NEW YORK — 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.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, June 25, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Bedford-Stuyvesant: An article in Tuesday's Section A about gentrification of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn said the Mynt apartment complex overlooked the Hudson River. It overlooks the East River.
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.