Do the right thing – by Spike Lee

Bushwick and Bedford Stuyvesant (“Bed Stuy”) must have been an interesting place to be in July 1977, when a major blackout affected many parts of NYC, and especially the Bronx and Bushwick. Arson, looting and vandalism broke out and within a few weeks most stores closed for good. An exodus of middle class residential tenants, homeowners and shopkeepers ensued. Within a few months these areas looked like Dresden (Germany) after the end of WWII.

Crime quickly became rampant and the area became a haven for drug dealers. NY City officials didn’t know what to do so they threw their hands up in the air and essentially turned their backs on the community. This was not the place to be in from the time of the riot until 2000-2005.

One of the first movies I saw when I moved to NYC was “Do the Right Thing” by Spike Lee. I was riveted by the depiction of the racial tension between the four main ethnicities represented in the movie (Latino, Black, Korean and Italian). Spike Lee did a great job of figuratively positioning these ethnic groups in each of the four corners of the intersection of Stuyvesant and Quincy Streets. I had never been to Brooklyn (let alone Bushwick or Bed Stuy) but I could feel the history; I could feel the tension and I wanted to go see it. This was 1992.

Fast forward to 2008’s and someone I knew well takes me on a real estate tour of Bushwick and Bed Stuy, and all I could think about was Spike Lee’s movie. The buildings, people, streetscape all looked identical, the only changes were people clothing and cars looked slightly different.

Immediately after this tour I purchased my first building in the area; and again, all I could think of was Spike Lee’s movie. The building I purchased was no better than anything you see in a third-world country. I was embarrassed and ashamed in many levels and I decided that I would be an agent for change.

I upgraded the building’s mechanical systems, installed a new boiler, new windows, new roof, fixed the crumbling facade, upgraded the electrical system, among MANY other repairs. More than half my tenants had young children so I was concerned about lead poisoning from flaking older paint. I worked with the City of New York and the Federal government to implement a lead abatement program. I successfully repeated the formula in many other building in the area.

Over the course of the ensuing years I saw coffee shops, health food store, beauty salons, cleaners, restaurants open and succeed. I saw a change in the longtime resident’s appreciation for the area, in the outsider’s perception of the area, NY Finest’s attitude toward policing the area; and it all pointed to a better neighborhood.

Real estate is about bricks and mortar but it is also about people. I remember Ms. Odette, an 80+ year old retired government worker whom I called “the major”. She would sit on the ledge of the window in her ground floor apartment and made sure the kids in the area did not cause trouble and she kept tabs on their progress in school. Or Mr. Roberto, a 60+ year old counselor who would not let City inspectors into the building. He believed that inspectors would poke around my building in search of meaningless violation that generated fees for the City but deterred good landlords from investing to the neighborhood.

Not everything smelled of roses. There was the case of Mr. Elizabeth, a 35 year old mother of 2 whose expertise was “working the court system” so as not to pay rent. She would make holes on the walls and then call a City inspector who would issue a violation. After obtaining 3 or 4 adjournments, she would use that as “proof” to the judge of why she should NOT pay rent.

I since sold some of the buildings to satisfy my investors return requirements but I visit often. I hope you visit soon.

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