February is Black History Month, and the neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant has one of Brooklyn's richest histories of African-American leaders, cultural institutions, organizations and global cuisine. The Great Migration brought many African-Americans from the South and the Caribbean to the area in the 1920’s and 30’s, making the neighborhood one of the city's most prominent black communities. The heritage of activism and arts in the area is legendary. Bed Stuy is the birthplace of the first black congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm, Chris Rock, Vanessa Williams, activist Hattie Carthan, the Notorious B.I.G., Tracy Morgan, and Jay Z, among so many others. Plus, it’s just gorgeous: the tree-lined streets, brownstones and landmarked buildings have been used as backdrops for such movies as Crooklyn and TV shows as The Knick. You'll need a few visits, in fact, to see the highlights we've gathered below.
Cultural Touchstones: Brownstones and Billie Holiday
In 1967, Robert Kennedy helped form the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, an organization to improve the quality of life in the neighborhood. A lawyer named Franklin A. Thomas was its first president, and in 1972, he founded the Billie Holiday Theatre “to expose the second largest black community in America to the arts while providing an outlet for local talent.” Many actors, writers, designers and musicians (including Samuel L. Jackson) honed their craft here. Through March 4th, A Small Oak Tree Runs Red takes an unflinching look at the practice of lynching in America. The Billie Holiday Theatre, 1368 Fulton St., Bedford Stuyvesant. Tickets: VIP Seating: $65, General Seating: $40, Students and Seniors (ID Required): $25
The Stuyvesant Heights Historic District was designated in 2013 to protect over 400 buildings, including freestanding homes from the 1860s. Architectural finds abound with gorgeous rowhouses, 19th century mansions, and revival style homes. The Akwaaba Mansion stands out, as a current day B & B and a meticulously restored Italianate Villa with four guest rooms. Pieces of history are everywhere including the Bridge Street African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest African American congregation in Brooklyn/Long Island area. It was founded in 1818 and named for the street downtown where the previous building was located.
Of special note, architecturally speaking, is the Bedford-Stuyvesant Boys’ High School, a Romanesque Revival building, built in 1891, with tremendous towers and terracotta trim. The striking building was used as the hospital setting in the HBO show, The Knick. Notable graduates include such luminaries as Norman Mailer, Connie Hawkins, Man Ray, and Max Roach. This was a public school, known for high academic standards and pulling in the best students in the borough. By 1975, it sat empty, but with landmark status, and eventually the city rehabilitated the building and it is now the home of some very lucky charter schools. Boy’s High School, 832 Marcy Ave., Bedford Stuyvesant.
Food and Drink:
This is an enormous neighborhood that used to be even bigger (in the 60s the district included Clinton Hill, Weeksville, Ocean Hill and most of Crown Heights), making it inconvenient to get from one end to the other. So, in the interest of a convenient night out, we’ve broken the guide down into two different areas: Stuyvesant Heights and the Clinton Hill border.
Food and Drink: Stuyvesant Heights
Classic southern food like grits, biscuits and blackened catfish can be found at Peaches (393 Lewis Ave., Bed Stuy), while sister restaurant, Peaches Hothouse (415 Tomkins Ave., Bed Stuy), turns out Nashville style hot chicken. For excellent Haitian food in a casual setting, join everyone at Grandchamps (197 Patchen Ave., Bed Stuy) for sizzling pork griot, okra fritters, and Haitian hot chocolate. Saraghina (435 Halsey St., Bed Stuy) is one of the fancy pizza places that helped reinvent the NY staple in the late 00’s with its Neopolitan style, thin-crust pizza cooked at high temperatures in a wood-burning oven. The restaurant helped people take note of Bed-Stuy as a foodie destination, and paved the way for other restaurants, like Mama Fox (327 Stuyvesant Ave., Bed0Stuy) which just opened and serves “global comfort food” and cocktails.
If all that food made you thirsty for a nightcap, there’s plenty of good options for a drink. Bed-Vyne Brew (370 Tompkins, Bed-Stuy), Bed-Vyne Cocktail (305 Halsey) and brother bar, Casablanca Bar (300 Malcolm X Blvd., Bed-Stuy), have craft beer, shots or old fashioned cocktails waiting for you. At Lovers Rock (419 Tompkins Ave., Bed-Stuy), you can celebrate summer feels with reggae and rum, and when the weather gets warm, you can even chill in the backyard.
Food and Drink: Border of Clinton Hill
On the border of Clinton Hill, the neighborhoods seem to be slowly blending together, with new restaurants opening and classic joints getting lots more foot traffic. Last year, Bon Appetit magazine rated Harts (506 Franklin Ave, Bed Stuy) the 5th Best New Restaurant in America. Known for dishes like clam toast and olive oil cake, it wins first place in date night spot when you want to impress. You’ll know you’ve arrived to Pilar Cuban Eatery (397 Greene Ave., Bed Stuy) when you spot the mint green exterior with the words CUBAN spelled out. Inside the restaurant named after Ernest Hemingway’s boat, you’ll find unbeatable cubanos and rum drinks in an airy space. Fancy Nancy (1038 Bedford Ave., Bed Stuy), a quirky festive spot, serves up classics like burgers, tater tots and deviled eggs in a kitsch setting. Ali’s Trinidad Roti (1267 Fulton St, Bed Stuy) serves up some of the best buss-up-shut roti or doubles around. If you’re craving something sweet, Dough Doughnuts (448 Lafayette, Bed Stuy), serves up giant pillowy doughnuts in the most inventive flavors.
Having a drink is a cinch in this area, with choices ranging from Chilos, a Mexican bar that opens up to an outdoor space where a Taco Truck is permanently parked ready for your late night munchies orders. Or head to Doris (1088 Fulton St.), a low-key cocktail bar with a slightly Southwestern flavor.
Things To Buy in Bed-Stuy:
There are treasures to be found in this neighborhood with great vintage and refurbished stores. I Like Mikes (161 Decatur St., garden level, Bed-Stuy), a vintage pop-up store inside a brownstone sells restored mid-century furniture and home accessories to those in the know. They are only open on Saturdays from 12-5pm and offer free NYC delivery. If it’s high fashion you’re after, then Sincerely Tommy will deliver, with chic women’s clothing from new designers (many local) to curated vintage pieces. Every neighborhood needs a reliable home goods and gift shop, and Peace & Riot fits the bill as a vibrant, inspirational place where you can find everything from unicorn clocks to Moroccan poufs.