A single-family wooden house in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant has survived for almost 150 years, thanks to the loving care of one family.
Photo: Allyson Lubow
Located between brownstones and condos, 170 Madison Street is a single-family, wood-frame home with a wide front porch — the kind of place you might not notice in a small upstate town. Last weekend, on its first open house, the $1.495 million listing drew the crowds one would expect at a gallery opening, despite problems with the floor, electricity and the fact that the house has no central air. “I got so many people,” said Corcoran agent Tita Omeze, who estimated she got around 90 visitors in two days.
“It looks like a country house in the city,” said Omeze, who pointed out that there was a real peach tree in the real backyard. There is also a finished attic, four fireplaces, wood floors, mantels, picture rails, a wood stove, and sparkling white trim. Some of this may be the origin of Bed-Stuy’s first wave of development: an 1880 map lists the house along with a “scattering” of other timber frames in the former Bedford family farm, according the Brownstoner, which also uncovered some of the original owners: a white couple named Harry and Ida May, who lived there from 1890 to 1941. The Russell family – the same people selling the house today – were likely the next owners. They took out a mortgage on the house around 1948 for $8,700, according to John Russell, now 82, who grew up in the house. He remembers growing up with black, white, and Native American neighbors, like his father, who was half-Cherokee.
As white families fled to the suburbs over the next decade, Russell saw the block change “from predominantly white to predominantly black”, and the hard times of the 1960s forced many of these black homeowners to modify single-family homes. “They would split a family into two, three, or four families and add rooms to pay the bills,” Russell said. His own family took in a boarder for $25 a month, but didn’t change much at home except to tear down the garage so the kids had more space to play. Russell’s siblings have all gone gradually. “No one wanted the house at that time. It was the ghetto. The houses were dilapidated around us. And my sisters and brothers wanted to spread their wings. They progressed and I found myself with myself.
He had a good reason to stay: he fell in love with the girl opposite, Arlean, who became a nurse. Russell worked two jobs and went to school at night, eventually becoming a staff engineer for IBM. During that time, the couple cared for their parents and raised three daughters, including Annette Sutton, now a 60-year-old paraprofessional for a school in New Jersey. “When a child learns to draw a house, he draws a triangle and then a square. This is home,” she said. “There didn’t seem to be a place for it. It was just different from all the houses in the neighborhood. She remembered sliding down the railing, playing in the attic, and lingering on the porch. “We used to put the chairs on the porch and sit there and watch our neighbors walk by and talk to our neighbors,” she said.
Her father tried to maintain the house as he had loved it as a child. He has kept a back garden, planting cherry tomatoes, zucchini and squash this year, just as his mother would in the 1950s. “Before, it was open. I walked from yard to yard, from apple tree to apple tree, from pear tree to pear tree, climbing trees. My mother made jelly preserves. It was then. We had green cabbage, all kinds of gardens — every neighbor had a garden. You would have your breakfast with tomatoes and eggs from the garden.
Most of those in attendance at the open house were young white couples, looking to move to a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Between 2010 and 2020, Bedford Stuyvesant lost 22,000 black neighbors from Russell and added 30,000 white transplants, according to census data. Omeze, the agent, acknowledged that the house could very well go for some of these new white transplants. “Even though I’m black and the owner is black, we can’t discriminate against white people,” she said. Russell, the 82-year-old owner, would be happy to give it to them, he says. As long as it remains a home. Current zoning would allow a landlord to tear it down and build something more than twice as tall, which the owners of the two-door 174 Madison seem to be doing with a permit to build another four-story neighbor. However, he warns, the house required a lot of work. “You do one thing, and in three months something else comes along. I did everything myself and got a lot of help.