- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2009


In rapper Biggie Smalls‘ old Brooklyn neighborhood, the building that once housed a coin laundry is now a plastic surgeon’s office. A block away, a wine bar sells “artisanal” cheeses and meats. Much has changed where the late superstar spent all but a few years of his life and sometimes sold crack cocaine before spinning vivid tales of his street exploits into millions of record sales.

“It’s completely different,” said Voletta Wallace, Mr. Smalls’ mother, who moved into the area in 1969 and left after her son was killed, at age 24, in a 1997 drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. “It’s a place for the better.”

Miss Wallace is a producer of “Notorious,” the Smalls movie biography that reached theaters Friday, and was on the set during filming in the area.

In interviews, she and other longtime residents and business owners reminisced about Mr. Smalls and reflected on the neighborhood’s changes, which have occasionally sparked tension.

“Much has changed but much remains the same,” said City Council member Letitia James, whose district includes the neighborhood.

“In the movie the drug trade was a predominant feature,” she said. “Crack was at its height. Some of what happened and occurred and existed during Biggie’s time is still on Fulton Street, and we’re trying to address that.”

“But we’ve come a very long way,” Ms. James added.

She emphasized the neighborhood’s racial and class diversity. There’s less graffiti and more white, Asian, Hispanic and professional residents as well as blue-collar workers, artists and students.

On Fulton, the major commercial artery where the crack trade flourished in the 1980s and ‘90s - and where Mr. Smalls sometimes wowed sidewalk crowds with freestyles, making up rhymes on the spot - there’s now a mosque and a “coffee lounge” offering organic hot chocolate, chai latte and macchiato. The video-game arcade is now a restaurant of traditional West African food.

Mr. Smalls, who was born Christopher Wallace and used the stage name the Notorious B.I.G., lived with his mother in a seven-room apartment at 226 St. James Place.

Miss Wallace, a Jamaican immigrant, taught preschool by day while earning her master’s and attended Jehovah’s Witness services in the evenings.

Young Chris had a talent for visual art and attended Catholic school and public high school but dropped out after being lured away by the crack trade’s fast money and accoutrements.

“My son wasn’t the pauperized kid he made himself out to be,” his mother told writer Cheo Hodari Coker, who co-wrote the screenplay for “Notorious.”

Although B.I.G. claimed the Bedford-Stuyvesant area as home, his old building has been part of the Clinton Hill Historic District, west of Bed-Stuy, since 1981.

In the late 19th century, the neighborhood of mansions, Victorian row houses and brownstones was home to some of the city’s wealthiest white residents, including the Underwoods (as in typewriters), the Pfizers and Bristols (FDA-approved drugs), and Charles Pratt (oil).

“The Pfizers of Clinton Hill gave way to street pharmacists selling heroin and cocaine on the corner,” Mr. Coker wrote in the 2004 book “Unbelievable: The Life, Death, and Afterlife of The Notorious B.I.G.”

Blacks from Harlem, the South and the Caribbean began moving into the neighborhood in earnest in the 20th century. By the 1970s and ‘80s mostly black neighborhoods such as Clinton Hill, which contained solid black middle and working classes, were lumped in with the grittier Bed-Stuy.

Since then, with Manhattanites and others moving deep into Brooklyn in search of less pricey real estate, real-estate agents have revived names such as Clinton Hill and Fort Greene to disassociate those areas from Bed-Stuy, which many outsiders associated with blight, crime and poverty, people familiar with the neighborhoods say.

Apartments in B.I.G.’s old building have been converted to condominiums, and brownstones in the neighborhood have sold for as much as $3 million. Studio apartments are advertised for $1,250 a month while one-bedrooms rent for as much as $1,700.

Current residents include actor Jeffrey Wright and his wife, actress Carmen Ejogo; actor Malik Yoba; actress Rosie Perez; rapper-actor Mos Def; and rapper Talib Kweli.

Some older residents, most of them black, complain about the higher rents and about how newer residents (usually white) try to change things in an “insulting” and “disrespectful” manner.

Some newer residents gripe about “noise” coming from black churches, and about young black men rehearsing their rap music in parks, talking to each other on stoops and sitting in playgrounds, maybe reading a book or magazine, without children.

“What we’ve attempted to do is bridge the gap, the divide,” Ms. James said.

B.I.G.’s debut CD, 1994’s “Ready to Die,” helped re-energize the East Coast rap scene, which up to that point had been overshadowed by West Coast rap.

On March 9, 1997, B.I.G. was killed. Six months earlier, rapper Tupac Shakur, 25, died after a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas. Police have yet to solve either killing.

In Brooklyn, love for B.I.G. and his music is easy to find, particularly in the summer when hits like “Juicy,” “One More Chance” and “Big Poppa” float from apartment and car stereo speakers, and T-shirts bearing his likeness are perennial fashion.

Many fans say B.I.G., who stood 6-foot-3 and weighed more than 300 pounds, was the best rapper ever to rhyme.

“Just like after Ali there’s no boxing and after Bruce Lee there’s no karate, after Biggie there’s no rap. It’s a wrap. He’s the king,” said Abraham Widdi, who has worked for 35 years in his family’s Met Food, where B.I.G. once bagged groceries.

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