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Michael K. Williams Was Brooklyn’s Son — And Its Champion

The late Michael K. Williams was both nurtured and vexed by Brooklyn, as though its triumphs and struggles were his own. We can’t understand his tragically short life without tracing the changing class and racial dynamics of the borough he always called home.

Michael K. Williams attends the Los Angeles premiere of MGM’s Respect at Regency Village Theatre on August 8, 2021, in Los Angeles, California. (Rodin Eckenroth / FilmMagic via Getty Images)

On September 6, actor Michael Kenneth Williams tragically passed away at age 54.

News of Michael’s death traveled fast and hit hard. In the weeks to come, the volume of tributes was staggering. Friends and admirers spoke of his professional talent, his personal activism, and his unique power to leave a lasting impression both on and off screen.

For Wendell Pierce, Michael’s costar in The Wire, his greatest gift was his ability to instill compassion and empathy for the characters he played, many of them black men on the margins of society. “Michael has made people think twice about a world of men that we pass by or don’t know about,” Pierce said. “He has opened up a window of reflection to people who see folks on the corner that they may have never given humanity to.”

Michael’s roots and experiences in Brooklyn, from the housing projects of East Flatbush to his penthouse in Williamsburg, remained central to his identity in both public and private. His bond with Brooklyn throughout decades of drastic change is essential to understanding the man whose presence captivated us all, far beyond the boundaries of the borough he always called home.

Child of Vanderveer

Michael grew up in the Vanderveer Estates, a collection of fifty-nine red brick buildings, six floors high, with seven apartments per level spread across thirty acres in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. Bounded by Nostrand Avenue to the west and Newkirk Avenue to the north, Vanderveer Estates takes up four city blocks and is divided across Foster Avenue.

Vanderveer is one of the largest privately owned rent-stabilized low-income developments in the city, annually housing roughly seven thousand working-class residents of East Flatbush since 1949. The development has seen a revolving door of ownership over the past half century. Its history is also marred by thousands of housing code violations and a legacy of crime and drug use.

Vanderveer residents nicknamed the drug corner at the intersection of Nostrand and Foster “the Front Page” because killings there received greater media attention, often landing on the front pages of the local newspapers. Meanwhile, the southern and eastern corners of the complex, near Brooklyn Avenue, were called “the Back Pages,” as the murders there went unnoticed by the press.

For decades, many “entrenched highly organized drug-distribution operations” ran through Vanderveer, drawing significant attention from the NYPD’s Sixty-Seventh Precinct, which, at times, has attributed as much as 40 percent of the total crime in East Flatbush to the development.

Michael said of the development he grew up in, “Veer, although there was a lot of violence growing up back then, I wouldn’t trade my childhood for anything. Scars seen and unseen made me the man I am today.”

Michael’s birth in 1966 coincided with an exodus of white residents from East Flatbush at the onset of New York City’s fiscal crisis, which was subsequently followed by an erosion of social services. As Italian, Irish, and Jewish residents relocated, Afro-Caribbean immigrants from the West Indies filled the vacuum, coming from Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados, Panama, and the Dominican Republic.

Today, East Flatbush is the single largest West Indian neighborhood in all of the United States. With its combination of Afro-Caribbeans and African Americans — many of whom had moved north during the mid-century Great Migration — East Flatbush became the blackest neighborhood in New York City, which is still true today.

Michael’s family mirrored the makeup of the neighborhood. His mother Paula immigrated from Nassau, the Bahamas, while his father, Booker T. Williams, was raised in Greeleyville, South Carolina — a majority-black town home to fewer than four hundred people.

“My father being black American and my mother from the Bahamas,” Michael said of his family, “let my hood tell it and I may as well have been bi-racial.”

Growing up, Michael’s mother was his biggest influence, especially after his father left the family when Michael was a teenager. She was determined that Michael avoid the harsh fate that befell many other black youths in Vanderveer.

“My mother was extremely strict,” Michael recalled. “She had strong views on how a young man should act and behave. This was very different from what was happening just outside my door. I was not allowed to fight for any reason, not even to defend myself. The rule was my mother was the end-all that be-all in authority.”

