Dispatches from the Urban Heartland, Part 1: Welcome

Aerial view of Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, 1956. Fort Greene Park is seen in lower right corner. Department of Parks & Recreation collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

A BIT OF AN INTRODUCTION. I was born in 1964 and live in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. I walk the same streets my family did when they lived here decades ago. Having moved here in 1997, I’ve now been walking in the footsteps of my elders for twenty years. I founded the oldest Black cyberpunk network, called “sektor 6 kommunikations,” in 1989. As a polymath who applies my varied skillset toward educational, cultural and artistic pursuits, I’ve been lucky enough to have had many mentors, colleagues, and mentees throughout my life to assist in enhancing my personal and social development, which has greatly defined my public voice. My educational pursuits include founding Purpose Lounge, which creates programs and curricula focused on teaching media literacy, US cultural history, and engaged civics. Lastly, I am a consultant for people, businesses, and organizations to help them operate more efficiently and effectively toward their goals. The objective of my series of blog posts is to give readers a unique lens that portrays  the heart and flavor of the Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, and Fort Greene region, aided by images and stories found in the New York City Municipal Archives. With that said, now we are ready to go on our journey.

When one speaks of “the heartland” in the United States, it typically refers to a bucolic location in a town with two traffic lights, where people sit on porches sipping lemonade, discussing the real things in life. Having grown up on the New Jersey shore, and traveled the country as a musician, BMX freestyler, and artist, I certainly appreciate regions where there is more Earth than people. Conversely, there is also the reality of the urban heartland: the other mythic place people have crammed into for centuries in an attempt to bring their dreams to fruition. There isn’t a day when I don’t think of the awesome reality of having the privilege to live somewhere that people from around the world save their entire lives to visit for a brief vacation. A place where you can see an eighty year old with purple hair, adorned in clothes with a one-of-a-kind eclectic style...and no one blinks. Where the mythic porch is in the form of a stoop. Where a person can ask directions and within three minutes have six people debating twelve of the best routes. A place where there are more varied forms of employment than almost any other place in the country. It is with that reverence and wonder that I wander the urban heartland.

On our way to the first stop on our journey, I present something for you to consider. One of the first things one thinks of when they think “heartland” is food. There are a number of places in our region with a long history, where the smells and tastes of foods repeatedly waft through the minds of those lucky enough to have experienced them.

Royal Rib House, 303 Halsey St., Brooklyn. Photo: Darryl Montgomery, 2017.

That brings us to our first stop, the award winning Royal Rib House, 303 Halsey St. It reigns as a top contender as an iconic regional staple. They have lines running out onto the sidewalk nearly every day they are open. Their model is unique because they only open for business Thursday through Saturday, but their food preparation process goes throughout the week. As a Bed-Stuy grown family business, it’s a wonderful story of new generations following in their elder’s footsteps. This quite impressive father and son business has been here since the 1960s. Walking past, hearing “Hello Neighbor” yelled out of the kitchen to me, or getting the wave and nod, reminds me of one of the primary elements of community cohesion: having a real connection with the businesses and people of one’s neighborhood.

The current picture shows five functioning businesses/entities. No broken windows as in the picture from the mid-1980s. As investment floods areas structurally left to their own devices for over half a century, though a number of people couldn’t make it through the rents and the like, there are many that remain as vital threads in the fabric of our community. The elements of modernity in the recent picture - the satellite dishes, the organic food deli, the cars, the scooter, the bike rack - all speak to the changes in the ways we as a neighborhood, and those who visit, engage our environment.

Royal Rib House, 303 Halsey St., Brooklyn, NY, circa 1985. Department of Finance collection, New York City Municipal Archives.

Moving on, now consider that the second thing people imagine when thinking of the heartland is open space, which in cities typically means parks, or in modern urban vernacular, “greenspaces.” The oldest park in Brooklyn, Fort Greene Park in Fort Greene, and another early park, Von King Park in Bed-Stuy, originally named Tompkins Park, fall within our focus. The 1940 picture of Von King shows a mostly open greenspace with passageways. The park also featured a library. Fort Greene Park, built on a location where forts for the American Revolutionary War once stood, now features annual warm weather battles over barbecuing, and sometimes sound system, supremacy.

Fort Greene Park playground, near corner of Myrtle Ave. and St. Edwards St., Brooklyn, 1959. Mayor Robert F. Wagner collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Herbert Von King Park, Brooklyn, 1940. Department of Parks & Recreation collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Former public library in Herbert Von King Park, Brooklyn, 1944. Department of Parks & Recreation collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Southeast corner of Von King Park, facing north. Tompkins Ave. is on the lower right. Photo: Darryl Montgomery, 2017.

The humanity that has experienced these parks spans centuries and cultures. It is also important to recognize the main thing that defines a real park to a Brooklynite: that you can barbecue in it. During the warm months, all varieties of humanity are cooking food, having picnics, playing sports, enjoying the weather, and savoring the well-known free summer concerts cranked to eleven. If you sit quietly, you can feel the many lives that used these spaces, those who were celebrating and those whose hearts were breaking. You can also feel the essence of resilience that links the entire region. It is all located within a three mile radius of Weeksville in Crown Heights, one of the first thriving free Black communities in the United States, founded by James Weeks in the 1830s. It is this awesome history and the region’s connection to the Revolutionary War, unknown to most but felt by all, that anchors the soul and grit of the “urban experience” in this region of Brooklyn.

Fort Greene Park, 1937. Department of Parks & Recreation collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Fort Greene Park northwest corner, facing north. Photo: Darryl Montgomery, 2017.

Fort Greene Park southeast corner, facing northwest. Photo: Darryl Montgomery, 2017.

The small homes that once lined the north-east corner of Von King Park on the opposite side of Lafayette St. are gone - now there’s one large building. In a wonderful evolution, the circle in the center walkway that was there in the 1940’s has blossomed into a large play area and the path leads into a now legendary amphitheater. The play areas have children thrilling in their padded-ground vertical urban wonderland, making social and physical connections to engage the urban jungle(s) of their futures. In relation to drastic change, the Manhattan skyline seen in the older Fort Greene Park pictures is now almost completely unrecognizable and unthinkable in 2017. The stark difference of the look of Fort Greene in the 1940s provides an interesting hindsight in which to see the shells of Fort Greene Public Housing buildings - hopeful and new and intended to provide a stable place that has evolved into places representing far too much instability.  Tangentially, the change in the height of the skyline has also changed the look and timing of sunrises and sunsets throughout the region. These observations are components of how we see these communities and why we believe them to be endless sources of pride as our “hometown.”

Fort Greene Park, 1941. Department of Parks & Recreation collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Fort Greene public housing under construction, Park Ave. and North Portland Ave., 1942. Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Fort Greene public housing under construction, Park Ave. and Carlton Ave., 1942. Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Public housing north of Fort Greene Park. Photo: Darryl Montgomery, 2017.

When thinking of how to begin our journey, I felt it was best to provide a little window into the triad region my posts will be covering with a sprinkling of my own thoughts. The 466,303 people who inhabit this region (Crown Heights, 292,870; Bed-Stuy, 157,530;  and Fort Greene, 15,903) are as varied and dynamic a grouping of people that you will see anywhere in the country. Throughout these posts, I will explore a wide spectrum of topics that I hope show you the amazing culture that can be found in these communities and in the NYC Municipal Archives.

In peace…till our next journey,

Fort Greene Park monument, facing east. Photo: Darryl Montgomery, 2017.