06/26/2012 03:06 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2012

Charles Barron, Hakeem Jeffries Contest Spotlights Complicated Issue Of Gentrification

NEW YORK -- Charles Barron has never been one to hold his tongue. Speaking once at a rally demanding slavery reparations, he told a crowd, "I want to go up to the closest white person and say, 'You can’t understand this, it’s a black thing,' and then slap him just for my mental health."

But Barron -- perhaps recognizing the greater degree of nuance that may be necessary to represent a congressional district whose eligible voting population is 27 percent white -- has been singing a slightly different tune this year.

He'll still speak out against racism, he told NY1 last month, but now he wants to be "the candidate for the 99 percent and argue that the gap between the rich and the poor is expanding."

"It's not a rebranding of Charles Barron," he said. "It's seeing more of Charles Barron."

Barron is deploying that other side of himself, the one he is quick to highlight outside of the heavily black neighborhoods of East New York and Brownsville that he represents in the City Council, as he runs for Congress in the Democratic primary on Tuesday.

Both Barron and his opponent, State Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, are black. And both of them have grappled with how to address the fact that New York has some of the fastest "whitening" neighborhoods in the country in a way that will resonate with voters. Racial change and gentrification are thorny issues in an area where the voters themselves are increasingly white, and the views of long-time black residents are sometimes mixed.

At the heart of this question is Bedford-Stuyvesant, the majority black neighborhood at the other end of the A Train from Sugar Hill in Harlem. Once famous for its black culture -- and its crime -- Bed-Stuy is changing at a startling pace.

In Bedford, the western half of the neighborhood closer to Manhattan, the black population is down by nearly 6,000 people, 15 percent of its total, over the first half of the 2000s. Whites are up 633 percent, by 16,000 people, according to the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York.

"I think people at this point have mixed feelings," said Ron Howell, a Brooklyn College journalism professor who grew up in Bed-Stuy and is still a member of a neighborhood association there. Friends have left, but crime has gone down and there are more amenities.

"There are so many people who have been priced out that the ones who have been left behind, in many ways they're benefitting from gentrification," he said.

The issue of gentrification is also complicated somewhat by the fact that at least some of the newcomers are themselves African-Americans -- young professionals attracted by the same deals on housing as their white cohorts, along with the neighborhood's famous history.

"What you have is a clear class distinction, which is less racially bound," said Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant who until recently was working for the area's retiring Rep. Edolphus Towns.

Sheinkopf contrasted the match up with the congressional race in northern Manhattan and the Southern Bronx between Rep. Charlie Rangel and State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, a Dominican-American who argues that the district, whose borders were redrawn to include a majority Latino population, deserves one of its own in Congress.

"There is a significant desire by a portion of the population that Rangel seeks to hold onto the Harlem seat," Sheinkopf said. "Should that seat go to someone else, it would be fairly traumatic for many African-Americans."

The list of Rangel's challengers includes three other African-Americans, but no whites. The district has also seen quickly moving racial changes -- blacks in Central Harlem South are down by 4,091 while the white population grew by 5,600 -- that may have contributed to the desire to keep the race a "black-brown" contest as opposed to a "black-white" one.

In Brooklyn, said Nick Juravich, an urban history doctoral student who writes about the neighborhood on his blog, "it's hard to fear Hakeem as the gentrification candidate." Both Jeffries and Barron consistently highlight their support for affordable housing.

Barron paints Jeffries as a tool of the banking, real estate and legal industries because of the donations he has received from them, and because of his support for charter schools -- all criticisms that could sway voters worried about class issues.

But Jeffries has also been the most outspoken voice in the New York State Assembly about the NYPD's "stop-and-frisk" policing strategy, which disproportionately affects young black and Latino men. He also proposed a bill that would have outlawed realtors from claiming portions of Crown Heights were in a zone near Prospect Heights euphemistically labeled "Pro-Cro."

That may not have won Jeffries any votes from First Amendment fundamentalists, Juravich pointed out, but it was successful in highlighting that Jeffries, who grew up in Crown Heights, shares its anxieties.

"The idea of having some fairness or justice for how people are impacted by [gentrification] -- I think there is some concern," Howell said. "Hakeem really just has to say what he's been saying all along to make that point. And I think Charles's dilemma is that he has to tone it down, because he can't just appeal to Brownsville."

Howell and Juravich both believe that Bed-Stuy, which sits in between the neighborhoods that Jeffries (Fort Greene and Crown Heights) and Barron (East New York and Brownsville) represent, will be critical in deciding the race. The most important question there, Juravich believes, will be "what the status of the black middle class is."

At Marlene's Hair Stylist on Lewis Avenue, in the heart of Bed-Stuy, Beatrice Jackson, who was getting her hair done, perhaps gave a clue as to what that was.

She remembered when Jeffries and Barron came to a meeting of her local AARP in Clinton Hill. Despite his fire-breathing image, Barron, she recalled, was "very personable." Instead of discussing his controversial positions on reparations or dictators like Muammar Gaddafi, Barron spoke of Social Security and Medicare.

"They both were very well received," Jackson remembered. She's voting for Jeffries.