Most everyone who’s been around this Brooklyn neighborhood long enough knows Mama Ruth, a zippy 87-year-old grandmother with toffee-toned skin, a few lonely teeth and indigo eyes.
Every morning when the weather is decent, she sits on the same red metal bench outside the Marcy Houses, a sprawling brick public housing project in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where she has lived for 55 years. With a scratched-up wooden cane leaning at her knee and the morning newspaper in hand, Ruth Butler scans the real estate section, glancing up to take in the changing neighborhood around her.
She has read the paper for enough years to know the story of New York. People with more money move into places occupied by people with less money. The ones with less money try to stick it out, but many end up leaving. She always figured it was a matter of time before that story played out here.
Real estate agents are calling Bed-Stuy the “new Williamsburg,” that funky Brooklyn neighborhood where artists used to migrate until the prices of rentals and condos shot up. New York Magazine hailed Bed-Stuy as “the next hipster enclave.”
A 15-minute subway ride to Manhattan, the neighborhood around Marcy for the last decade has been a halo of vacant lots, liquor stores, factories and run-down buildings. Developers knew it be would be tough to convince upper-income residents to move near one of the city’s most notorious housing projects. Slowly, they have made inroads on this block, where coexisting has become a sort of social experiment.
“Hey, Mama, how you doing?”
“I’m hanging,” Mama Ruth replies, a fluff of hair poking from beneath her Nike Air baseball cap, a dried leaf stuck in her white strands.
“I don’t know why everybody likes to talk to me,” she says. “They do. All of them, the Puerto Ricans, the West Indians, you name it, if they see me sitting here, they’re going to come up and give me a hug and a kiss, and talk.”
Lately, though, a new crop of folks has been moving into the neighborhood, and they don’t talk to Mama Ruth the same. She might pass them at the corner store, or near the subway stop. They’ll nod and smile, and she’ll do the same. But for the most part, Mama Ruth gets out of their way, and they get out of hers.
They came for the gleaming new housing complex across the street, the Mynt, with its stainless-steel appliances, parking garage, doorman, gym and rooftop terraces with Manhattan views. It opened in October, and leasing agents flooded Craigslist with ads. Agents dubbed it a place of “luxurious living” for people who are not millionaires, but want to live like one.
Police stepped up area patrols, and one month after the Mynt opened they arrested nine gang members for allegedly running a crack-cocaine operation at Marcy. Warm weather arrived, and white men began playing Saturday-morning tennis matches in the Marcy courts alongside black and Latino teenagers shooting hoops. Grocery stores agreed to start delivering to parts of the neighborhood deemed off-limits before.
A Duane Reade drugstore is set to open this summer downstairs in the Mynt, bringing promises of jobs, and competition for the cash-only corner stores that sell single cigarettes, called “loosies.”
News of Duane Reade thrilled one neighborhood blogger, but that didn’t stop him from poking fun: “No longer will we have to eat Utz and other second-class chips and cookies. Now we can raise our blood pressure with the finest of junk food like Doritos and Pepperidge Farm treats. No longer will we have to drink Tropical Fantasy ginger ale. We’ll be able to step it up a notch with the effervescence of Schweppes.”
Rumor has it an Internet cafe will soon follow.
All this fancy talk doesn’t mean much to Mama Ruth. “People just hanging around all the time drinking coffee and all that stuff,” she says. “I can’t afford it.”
The retired waitress pays $200 a month for her one-bedroom apartment, with enough room for a kitchen, bed, television, radio and her jigsaw puzzles. “I can’t pay no more than what I’m paying now. If I did, I wouldn’t be able to eat.”
Across the street, her new neighbors pay up to $3,400 a month for penthouses with sliding glass doors and balconies that look straight across the Hudson River to the sparkling Manhattan skyline, and straight down to Marcy’s 27 six-story buildings, spread over 28 acres, with more than 4,200 low-income residents.
Rapper Jay-Z grew up in Marcy. He described the place like this:
I’m a block away from hell, not enough shots away from straight shells . . .
You’re laughing, you know the place well, where the liquor stores and the base dwell . . .
Where we call the cops the A-Team, cuz they hop out of vans and spray things
And life expectancy’s so low, we making out wills at 18.
Cough up a lung, where I’m from, Marcy son, ain’t nothing nice.
Mama Ruth is familiar with Jay-Z, but not with his recollection of Marcy. She moved here in 1953, three years after it was built. She raised two children -- one is 59, the other 69 -- and says they turned out just fine. When she moved in, her three-bedroom apartment cost $30 a month.
There has always been some crime, she says, and some rats. Once she found one swimming in her toilet. But for the most part, “it was beautiful,” she says. “It’s still beautiful.”
They used to call it “Murder Ave.”
