In 2011, after their landlord doubled the rent, the Al Imam Ali Masjid, a small Bedford-Stuyvesant mosque, was forced to move. Citing the gentrifying changes in the neighborhood as a catalyst, their displacement went largely unnoticed in the broader community, and until now, their story hadn’t been told.
The storefront mosque, now located at 410 Marcus Garvey Blvd (between Halsey and Macon Sts), was founded by Imam Salihou Djabi in 2003. He leads a wide variety of orthodox Sunni worshipers, consisting of African, African American, Afro-Caribbean, Arab and American residents and workers from the neighborhood.
A small core of Muslims pray there five times a day, while up to 100 come for the all important Friday service and jumu’ah prayers, and even more come to celebrate the month long Ramadan and Eid al-Adha (the Festival of Sacrifices).
I visited the mosque and spoke to Adbul Aziz – the assistant Imam, and Samuel Reynolds, a recent “revert” to Islam and member of the mosque, who tell me the mosque’s story, and discuss the changing neigborhood.
The mosque was started at the bottom floor of a small brownstone at 433 Halsey St (between Marcus Garvey Blvd and Lewis Ave). The building was run-down, and the Imam invested his own money into making the space habitable, including basic repairs to the floor and ceiling.
They described their original landlord respectfully, however at times they said their mosque wasn’t afforded the same courtesy, describing how when they were in the old location, their landlord had once come into the mosque during jumu’ah asking for rent, demanding:- “Rent Time – it’s time for Rent!”. They likened this to interrupting a Church’s Sunday Service.
In early 2011, their landlord told the mosque that their rent would be increasing from $1,400 to $3,000 per month.
Unable to afford the increased rent, the Imam was forced to move the mosque – fortunately just around the corner. There they found a reasonable landlord, who is charging them $1,800 per month. Learning from their experience, the mosque has signed a two year lease, with caps on how the rent can be increased if they decide to stay.
Although the Mosque moved in 2011, no mention was made in the local press about the local place of worship being displaced.
Samuel and Abdul Aziz speculate about the changes in their neighborhood which led to the sudden increase in rent.
Firstly, in June 2009, a new restaurant, Saraghina – an Italian restaurant, had moved into the building next door to the mosque. The building, also owned by their landlord, had been occupied by a series of local restaurants, most recently a Jamaican restaurant. Saraghina invariably proved successful, in part by being able to attract new residents and people from outside the neighborhood.
Then in mid-2010, the bodega across the street (the “Green Gourmet Market”), in yet another building owned by the landlord, had been approached by the NYC Department of Health as part of their “Fresh Bodega” program. The program encouraged Bodegas in at-risk health areas to introduce healthier food options, and supported them by providing contracts with a local farmer, training, education, cooking demonstrations, and refrigerators to house fresh fruits and vegetables. According to Samuel, the program and other improvements greatly changed the bodega – it started opening up 24 hours, and he estimated the bodega increased foot traffic by up to 3 times.
It was after these changes that the landlord approached the mosque to raise the rent.
As Abdul Aziz and Samuel described events leading up to being forced to move, the only conclusion they could come to was that their mosque was a victim of greed as their landlord capitalized on the changes to the neighborhood.
They wryly acknowledged the irony of the situation – that positive improvements to the neighborhood ended up forcing them out.
The members of the mosque also described other events in the neighborhood that disturbed them, including a new bar “Marcus Vineyard” being built across the street from their mosque. Despite being within 50 feet from their place of worship, which on Saturdays doubles as a religious school for their children, the mosque was not consulted by the proponents of the bar, nor the Community Board, which provided a letter of support to the bar’s application for a liquor license, which was granted in December.
Samuel, who is a tenant upstairs in the brownstone housing the newly opened bar, was visibly uncomfortable as a Muslim, at the thought of living under the same roof as an establishment serving alcohol.
Abdul Aziz and Samuel then went on to talk about how some of the changes to businesses around them that affected the Mosque, also affect the makeup of Bed-Stuy, with Samuel noting: “There were bookstores here, there are masjids here. All these different things that are here. But we may be losing some of that to restaurants, and bars, and all these other things. There’s a whole block of restaurants where there used to be a bookstore, an art gallery, other things that were part of the cultural fabric – people are being moved, and businesses are being moved without acknowledging the fabric of what made this community attractive in the first place.”
When asked about the new people moving into Bedford-Stuyvesant, directly and indirectly driving some of these changes, they had this to say: “For many of them, [they think] that this is just some place to live – they didn’t know it was a haven for black people – away from the places where they were working or lived – that were hostile to them. So when they move in here, and say, this is ‘just a neighbourhood’, and these are ‘just some people’. Welcome, but realize you have moved into a neighbourhood, and not just some cool place.”
The two discussed their thoughts on the route that gentrification would take in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and here Abdul Aziz and Samuel respectfully disagreed with each other.
Abdul Aziz, who had grown up in the Upper West Side, and lived for some time in Harlem, thought that the changes in the neighbourhood would continue, saying “exactly what happened to us has happened to a lot of people. A certain group of people move in every year, the rents go up, and they push people out.”
Abdul Aziz also talked about how many of the same things that happened in Harlem were happening here, describing how street vendors had been removed, and people forced off the street. To him, it seemed like there was a “system” to clean up a neighborhood and push people and businesses out: “I think it’s going to keep on going. It’s been going on for years. What’s stopping them? They did Harlem. Now they’re doing here! What’s stopping them?”
Samuel on the other hand was more optimistic that the changes in the neighborhood would reach a status-quo: “I think the black power block is stronger in Central Brooklyn than it was for Harlem. And it’s larger. So when you think about the power of Brooklyn – the number of black people in Brooklyn – I don’t think it’s going to happen the same way. I think it’s going to be some different embankments of whiteness that we’ll see, but I think in terms of talking about the same way Harlem has been ‘deracinated’ – I disagree.”
A version of this article was published on Bed-Stuy Patch on Wednesday April 24th “Bed-Stuy Mosque’s Relocation Forces Members to Reflect on Gentrification“