• Garth Wolkoff


Last year, the 2015 Biggie Smalls' "King of New York" mural, on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Quincy Street in Bed-Stuy, was supposed to come down.

In 1989, "there was this corner, where a 17-year-old Biggie Smalls dropped a battle verse so perfect, his opponent had to just walk away," wrote Robert Spuhler in AM New York, a website produced by the newspaper Newsday.

The mural, painted by Naoufa Alaoui and Scott Zimmerman, reflects the neighborhood's ethos--pride in the accomplishments of its own and the use of art to commemorate those who have passed, and, as in Biggie's case, killed.

While the mural went up long after gentrification started in Bed-Stuy, the reasons for the proposed whitewashing reflected one aspect of gentrification that pervades the neighborhood: the varnishing over of neighborhood art, culture, and how the neighborhood represents itself--not necessarily to outsiders, but to itself.

Biggie had and has his share of critics. But the fact that he succeeded with a skill indigenous to New York--rapping--inspired local rappers, including some of my former students; making it as a high-profile MC also said to Bed-Stuy that one of its own can make it financially and musically on his own terms. Rap started in the Bronx, but Brooklyn, and Bed-Stuy in particular, became famous for it's rappers in the 1980s and '90s. Rapper/mogul/husband Jay-Z famously came from the Marcy housing projects in Bed-Stuy. Big Daddy Kane, born here, was given the key to Brooklyn and plaque "on the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Celebrity Path" this past year. Also from Brooklyn: Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Lil' Kim, Fabulous, Ol' Dirty Bastard (whose mural is just blocks away from the St. James address where Biggie once lived), GZA, Foxy Brown, Jam Master Jay, and Chubb Rock, to name a handful. As Lil' Kim once wrote, in a song about Bed-Stuy: "Brooklyn home of the greatest rappers/BIG comes first, then the queen comes after."

The building's owner Solomon Berkowitz wanted to put up more windows, according to an article in DNAinfo, a defunct website now archived by WNYC. "'...Why should I keep it?'” he said at the time. “'I don’t even see the point of the discussion. I could demolish the building if I wanted to, I don’t need no permission from anyone except the DOB.'” Berkowitz was also planning on a "gut renovation" of the second floor, according to the article. Of course one reason for fixing up a building is to charge more rent--reportedly, in this case, $500 a month more. Then Berkowitz offered to charge the artists collective that produced the mural $1,200 a month to keep it up. The collective offered a one-time fee of $5,000 but the landlord said no.

Artists Naoufal Alaoui and Scott Zimmerman (DNAinfo).

Over one year later, the mural of Biggie Smalls is still standing (I took the picture above Monday, 7/30/18).

"From there, supporters circulated petitions in an attempt to get the mural landmarked. According to an Instagram post from Spread Art NYC, everyone from the mayor’s office to the Brooklyn Nets offered support," announced the website Curbed NY. "With all of the hoopla, Berkowitz decided to allow the mural to remain in place...'To be honest, [Berkowitz] just didn’t know how important Biggie is to Brooklyn...,'" said artist Alaoui. "'He’s not a bad guy. A lot of people offered to help financially, but he said he don’t need the money, just the respect of his neighbors.'”

Alaoui said a mouthful. Working backward, Berkowitz wanted "respect of his neighbors," which to the cynical part of me means he wanted people to respect some kind of right to make money. But the articles I read did not explain what respect means, so I don't know. The second thing Alaoui said is that Berkowitz is not not a bad guy. When we start thinking about gentrification in terms of good versus evil, we will always place both ourselves and those that benefit us on the side of good. I don't think it's a helpful way to think, although I know people will.

Finally, and this is most important to me, Berkowitz "'didn't know how important Biggie is to Brooklyn.'" This is one place where gentrification burns. Yes, it displaces people, drives up rents and property value, and causes lots of other financial impact and hurt. But it also transforms a community culturally.

Biggie is everywhere--part cultural icon, part Bed-Stuy hero, part street art, part marketing darling. Biggie is in Ft. Greene on Fulton Street as "Comandante Biggie" in the 50-foot 2011 Chairman Mao-inspired mural by artist Cern One, as though he is casting moral skepticism on the neighborhood, like the Eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg looked at Queens in the novel The Great Gatsby. He grew up the street on St. James Place, the next block over from my first rental in Brooklyn, six months after a still unknown shooter killed him in L.A.

Biggie on the west face of the "Brooklyn Love" building.

He's at the corner of Franklin and Dekalb Avenues. Biggie, along with his arch-rival Tupac, is on cookies in a bakeshop in Bed-Stuy called Cake Boi on Throop Avenue. One of his monikers, "Notorious BIG," has been appropriated by no less than Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, also from Brooklyn, who has been called "Notorious RBG" (she did not come up withe the name but embraces it). Some of the proceeds from Biggie products, like some of the tee-shirts, go to the Christopher Wallace Foundation, which raises money for education-lated causes and under-privileged children.

But in Bed-Stuy, to say you're not aware of the importance of Biggie is to not pay attention. What happens when we don't pay attention to the existing culture when we move into a new neighborhood? We ride roughshod over what people there value. This is not to say that the people of Bed-Stuy only value rap music or Notorious BIG or anything of the sort. It is merely one example.

I will continue to explore the process of cultural change and cultural survival in Bed-Stuy.

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