Myrtle Avenue stretches through the gut of Brooklyn, separating Marcy from the Mynt. It is merengue music and Mercedes-Benzes, street preachers and strollers.
A mile down the avenue, change has already swept Fort Greene. The area used to have demographics much like Bedford-Stuyvesant’s. It hangs on to a handful of dollar stores, Caribbean restaurants and check-cashing centers, while making room for Pilates and yoga studios, dog-grooming centers and organic-vegan-vegetarian eateries.
On a recent Saturday open house at the Mynt, agent Richard Maggio, a former cruise ship social host, shows the three remaining apartments. Maggio remembers not too long ago when 72 units were up for grabs. He and his partner worked seven days a week signing off on all those leases.
Just after noon, two eager 24-year-olds show up. They’ve seen places in Manhattan’s East Village and Williamsburg. Three-bedrooms in those neighborhoods range between $4,000 and $5,000, too steep for Ben Carney, a high school teacher, and Colin Meehan, who works for Morgan Stanley.
“You come out here,” Maggio tells them, “it’s, like, a full-service building with a 24-hour doorman, you know?”
“How’s the rest of the neighborhood outside?” Meehan asks. Most of what he’s heard about Marcy, he got from rap songs.
“I never had a problem,” Maggio says. “Walk around. Come back, check it out at night. I mean, we have pretty much all young professionals in the building.”
He shows them a three-bedroom for $3,000, and leads them to a laundry room that opens to a communal patio. “For another $400 a month you can rent a penthouse,” he says. “Two-bedroom, two-bath.”
“Can we take a look at that?” asks Carney, who teaches nearby.
In the elevator, Maggio explains that a smaller Mynt-like building is soon to open next door. A shuttered BP gas station on the corner will also give way to a six-story residential development.
The elevator stops on the sixth floor. Maggio opens a door to a living room with glossy wood floors, 9-foot-10 ceilings, and a staircase leading to a rooftop terrace with a view of the Empire State Building, the Manhattan Bridge, Marcy’s racquetball courts, Jay-Z’s old building, Mama Ruth’s red bench.
“The view is awesome,” Maggio says. “Come back at night and sit with the lights out in the apartment. It’s so bright.”
Everyone outside stared when Randolph Ambroise moved into the second-floor three-bedroom corner apartment at the Mynt. Ballplayers, cops, loiterers, corner store patrons. “Everybody was watching us, like we were celebrities,” he says.
Ambroise, 29, a Manhattan real estate agent, and his two roommates were among the first tenants. They got a deal: $3,100 a month. One of the first nights, Ambrose watched five police cars with sirens blaring and lights flashing pull up to the corner. Officers jumped out and ran down the street alongside Marcy. Hoping to block the drama and gawkers outside, the roommates went to Home Depot and bought bundles of window shades.
Ambroise, who used to live in the suburbs, says he is by no means rich. He’s not white either, despite his blondish-brown, tousled hair. His family came from Haiti. The apartment he shares is a bachelor pad of paper lamps, laptop computers, empty vodka bottles, a drum set, video game controls and two brown sofas lined up one behind the other, like movie theater seats, facing a big-screen television.
But walking around the neighborhood, he feels the difference between himself and his neighbors. Ambroise had a car, but he didn’t want to pay to park it in the Mynt’s garage, and donated it to charity after it got broken into twice on the street. When he goes to work in a suit, people ask for change. One time he slapped down his credit card to pay for cigarettes and juice at the corner store, but it didn’t have a credit card machine. “It looks like they do, but it’s for food stamps,” Ambroise says. “I’ve never used food stamps.”
There’s rain on the horizon. Inside Marcy projects, Anthony Tranthan, who grew up here, is on the hunt for a loosie during a break from painting his mother’s apartment. He said it took too long for the neighborhood to change.
“I’m down to get along with everyone,” he says, “because the more we get along, the better the job opportunities.”
Drops start to fall as Tranthan continues his search. A store owner two buildings down from the Mynt refuses to sell him a loosie, but around the corner, a clerk agrees, for 50 cents.
Back at Marcy, Tranthan says hello to Mama Ruth on her bench. She asks how his mother is doing.
There are no plans to raze Marcy, though many fear that will happen. Tearing down a large-scale low-income housing project in New York would certainly be met with grand protests and political opposition. For now, residents on this island will coexist with their new neighbors.
“I mean, yo, it’s like, we, like, making a stew right now,” Tranthan says, “and nobody knows how it’s going to turn out.”
“Mama, what if they take the projects?” he asks.
“I don’t worry about it,” she says, steadying herself to hobble back upstairs to her apartment. “I pay my rent every month.
“I’ll be here for as long as it’s here,” she says, “or I’ll die first.”