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Wonder Years by Way of Bed-Stuy

BEDFORD-STUYVESANT is used to having its reputation defined by outsiders. For years this Brooklyn neighborhood had the rap of being so perilous a landscape that in 1980 a Long Island boy named Billy Joel sang, "I've been stranded in the combat zone/ I walked through Bedford-Stuy alone." By contrast, in the current overheated housing market, Bed-Stuy has been ballyhooed as the last frontier of affordable brownstones, a place overrun by real estate speculators panning for original wainscoting.

This fall, with the new hit UPN television show "Everybody Hates Chris," the country is finally seeing a representation of Bed-Stuy shaped by one of its own: Chris Rock, the show's co-creator and narrator, on whose Decatur Street childhood the program is loosely based.

Set in Bed-Stuy in 1982, "Everybody Hates Chris" is a nostalgic, warmly illuminated take on the Rock family's tough working-class life in the predominantly black neighborhood. The lovingly overbearing mother is a "ghetto snob" who worries that a stylish friend will see her using food stamps at the corner grocery. The penny-pinching father works two jobs and is forever calculating the cost of spilt milk and electricity. ("Unplug that clock, boy!" he orders his son. "You can't tell time when you're asleep!")

The struggle to make ends meet is played for laughs, so much so that at times the show has the misty tone of an asphalt-jungle "Wonder Years." Any sense of true jeopardy in the rose-tinted ghetto portrayed on screen is so slight that one episode hinges on little more than Chris's misadventures at the local Laundromat.

The reality was far more complex. During those years, street crime was as much a part of the scene as the neighborhood's 2,600 vacant and abandoned residential buildings, according to a study by the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation; in 1983, the rate of violent crime in Bed-Stuy was 80 percent higher than the citywide average, with nearly twice as many murders per capita as in the city as a whole.

"If you were into rough stuff, it was rougher," Mr. Rock said in an interview. "But if you're like me and had the two parents and rules and regulations in your house, it wasn't as tough."

Still, some of Mr. Rock's friends were shot over the years. "There's an episode coming up about how good I was at Asteroids," he said, referring to an early arcade video game. Though Mr. Rock's real-life Asteroids buddy was shot in the head, he said, the show omits this detail. "Nothing funny there," he explained.

Randolph Arthur, a 74-year-old barber, remembers those days. "In 1982 there was a lot of drugs around here," Mr. Arthur recalled the other day as he lounged in an old-fashioned swivel chair in his empty shop on Malcolm X Boulevard near Lafayette Avenue. "It was infested."

Mr. Arthur's shop was robbed at gunpoint that year, an experience that prompted his son, Terence, to join the city's Department of Correction. "I took all the exams - for the N.Y.P.D., for New York Corrections, for New York State trooper - everything that carried a weapon," Terence Arthur said. "Because I didn't want to get caught again in Bed-Stuy without a weapon."

Bed-Stuy was not only violent in those years, it was also desperately poor. Census data shows that twice as many of its residents lived in poverty in 1980 as the citywide percentage, while more than a third of local households received public assistance.

But Bed-Stuy has always been a block-by-block proposition, and some longtime residents say that the early 80's neighborhood they remember was, in fact, less hardscrabble than the one portrayed on the screen.

"Part of the secret of Bed-Stuy at that time was that it had an outward image of a rough-and-tumble neighborhood, but on the southern end, there were professional African-Americans living very comfortably who were very happy not to have the avalanche of interest we have now," said Doug Jones, a 37-year-old real estate agent who grew up in a brownstone on McDonough Street.

He used to ride a bike along blocks of town houses, without fear. "The image of people afraid to come out of their homes because of drugs and gang warfare was not the reality of how we were living every day," Mr. Jones said, adding, "It was very apple pie, nondescript and even a little boring."

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