There is perhaps no artist more synonymous with the New York City borough of Brooklyn than iconic rapper The Notorious B.I.G. (a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, among other things). His clever, vivid lyrics and unparalleled ferocious-yet-measured flow helped put Bedford-Stuyvesant, Biggie’s native neighborhood, on the map in the mid 1990’s. That was back when Brooklyn looked more like the violent frontier detailed in songs like “Warning” and “I Got A Story To Tell,” and less like the hipster-ized extension of lower Manhattan that we know today.
As it has with virtually every neighborhood in the City, the forward march of gentrification has methodically changed the face of Brooklyn over the past two decades. As the costs of rent and real estate in heart of the city soar skyward, people are displaced and move further toward the outer boroughs like Brooklyn and Queens where costs are lower. Gradually, the influx of “transplants” transforms the face of a given neighborhood, as corporate interests recognize the paradigm shift and move into the new area. Prices in those areas go up in turn, and the people who had been living there are forced further outward–continuing gentrification’s ripple effect.
While decreases in crime and the beautification of downtrodden neighborhoods are objectively positive effects of gentrification, they are underscored by the whitewashing of these areas’ unique native character. While Bed-Stuy was far from a desirable place to live in Biggie’s day, it is now a sought-after area for young, predominantly white tenants. The prices remain relatively reasonable compared to other areas in Brooklyn, and with the influx of the gentrifying population, the violent, dangerous aspects of the neighborhood have diminished considerably.
As the city continues to change, natives across the 5 boroughs have made efforts to retain the character that once defined their given neighborhoods. In Bed-Stuy, several artists have painted large-scale murals to commemorate their native son The Notorious B.I.G. and show all who come through those streets that they haven’t forgotten where they came from. However, though art can often outlast gentrification for a time, the dollar still reigns supreme. Eventually, the fight for the soul of a neighborhood comes head-to-head with financial interests.
This week, word has surfaced on the web that a towering Biggie mural painted on a building at the corner of Bedford Ave. and Quincy St. will be removed as the landlord adds extra windows to facilitate an increase in his property’s rent. The two-story high piece, entitled “King of NY,” was painted by Naoufal “Rocko” Alaoui and Scott “Zimer” Zimmerman of art collective Spread Art NYC in 2015 and has drawn large crowds ever since. When they heard of the mural’s impending destruction, Spread Art NYC attempted to stop the painting’s removal, offering to pay the building owner $5000 (collected via donation) to stop the installation of the windows. However, their request was denied, as the building’s owner countered their offer with a $1250 monthly rate to keep the mural intact. The art collective explained the situation in an Instagram post, which you can read below:
A few updates on “king Of NY” Mural: we just want everyone to know that Spread Art NYC, your humble community Art organization has been working real hard to keep this mural up for the past year! Landlord always calls us and Claims that the neighbors are complaining about the mural and the crowds it attracts. About 4 months ago, he told us about the construction he will be doing which will damage the mural in the process. He will be opening Windows on the wall to increase rent profit by $500 according to them. Today Spread Art NYC offered $5000 (which we planned to gather from the community and the fans) not to open the windows. Unfortunately, that offer was declined and it was answered by a counteroffer of $1250 a month. At this point, there is nothing Spread Art NYC can do to save this mural. We will continue to serve our neighborhoods regardless!! Community is our goal, we like to give back and we thought A biggie mural at the corner of #bedfordandquincy was needed to keep the culture alive, to keep Brooklyn Alive. We always say, Brooklyn is Biggie and Biggie is Brooklyn. A landlord can NEVER change that! We want to thank everyone for the love! We promise, we GOT YOU!!!??#spreadartnyc #20bigyears #bedstuy #bedfordstuyvesant #biggie #kingofny #livefrombedfordstuyvesant #spreadloveitsthebrooklynway
In an interview with DNAinfo, building owner Steve Berkowitz defended his position, citing reasons beyond the bottom line: “Let me rephrase the question: Why should I keep it?…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 also cited alleged complaints by neighbors about the crowds it draws as a reason not to acquiesce to Spread Art NYC’s requests.
The impending destruction of this piece of Bed-Stuy culture inspired the creation of a petition to protect the mural as an official landmark. According to the Change.org page for the petition, “This mural is very important to not just Brooklyn, but to music. The slain rapper, Notorious BIG is a symbol of Brooklyn, its history and the promise of hope for so many he inspired with his music. As the borough is currently in the midst of a mass gentrification and evolution, we still need to preserve the very things, specifically the art and culture that make Brooklyn, Brooklyn…By landmarking the building the landlord is unable to make any changes to the facade without permission from the Landmarks and Preservation Commission.”
The petition’s organizer set out to gather 1500 signatures before a public hearing on the matter next month. The petition had been signed by over 3500 people by the time the Change.org campaign was officially ended by its organizer, who explained that she had ended the petition at the request of Spread Art NYC. “The organization has stated they are working on a solution to save the mural.”
We wish Spread Art NYC the best of luck in saving this incredible piece–and we’re ready an able to lend a hand, just say the word. The sky is the limit!
[h/t – Pigeons and Planes]