The View from the Street

By    Published May 23, 2011

BROOKLYN – Most nights, you can find Gilbert Kelly sweeping the sidewalks of Grand Avenue on the block between Putnam and Gates. As he sweeps, he sings old Motown tunes soulfully.

Baby, I need your lovin’… Got to have all your lovin’…

Kelly’s tall, and although his fuzzy hair is graying in places, his eyes glint in his smooth brown face. He’s usually dressed in worn-out flannels, and he’s often picking out bottles in the neighbor’s trash to recycle down the street at the Met grocery store.

Kelly, 62, has lived in Clinton Hill since 1984, and his street-level take on daily life constitutes a rare perspective on the great tide of gentrification that has swept through the city and Brooklyn, in particular, in the last decade.

According to the 2010 census, the block group where Kelly lives has seen a 40 percent decrease in its black population, while the number of whites has quadrupled.

Witness to Change

He’s witnessed the changes year-by-year, building-by-building and family-by-family from the tough, drug-ridden hangouts frequented by Biggie Smalls to the newer, upscale wine bars and boutiques that have popped up in their place.

“Back in the day this was a high drug territory,” recalled Kelly, who spent six years in prison on a felony drug conviction in the 1990s. “I mean, I was part of it, I’m not biting my tongue about nothing like that.”

He points across the street to Grand Court, two tall apartment complexes on the corner of Grand and Putnam avenues. “We had those buildings right there and there was 24 hours a day drug dealing going on there. But the drug thing, it’s dried out.”

Kelly used to work as a mail carrier at the post office down the street on Fulton. But since he got out of prison, he’s found a new calling: making sure his block is clean.

“This is my high,” Kelly said. “When I can look down the street and see no dirt on the whole thing – this is my high.”

A Link in Time

In many ways, Kelly serves as a liaison between the old block and the new. Helen Lynch, a 92-year-old woman who has lived in the same third-floor apartment for 66 years, drops envelopes of grocery money down to Kelly from her window, so he can stock up her fridge weekly. A little blond boy who lives next door to Lynch lifts the screen on his bedroom window as Kelly passes by.

“Hey Kelly!” he yells.

“Oh, hey there little man,” Kelly calls back and waves as he wheels his cart over the bumps in the old slate sidewalk.

In the 1980s, Kelly said, the people who lived on the part of Grand near and past Gates Avenue would go out of their way to avoid Fulton Street – and especially Grand Court apartments, which was considered dangerous terrain.

“The thing was drugs. The building over there, used to have guards, well protected – they were selling drugs there 24 hours a day. So people thought they had a threat.”

James Powell, 78, who has inhabited the same ground-floor apartment in Grand Court since 1980, lived through drug raids on the complex in the 1990s. He said the raids soured his view of the police, but he decided to stick it out on Grand Avenue.

“Inside my apartment – I control that,” Powell said. “I can’t control the streets. What’s done will be done.”

In the early part of the 2000s, though, Powell noted, things started to change for the better. The neighborhood is safer, he said, and many of his friends live in rent-stabilized apartments in Clinton Hill.

“Most of my friends are the old timers, and they’re still around,” Powell said. “But so far as I can see, all the new folks acting nice.”

A Neighborhood Shift

Aaron Cottrell, 31, moved to the neighborhood eight years ago, when the demographics were first beginning to shift. He said the changes have been drastic the last couple of years.

“It’s all good to me, except it’s not as loose and free as it was,” Cottrell said. He remembers big backyard parties, with loud music that blared until the early morning, all summer long. He doesn’t think those parties could happen now.

“There were always families around here, but they were mostly West Indian families, and that was just Brooklyn — you didn’t complain about people playing music or smoking weed,” Cottrell said. “Now, with the money coming in, rather than conforming to the neighborhood, the neighborhood has had to conform to them.”

Cottrell says hello to Kelly and the other old timers every time he passes them, which can be multiple times a day, but he doesn’t always say hello to the new people on the street.

“After years of seeing the same people, it’s kind of rude not to say hello,” Cottrell said. “But if I don’t recognize you, I’m not gonna say, ‘Hi.'”

Same Old Song

Kelly believes the influx of new people in the neighborhood, and the decrease of drug activity, has led to a pleasant atmosphere among the street’s diverse residents.

“Now people on both sides socialize with each other, and if there’s a party or a baby shower or something, they all come together,” he said. “I’m glad that they do talk to each other because I have friends on both sides of the block.”

“That’s what made me make up that song,” Kelly said. And he starts to sing:

It’s the Grand, the greatest place in this divine land.
We’re not just a block or a neighborhood, we’re a family.

Kelly smiles and looks up at the trees that line the streets.

“If I told you it was much of a change, I’d be lying,” Kelly said. “I could see if some people came in here thought they were better than everyone else then that would be a change. But to me it hasn’t really changed much. It’s just a different type of people, but with the same attitude.”