Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
At Home with Antiques Writing Samples
amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971
"Coming Home: Brooklyn's Historic Bedford-Stuyvesant Neighborhood has been Lived In and Lovingly Cared for by the Descendants of Freed Slaves for 150 Years," Victorian Homes 23 (February 2004), 28-35.    When Carl Johnson wanted his daughter, Debra, to move back home, he bought her a burnt-out brownstone.  “Come on home to Bed-Stuy,” he said, using the colloquial name for the Brooklyn neighborhood where the  family has lived for many generations.  “We walked in with flashlights,” Debra Lamb recalls of her first visit to the 1890s brownstone that she and her husband, Alvin, have been restoring since 1986.  The windows were filled with cinderblocks, smoke damage was everywhere, and there were traces of the dogs that were the feral  companions of the last occupant. Come home to Bed-Stuy, indeed. Fortunately, the young couple was undaunted by such a challenging manifestation of paternal love.  “After that initial shock, I saw what it could look like,” Lamb says.  “I saw past what it looked like at that time.” She emphasizes that the long view is essential for a restoration project—or, for that matter, any serious  enterprise.  Before their marriage, the Lambs had a hope chest for the special items they acquired in anticipation of their life together.  They likewise look ahead to their descendants keeping the house in the family. Such an expectation is not without historical foundation.  Lamb forbears, the children of freed slaves, came to Bedford-Stuyvesant in the generation after the Civil War, and the family has recently begun its second century of residence there. Local changes are also cause for optimism.  MacDonough Street, where the Lambs live, is lined with 19th-century row houses and mansions, many of them newly restored.  With its freshly painted facades and immaculate  summertime verdure, the neighborhood attracts a lot of interest.  “Bed-Stuy has always been a nice  neighborhood, which has been a discovery for the outside,” says Charles Atwell, a local real estate broker who also lives on MacDonough.  Across the street from the Atwells is an 1860s Italianate house that opened in 1995 as the Akwaaba Inn.  Monique Greenwood and her husband Glenn Pogue bought the place as an abandoned ruin and transformed it into a bed-and-breakfast.  The interiors combine Victorian furnishings, African-American artifacts and African craftsmanship.  Carved Nigerian doors decorate the ballroom and Kenyan ceramics line the plate rail in the dining room. For longtime residents, it’s gratifying to see a good neighborhood get even better.  Many belong to the  Brownstoners of Bedford-Stuyvesant, a civic organization that was founded in 1978 to staunch local decline.   “We believe in preservation in the largest and best sense,” says founder and current president Brenda Fryson.  An annual house tour raises funds for college scholarships, literacy programs and other services that keep the community strong.  Ask a Brownstoner about stoop repairs and he’ll probably tell you about improvements in the schools.  “You’ve got to look at the whole picture, not only the housing stock,” Fryson emphasizes. Still, the housing stock is lovely.  Bedford-Stuyvesant first developed as a suburb of Manhattan in the 1840s,  thanks to the establishment of omnibus lines, an early form of public transportation.  By 1880, 14,000 people  lived there, with the most prosperous inhabiting the newly built row houses.  Architecturally, little has changed since then, and Bed-Stuy is today one of the most intact Victorian districts in New York City. Like many historic-house owners, the Lambs will not ever really finish the restoration of their home.  They  describe the interiors as “contemporary urban Victorian,” a style that mixes antiques with African-American art.  For inspiration, they visit historic houses in the region.  “Grandeur is replicable on a small scale,” says Lamb. Aesthetic compromises are inevitable, though.  A Murano glass chandelier is a rare splurge while trips to Home Depot are fairly frequent.  “Look around the neighborhood,” Lamb advises, pointing out some of the jumble  shop treasures and restored street finds that decorate the parlor. The Lambs are especially fond of stained glass; they commissioned a fleur-de-lis transom for the parlor and acquired small pieces to hang in the windows.  But they also rely on decorative window adhesives, which  convey some of the luminosity of the real thing.  “You always wish you had the resources to do more,” Lamb says, which is why a sense of the future is essential for such projects.  “Someday, when I have more time, I’m going to take a class on making stained glass.” Beyond a Pretty House But for the Lambs, fixing up an old house is not the only reason to live in Bed-Stuy.  “I like my block.  It’s a real community,” Lamb says, as her husband nods in concurrence. Her mother, Evelyn Johnson, also agrees.  Evelyn and Carl were just starting out when they bought their house in 1965.  Friends were moving to the suburbs, but they stayed, reluctant to leave the neighborhood that held so many memories.  They found a place on Stuyvesant Avenue, the formerly fashionable “Doctors’ Row.”  The 1910 row house had no air conditioning, a deficiency pointed out by their relations, but the Johnsons were counting on other compensations. For them, everything important was just around the corner.  They both taught in local schools, and friends and family lived nearby.  In addition, there were community affiliations.  Carl joined the Comus Club, the historic African-American men’s club, and he serves on the board of the local retirement center while Evelyn belongs to Alpha Kappa Alpha the African-American sorority founded nearly a century ago. The Johnsons’ home reflected their own achievements and those of their ancestors.  Especially notable was their collection of African-American objects—rare books, family papers and photographs—which was supplemented by Carl’s genealogical research. This legacy was destroyed in only a few hours by a fire that left their home a burned-out shell.  “We had the  opportunity to redo the house or go elsewhere,” Evelyn remembers about that time.  “But I wanted to come  home.” Roots that Go Deep In many ways, families like the Johnsons and Lambs are representative of Brooklyn’s history.  Debra’s great- grandparents moved from Virginia to New York City at the turn of the century.  They settled in Weeksville in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which was the oldest settlement for Free Blacks in Brooklyn.  Founded after the  emancipation of slaves in New York State in 1827, it became fertile ground for local black prosperity.  The  inhabitants created stable black social institutions and published the Freedman’s Torchlight, one of the first  African-American newspapers. This flourishing community was in contrast with the lives of the first slaves who lived in Brooklyn, then a rural Dutch settlement.  Under British rule, beginning in 1674, their numbers increased, so that in 1790, shortly after the American Revolution, one-third of Brooklyn residents were slaves who were owned by nearly two-thirds of the households.  Because of these legacies, both hopeful and tragic, leaving Bed-Stuy was never a serious alternative for the  Johnsons.  Family pictures, miraculously salvaged from the cinders, once again surround the fireplace, and Carl Johnson has recompiled the notebooks of family history.  Summing up a philosophy that has guided her through life, Evelyn says, “You have to pay tribute to what your family went through.”