed-Stuy to experience Aussie-influenced espresso drinks, outside LLC’s and real estate moguls, who Whitehorn won’t name specifically, are taking full advantage of the current prices—sometimes buying up entire neighborhood blocks of property while showing little to no regard for what their business models and transactions will do to the local community.
On the other hand, Whitehorn explains that Bed-Stuy prides itself on having the highest concentration of residents to block associations in the entire United States. These block associations have existed throughout the twentieth century in Bed-Stuy and continue to remain an integral part to help preserving its timeless spirit.
A 95-year-old man, who only refers to himself as Albert B., is asked about his local block association. He pauses, sits straight up in his wheelchair on the porch of a brownstone on Jefferson Ave, and mutters a word before going into a memory of horse drawn carriages trotting up the dirt path. When asked again, his eyes light up as he proudly reflects on his time served as Vice President of his block association in the 1950s. “We saw the importance of meeting to help make sure our streets were clean, our youngsters were involved in the community and made sure the value of our homes were improving in value,” he recalls, before mentioning the horses again.
With over 70 block associations within Bed-Stuy, locals are organized and in a much better position to raise their concerns to push local politicians to fight against potentially disruptive outside forces.
Whitehorn says that Bridge Street has also brainstormed programs over the years that have helped residents stay in Bed-Stuy and invest in their community; exactly like the first time homebuyer education series that Butler was able to take advantage of. Butler concedes that had a company like Bridge Street not been around in 2005 to recognize the shifting tide and helping to create easier measures for local, first-time homebuyers in Bed-Stuy, his childhood dream wouldn’t be a reality—and everything would be much, much different.