By Darren Sands, City Limits
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, reporting from CityLimits.org
Thirteen years ago, a robbery in Bed-Stuy's Saratoga Park was big news.
“Brazen thieves have stolen a 7-foot-tall World War I memorial statue honoring fallen soldiers from its home in a Brooklyn park,” the New York Post reported in April 2000.
“My feeling is one of complete outrage,” said then Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, whose office had offered up a $1,000 reward for information leading to its return. “It's such an enormous lack of respect. It's like desecrating a cemetery,” the commissioner added. He alluded to a pair of side panels listing the names of fallen soldiers that went missing in 1974.
Indeed, crime has long been a part of Bed-Stuy's reputation, and Saratoga Park has often featured in fears about crime in the neighborhood. A spate of crime this summer triggered some debate about whether the park was an asset or a place to avoid.
Meanwhile, in a neighborhood trying to establish its identity somewhere between the old and the new, an effort to restore the statue is underway.
Boom to bust to boom
Known then as Saratoga Square, the parcel took its name from the street, which took its name from the Revolutionary War battle in upstate New York. Before it became parkland, it was owned by James C. Brower, who'd started a successful hardware business on Broadway buoyed, fittingly enough, by a boom in real estate development, according to historian Montrose Morris on Brownstoner.
“When the city of Brooklyn was looking around for land to acquire for a park in the 25th Ward, this was one of the choices they had,” Morris writes. “In fact, according to the Parks Department Annual Report, in 1895, it was the only choice they had, being the only available piece of land in the district.”
Little time was wasted building out the park's design. Parks Department records show that by as early as 1903, bids on procurement for things like building the shed and cementing the sidewalk were already taking place.
By the time Ella Fitzgerald was dazzling audiences with her rendition of the Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington composed “Take the A Train” in the ’50s and ’60s, the route connecting 207th St in Inwood south through Harlem, down Manhattan's Eighth Avenue into the heart of Brooklyn had become symbolic of the migration of many African Americans from Harlem to Bed-Stuy. By 1950, Bed-Stuy was 50 percent white. In ten years, that number plummeted to 18 percent.
The neighborhood has changed dramatically since Stern vented his outrage to the Post in 2000. Bed-Stuy was 75 percent black back in 2000, but only 60 percent black in 2010. In that time period, the white population increased an astonishing 633 percent, by about 16,000.
Laying claim to progress
Now, what some real estate agents call Bed-Stuy East has become an increasingly popular destination among low-income renters priced out of central Bed-Stuy, out of an exploding Crown Heights, and just about everywhere else not named Brownsville or East New York. To wit, the Wall Street Journal earlier this month ran a story in its Real Estate section titled, “There is Life East of Malcolm X Boulevard.”
“It was only a few years ago when the majority of apartment and brownstone seekers in Bedford-Stuyvesant would ask area residents and brokers: What's east of Malcolm X Boulevard?” the story said. “The answer was pretty simple: Not much. Besides Saratoga Park and Bed-Stuy Fish Fry, a famous seafood joint on Halsey Street, there was little to talk about.”
The story detailed the attractive prospects for home ownership in the area, the many amenities which are forthcoming like a new coffee shop and a wine bar.
Longtime residents say that if there is a revitalization of the park and the surrounding neighborhood, it's because of the work of Community Board 3, homeowners and longtime residents who saw a need to respond to issues like litter, graffiti long before the new wave of residents came along.
“Those trees in that park aren't still standing because people didn't use the park and failed to make sure that it was taken care of,” said TJ Wilson, the vice chair of the parks, arts and culture committee for Community Board 3 Board, who moved to nearby Macon St. and Ralph Avenue in 1999.
Crime is down across the board in Bed-Stuy (so far this year, felony crime is down in both the 81st and 73rd precincts, which abut at the eastern edge of the park). But there was a burst of violence around the park this summer. On the afternoon of Thursday, September 19, a 71-year-old woman was suffocated from behind and thrown to the ground during a robbery on the corner of Howard Avenue and Macon Street in Bed-Stuy. On August 6, the real estate blog Brownstoner reported shots were fired in broad daylight across from the park. Another shooting occurred nearby on August 11 and a 32-year-old man was killed near the intersection of Howard Avenue and Hancock Street on the early morning of August 3. All of the crimes were committed in close proximity to the park, situated between Halsey Street and Macon Street between Howard and Saratoga Avenues in the eastern district of Bed-Stuy.
“The people don't make a lot of money over there,” Wilson said of the area close to the park. “The neighborhood still has crime issues. It doesn't go away just because there are white people right next door to me.”
Still seeking a statue
The alleged narrative behind how the World War I statue went missing is the stuff of urban legend. The story is that two crack addicts made off with the statue in the wee hours and sold it for a few dollars with which they fed their habit.
Longtime neighbors are skeptical that anyone could have successfully pulled off such a feat without professional equipment and some heavy duty transportation. At a recent Community Board meeting, one resident openly suggested the city took it out because it “didn't want the statue in our community.”
Wilson and others recently petitioned Councilwoman Darlene Mealy's office to fund a replica of the statue. It was supposed to be completed by now, and Wilson fears that money will go away but the hope remains to have a replacement statue in place by next year.
“Someone always comes and talks about getting that statue back,” Wilson said. “That, and getting the bathrooms redone.”