Fort Greene, Brooklyn in New York City, along with Clinton Hill, is just east of downtown Brooklyn, standing between it and Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy).
In the 1980s and 1990s it gave us the likes of Spike Lee, Chris Rock, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Toure, Lorna Simpson, Branford Marsalis, Terence Howard, Rosie Perez, Biggie, Lisa Jones, Nelson George and others. It was the centre of black bohemian life in the city: artists, writers, actors, singers – those who were young, gifted and black (or Latino) – came there to live. In 1991 Essence magazine called it “The Happening ‘Hood”.
It had a critical mass of black talent – whites were too afraid to go there – which led to a black cultural renaissance. It had an “energy” in a city already famous for energy. Spike Lee says that in time it will be compared to the Harlem Renaissance.
The Fort Greene renaissance is now dead, killed off by white gentrification. While the streets are now in good repair, the police protection much better and the crack epidemic largely gone, the prices are also much higher and the old sense of community seems to be disappearing.
From 2000 to 2010 the number of whites doubled, almost completely at the expense of blacks. Blacks, who in 2000 made up 65% of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, now make up less than half. While it has a good mix of races compared to most of the city, that mix seems to be a passing side effect of gentrification.
Biggie called it Bed-Stuy, which is just how white people used to think of it, meaning that it was poor, violent and black. But now the street in Clinton Hill where Biggie once sold crack sells chai lattes. The laundromat near his house has become a plastic surgeon’s office. “Fort Greene” and “Clinton Hill” are to a degree marketing terms pushed by gentrifiers to make it seem like a safe place to live.
In the late 1800s it was simply called The Hill. Well-to-do white people from Manhattan lived there. That was when its Greek Revival and Italianate brownstones were built. And when Fort Greene Park was designed by the same people who brought us Central Park.
But even back then, at least since the 1880s, it had a black middle-class, which has been there ever since, through good times and bad.
The bad times came after the Second World War. Its housing projects were so bad that by 1959 Newsweek magazine held them up to the nation as failed examples of public housing. Then came heroin and, in the 1980s, crack. In 1992 Fort Greene had the highest infant mortality rate in the city.
But the 1980s also brought black professionals: Fort Greene was cheap and extremely well-connected, more so than any other black part of the city. In 1985 Spike Lee, instead of going to Manhattan or Hollywood, opened his film company there. Soon other young black talent came.