Bed-Stuy through new eyes

Writer and DUMBO member Glynn Pogue rediscovers her New York neighbourhood post lockdown. With photos captured by Reece T. Williams

By Glynn Pogue   Images by Reece T. Williams   Saturday 11 July, 2020   Long read

It’s July in Bed-Stuy and the sidewalk is starting to sizzle. My AC be doing too much (you know when it’s too cold?), so I’ve been spending most afternoons laid out on my living room floor in front of a dollar store fan. It’s too hot out to frolic. And I can’t lie, quarantine has put me in a rut. 

The small tastes I get of summer are from the sounds outside my window; the cars that drive by bump throwback Lil’ Mo from their stereos and sometimes I sing along from my cosy spot on my couch. At night, in Brooklyn summer tradition, fireworks light up the sky. Both sounds make my windows rattle. Summer is happening on the block, but I barely go outside to feel it. 

Growing up in Bed-Stuy, you had to be outside in the summer. Not doing anything in particular, just as long as you were outside, with your people. The summertime ‘Stuy has a beat of its own, and the community makes it pulse. Outdoor space in our city is limited, so folks make room where they can. You’d see people lounging on beach chairs on the sidewalk, or sitting on milk crates and rusting folding chairs. Some would balance their weight on the edge of a gate or low-rise scaffolding. Those who had a whip, might park near their people and sit on the passenger side with the door open, music blaring. 

The vibe outside always reminded me of Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold, one of my favourite books as a kid. It’s this story of a Black family living in the city with little means, but lots of love. They couldn’t go to the shore, so they made a beach of their own. Up on the tar rooftop of their apartment building, they laid out on blankets and played cards with their neighbours. I thought it was magical. I loved seeing Black folks lounging.

‘Outdoor space in our city is limited, so folks make room where they can. You see people lounging on beach chairs on the sidewalk, or sitting on milk crates. Those who had a whip, might sit on the passenger side with the door open, music blaring’

When I was growing up, there weren’t many kids living on my block. I didn’t know much about spending all day jumping rope, but I still wanted to feel the energy and the independence. I’d go to the bodega five or six times a day ‘just ‘cuz’, or eagerly offer to run the mail to the box on the corner for my mother. When I got a little older, I’d walk around the block so I could see the fine boy who lived on Macon. My best friend, who later moved across the street from me, would come with me. We’d put on something cute and walk real slow past his house, sneaking glances at him and his cousins, who were always posted up on the stoop. 

I was never really privy to the stoop life. I grew up in a 19th-century Victorian home that my parents operated as a bed and breakfast. While the rest of my block was lined with brownstones that brushed up against the sidewalk, prime for chatting with passersby, our stoop was wrapped in a lawn and a tall, wrought-iron gate. I had ‘space’, but not really. Even if I wanted to post up on the stoop, I’d have to get out of the way when guests arrived. Stoop life seemed like true leisure. People could just roll up, there might be a little herb, someone might be barbecuing at the foot of the steps, and you’d smell the charcoals burning from blocks away. But the best part was that your space was yours, you could sit there all day.
Last week, I finally stepped out to run a few errands on Fulton Street. On my way to the African fabric shop where I have my clothes tailored, I saw old dudes gathered on milk crates in front of Mr. Liquor. Kids dashed by me on bicycles and high-schoolers sat on docked Citi Bikes, their tyres spinning as they rode in place. 

Further down Fulton, in front of Restoration Plaza, the block was buzzing. People were crouched down in the road adding finishing touches to a bright yellow ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER’ mural recently painted onto the pavement. Just weeks ago, the nation had erupted in response to yet another string of Black lives lost at the hands of the police. Vendors were selling face masks in red, black and green, with declarations of Black pride printed on them. I thought again about the importance of having a space of one’s own. Those vendors didn’t have physical storefronts, so they just set up shop where they could. And while there were arguments about what real impact the mural made, it was a way to stake a claim.

‘Stoop life seemed like true leisure. People could just roll up, there might be a little herb, someone might be barbecuing at the foot of the steps, and you’d smell the charcoals burning from blocks away. But the best part was that your space was yours, you could sit there all day’

I popped into Walgreens, then decided to switch it up and take Macon Street for the 15-minute walk home. I got caught up on the corner, though. There was this abstract shrine fashioned out of gilded mirrors, wooden planks and tin cans. Musky smoke drifted from incense sticks stuck into the structure. I snapped a pic of my reflection in the mirror because... obviously.  

That’s when I heard, ‘Aye girl! Want some tequila?!’ 

I peeked over the shrine and saw two dudes sitting out on a stoop. One grinned wide and waved a bottle of Milagro in the air. 

Now, this could’ve been seen as a little sus, but I thought, why not? I was in my hood and feeling spontaneous. And here was my chance for some real stoop kid sh*t. 

I walked over and sat on the bottom step of the brownstone (social distancing) and the guy who lived there, whose name I later learned was Reggie, passed me a glass of tequila on ice with a juicy squeeze of fresh lime. We raised our glasses and toasted to new neighbourhood friends. Reggie’s homeboy, Andrew, was smoking a joint and giggling to himself. Reggie and I clowned him.
Two people sitting on a stoop.
A man sitting in his yard.
Andrew told me stories about when he lived over on Willoughby before he moved around to Monroe, and then back over to Macon. 

‘I’ve been here 16 years,’ he said with pride. 

‘Oh, word?’, I said. ‘I’ve been here all my life.’ I smiled casually. I love throwing that trump card out on transplants. 

It felt so nice to relax out there on the steps. Reggie was acting like the mayor of Macon Street; he was saying ‘whattup’ to every person who passed by. I kept thinking I would go home, but I kept staying for another round – ‘OK, OK, just one more!’ 

It was nearing sunset by the time I stood up to leave. I was tipsy and happy. I promised to come by anytime I wanted to chill again. It felt like summer for real.

On the walk home, I checked out people’s stoop scenes. A woman was stretched out, her neck and back resting on the steps, legs casually crossed at the ankles, her nose buried in a book. A family was putting cupcakes into goodie bags, ‘Happy Birthday’ balloons tied to their gate bobbed around them. Everyone was Black. And you could just tell they’d been living there for a while, generations even. In a time where our grip on this community is being threatened on the daily, this sight made me feel so damn good. 

At the corner of Macon and Throop, I saw the watermelon man. He’s the stuff of Bed-Stuy legend. He pulls up in his dark green pickup truck when the weather gets warm, and sells us hunks of sweet, red watermelon. His presence marks the arrival of summer almost as much as the ice cream truck does. 

As I approached my apartment, I watched as an older man stepped out onto his stoop and quietly looked out at our neighbourhood. I was struck by how solid he looked standing there, firmly planted in front of his home. He waved at me, and I smiled and waved back. I watched him exhale, gingerly settle himself down on a lawn chair, kick up his feet and chill.
The front of a house.
Interested in becoming a member?