How Gentrification in Bed-Stuy Almost Killed a Black Community Theater

A change is gonna come.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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In 1984, The Slave Theater in Bed-Stuy became the home of African-American artists and community leaders in Brooklyn. Today it is empty because of a vacate order issued by the Department of Buildings and a heated battle to preserve the theater's heritage in the midst of ongoing gentrification in the borough.

Its fate is looking a little brighter today than it was two years ago when local activists went toe-to-toe with the big-time developers who wanted to demolish the theater and replace it with a pharmacy and condos. A civic center in the heart of one of the most vibrant black communities in America was going to be the latest casualty in the gentrification game.

Luckily, advocates like Jeff Strabone, former president of the Cobble Hill Association and chairman of the New Brooklyn Theater, have stepped in to educate people about the historical value of The Slave. Their efforts have led to a deal with Fulton Halsey Development, the real-estate group that bought the theater for an estimated $2.1 million in 2013.

It's nothing official, Strabone said over the phone. It's just a handshake. But if Fulton Halsey Development lives up to its end of the bargain, theater will remain at 1215 Fulton Street, even if it means condos will be built above it. City Guide spoke with Strabone about his activism, the history of the Slave Theater and how gentrification affects the arts.

How did you learn about the Slave?

I’ve always known about it. I’m a native New Yorker myself. We formed New Brooklyn Theater in 2012 with the mission that includes restoring theater to the building. It’s been closed since 1998 and has a great history. We have an urban historian working on that history for us. For most of its life, it was known as the Regent Theater from the time it was built until 1984. We think it’s time for the performing arts to come back to 1215 Fulton.

How and why did the name change?

It had been chiefly a cinema when it was the Regent, and then Judge John Phillips acquired the property in 1984 and renamed it The Slave and that was in keeping with its new mission of being a place of black politics and civil rights. It was a reminder of slavery and the need to overcome the legacy of slavery.

What is the New Brooklyn Theater’s relationship with the Slave?

We don’t own the building. New Brooklyn Theater is the name of our theater company. The building has been shuddered since 1998 and at some point in the last few years, Judge Phillips was deemed incompetent by the court and he had a court appointed guardian who robbed his estate and then the estate came into the hands of his nephew Samuel Boykin. The building was put on Bank of New York’s auction calendar in 2012. We were hoping to go to auction and buy it on November 5, 2012 and we were raising funds to do so.

What happened, why weren't you able to acquire the building?

Before the auction date came around, it dropped off the auction calendar. We then called Bank of New York to see what was going on and were told another party was in contract negotiations to acquire the property from Boykin. They also told us who the party was, which probably they weren’t supposed to do. We then immediate went to the offices of the developer who was in line to buy the property—Fulton Halsey Development Corporation. They didn’t realize what an important cultural asset the building was, but we impressed that upon them right away and they understand that now. That may be part of the reason the building has not been knocked down for a pharmacy with condos above it.

What is the current situation?

Fulton Halsey has owned The Slave since February 2013 and we’ve had a series of talks with them. We have a verbal agreement that we, The New Brooklyn Theater, will occupy the theater on the site and Fulton Halsey will build apartments above it. I stress that this is just a verbal agreement. We don’t have any paper with them, but the fact that they haven’t knocked the building down and replaced it with a pharmacy we take as a good sign.

What state is the building in?  

The DOB has a vacate order due to structural instability. No one is allowed in it. That’s why no one can go into the building while that order is there. Whether that order is there to keep out the squatters or it’s really there for the structural instability, I don’t know. We haven’t done an engineering report. We have to take the DOB’s word at face value.

In what ways is the mission of the New Brooklyn Theater in keeping with the original mission of The Slave?

Our mission is to restore theater to 1215 Fulton Street and to produce exciting contemporary theater with emerging Brooklyn artists, and to create a theater education department that will serve Brooklyn and Bed-Stuy. We recently produced a site-specific theater production of Edward Albee’s play Bessie Smith at the Interfaith Medical Center in Brooklyn. [The medical is in jeopardy of closing.] If Interfaith closes, people in Bed-Stuy will die. That’s not an exaggeration. So we wanted to use the arts to join that movement to provoke a conversation about health, race, and class. Harry Belafonte called what is going on “medical apartheid.”

How closely do you work with locals in the community?

We’ve been welcomed by everyone and our work at Interfaith, I think, told people what we are about and how serious we are about doing this.

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