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Bed-Stuy Brownstones

Living Room   I’m staying in Gavin’s new home, a brownstone on a street of elegant brownstones. Unlike the empty flat where I’ve been staying, this place is full of stuff – all the stuff from when he and his girlfriend were living in the building where I’ve been staying, and a lot of new stuff – prints, paintings, a six foot plasma screen TV with surround sound, and the newest Apple desktop with enough power to guide the house to the moon. 

   I worked on this place four or five summers , when I was still staying with my ex in Fort Greene. There’d been a lot of rain that spring and Fort Greene had an almost tropical lushness with overhanging trees and plants and weeds springing up from every available bit of turf. Clinton Hill was still Bed-Stuy then and once you passed the brick co-ops on Lafayette, the green became more and more absent until on Bedford there seemed to be hardly any green at all. 

   Charlotte had bought the place a couple of years before, and the main floor with what would become the living room and dining room was a gutted shell. The last owners had lived in the garden floor flat and abandoned the rest to their son who camped out on the top floor, painting one fireplace green and covering the walls in shiny green and red wallpaper. And smoking a lot of crack – when Charlotte moved in, she found a box frame mattress, hollowed out then filled almost to the top with crack vials. 

   By the time I was there, Gavin had cleaned up the top two floors and Charlotte was renting them out and we worked on the ground floor, plaster skimming the walls and removing the layers of paint from the woodwork. At lunch we’d sit outside on the stoop for a break from the stifling summer heat. You could still feel a certain tension in the neighborhood – even first thing in the morning you’d see people hanging out on the corners who looked like they’d been up all night and the Chinese take-away around the corner was protected by scarred, bulletproof glass – but I was surprised to discover that most people were quite friendly – more friendly than the folks in Fort Greene. The old people especially, many of whom came from the south and retained country southern manners, saying ”good morning” from their stoops and wishing you a good day. 

   The house has been completely redone, far beyond even it’s original Victorian glory (You can see it here). One of the benign aspects of the years of neglect was that most of these houses kept their original features when the trend amongst the middle class especially to rip out the original moulding, paint over the marble fireplaces and go with the new. In these old places, the moulding can go back to the middle of the 19th century.