Michael’s mother founded a daycare center in two vacant offices in the building’s lobby. Not only did she pay for the space out of pocket, but she redid it completely, beautifying the office and lobby with plants, pictures, and mirrors. She named the daycare center Morning Glory and made it her business to not only care for children but also mentor young mothers.

Michael reflected with great pride on his mother’s parenting:

It was hard for a black woman raising a black boy in an aggressively violent neighborhood. That was not easy to navigate through alone. But my mom is so stable, so grounded, such a foundation. She created such a foundation for me in the middle of the jungle. As I remember these things it makes me love her even more for it.

But outside of his home, Michael felt overlooked and misunderstood. His presence was noticed, he often recalled, but his humanity was not. He began to notice the racial and class dynamics that shaped his world.

His experience paying the family’s rent to the Hasidic Jews who owned Vanderveer resonated with him forever:

I remember my mother would have me go down to the rental office to give them her hard earned cash for rent. I remember the fluorescent lights making their white skin look that much whiter, me coming in there with my dark skin was such a distinct contrast. I remember having to navigate the envelope to their hand because they wouldn’t make eye contact with me. Between them and the cops, I always wondered why the people with the power never looked like me.

Throughout Michael’s adolescence he often felt powerless when confronted by adults, who used their authority to manipulate his insecurities. Michael was sexually molested as a teenager, leading him to withdraw from his peers. His vulnerability made him an easy target, and soon he was being mistreated not only by adults, but also by his peers, who bullied and mocked him, calling him names like “Blackie” and “Faggot Mike.”

Throughout his young adulthood, Michael bounced in and out of drug clinics while getting busted for car theft and credit card fraud. Consumed by insecurity and struggling to fit in in Vanderveer, he found a home dancing in Lower Manhattan’s gay nightclubs. Though he wasn’t gay, it was there that he began to feel comfortable in his skin. Michael relished the lack of judgment the gay community afforded him. His talent as a dancer was undeniable, and ultimately landed him roles in music videos and on tour with Madonna and George Michael.

Michael’s experiences in the Vanderveer Projects and the gay bars of Lower Manhattan gave him unique insight into two of New York City’s most marginalized communities: young black men and homosexuals. Michael recognized the humanity of his neighbors at Vanderveer, whom society considered lost causes, and his gay friends on the dance floor, who were antagonized by the police and socially ostracized.

This proximity to marginalization and deep love for society’s outcasts prepared Michael to deliver the defining performance of his career as Omar Little on HBO’s The Wire.

Michael and Omar

At the time, colorism and typecasting plagued black actors, while homophobia was rampant not only on the screen but also throughout writers’ rooms and casting departments. As Akiba Solomon remarked at Slate:

It’s impossible to stress how big a risk he took when he agreed to play Omar. If media images of straight Black men were limiting, Black gay roles were radioactive. Pre-Omar, gay, Black, and male meant squealing caricatures (In Living Color’s Blaine Edwards and Antoine Merriweather) and gossipy hairdressers (Soul Food). In “real” life, there was author J.L. King on Oprah, dishing about deceitful gay Black men living “on the down low.” There were urban legends of Black gay men maliciously “spreading AIDS” to unsuspecting straight women, Black pulpits spewing violent sin-talk, and then–shock jock Wendy Williams whipping up hysteria with her hunt for “the gay rapper.”

Even though Michael did not identify as gay, he approached the role with tremendous care and respect. In every interview and offhand quote about Omar, Michael treated themes of sexuality and masculinity with unusual grace and awareness.

Michael felt that portraying Omar with humanity, dignity, and honesty would help shift narratives on blackness, masculinity, and sexuality. He actively sought to dispel stigma about homosexuality within the black community and often felt he was successful, saying, “I get a lot of love in the ’hood. They love the honesty of my character. It makes them realize there are all kinds of people in the ‘hood.”

The Wire, which debuted in 2002 and concluded in 2008, masterfully depicted the systemic problems that plague Baltimore’s poor and working-class residents, from white dock workers to the black youth on West Baltimore’s drug corners, while skillfully indicting the city’s political, educational, and media ecosystems. Produced by David Simon and Ed Burns, The Wire illustrated how crime and violence — often characterized as black issues — were rooted not in innate or endemic racial characteristics but in the systematic class oppression of black people, and were the result of failed institutions, not individuals. The show offered a realistic, humanity-driven depiction of urban poverty that challenged popular narratives about inner cities.

