The View from the Street

First published in The Local blog of the New York Times May 26, 2011 and a longer version appeared on Changing NYC, a website of the New York City News Service.

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.

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

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

Mr. Kelly, 62, has lived in Clinton Hill since 1984. According to the 2010 census, the blocks around where Kelly lives have seen a 40-percent decrease in black population, while the number of whites has quadrupled.

He has 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.

In the audio slide show above, Mr. Kelly offers his take on the area’s street life. A longer version of this story appears as part of the New York City News Service’s “Changing New York” series on the 2010 census.

On a recent day, Mr. Kelly pointed across the street to Grand Court, two tall apartment complexes on the corner of Grand and Putnam avenues. “There was 24-hours-a-day drug dealing going on there,” he said.

“I mean, I was part of it, I’m not biting my tongue about nothing like that,” he added. Mr. Kelly spent six years in prison on a felony drug conviction in the 1990s. Now, he said of the neighborhood, “the drug thing, it’s dried out.”

Mr. 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 has found a new calling: making sure his block is clean.

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

In many ways, Mr. 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 Mr. Kelly from her window, so he can stock up her fridge weekly.

A little blond boy who lives next door to Ms. Lynch lifted the screen on his bedroom window as Mr. Kelly passed by.

“Hey Kelly!” he yells.

“Oh, hey there little man,” Mr. Kelly called back, waving as he wheeled his cart over the bumps in the old slate sidewalk.

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

“It’s all good to me, except it’s not as loose and free as it was,” Mr. 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.

“That was just Brooklyn — you didn’t complain about people playing music or smoking weed,” Mr. Cottrell said. “Now, with the money coming in, rather than conforming to the neighborhood, the neighborhood has had to conform to them.”

But Mr. Kelly said the influx of new people in the neighborhood, and the decrease of drug activity, has created a pleasant atmosphere on the street.

“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,” Mr. Kelly said. He started 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.

Mr. Kelly smiled and looked up at the trees that line the streets.

“To me, it hasn’t really changed much,” he said. “It’s just a different type of people, but with the same attitude.”