When the show pivoted from the “war on drugs” in West Baltimore in season one to the erosion in living standards for white dock workers in Season Two, Michael challenged the writing crew. He pressed Burns and Simon: “I’m saying, there are all these shows on television, and we made the one that was about black characters and written for a black audience. And now, it’s like we’re walking away from that.”

The show’s writers, Michael argued, had a unique responsibility to uphold their status as a black-majority drama in the white world of television. After much discussion, Simon and Burns delivered a thoughtful answer:

If we do this season, we also make clear going forward that the drug culture is not a racial pathology, it’s about economics and the collapse of the working class — black and white both. We want to have a bigger argument about what has gone wrong. Not just in Baltimore, but elsewhere, too.

Michael was convinced.

This dialogue between Michael and the show’s creators and writers became a ritual. At the beginning of each season, Michael would ask the writers, “What are we going to say this year?” He viewed it as part of an ongoing conversation around the meaning and purpose of The Wire and how Michael could best articulate the show’s message in his performance.

Michael felt that The Wire was about more than Baltimore. “There is a Wire in every city in every state in the goddamn country,” he said.

As an openly gay, shotgun-toting stickup man governed by his own sense of righteousness, Omar was an outlier in the world of the show. He was feared without exception — the mere mention of his name prompted drug dealers to hand over their stash to avoid confrontation. He was not merely a thorn in the side of Baltimore’s drug kingpins, but a one-man army capable of unraveling their entire organizations. He alone transcended the realism of The Wire, achieving mythic status for both other characters in the show and the audience watching at home.

Yet what made Omar so distinctive and original was not just his reputation on the street, but his elevated sense of loyalty, tenderness, and honor. Omar replaced allegiance to a crew or an organization with a strict adherence to a personal moral code — to never put his gun on someone “outside the game.” Despite his “hard” reputation, Omar was never afraid to express his vulnerability or his sexuality, and, whether mourning the death of his loved ones or holding them tight, he did so on his own terms.

Out of all his portrayals, Michael said he related to Omar the most. He loved Omar’s expressive sensitivity in a cold, unforgiving world. Omar’s emotionality is so poignant because Michael himself understood how difficult it is to remain in touch with your feelings when the world is doing its best to beat them out of you.

Michael was, in his way, a lot like Omar. While Omar was unafraid to articulate the depth of his grief or break down in the face of immense despair, Michael consistently spoke with great clarity about his emotions, specifically his struggles with addiction and mental health. And both sought to impose a sense of order on a chaotic world through the development and careful maintenance of a personal moral code.

While Michael was given tremendous recognition for the role of Omar — President Barack Obama named The Wire his favorite TV show and Omar his favorite character — the elevation of the character came at a personal cost to him. Michael, who had struggled with drug addiction, was brought to a dark place while occupying Omar’s anguished mind. Furthermore, Michael said he felt himself slipping back into marginality as Omar grew in popularity and took center stage. People began to refer to Michael as Omar, or just “O.” The lines blurred, resulting in an identity crisis. His substance abuse intensified.

While Michael’s thoughtful and enduring portrayal of Omar helped humanize those who struggle on society’s margins, it stripped away parts of his own humanity in the process.

Williamsburg Blues

Over the decades, the borough that molded Michael evolved significantly, leaving him wondering whether he fit into the “new” Brooklyn.

The Vanderveer Estates, the backdrop of Michael’s youth, has changed ownership dozens of times. Management has rebranded it as Flatbush Gardens and sought to attract new tenants with higher credit scores and more stable sources of income. The same process has played out a countless number of times across East Flatbush and the rest of Brooklyn.

Over the last twenty years, Brooklyn has become a premier real estate market, resulting in fast-paced gentrification and rapidly rising rents. These sweeping changes have proven detrimental to the borough’s working-class black population, which has been largely displaced from neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Lefferts Gardens, and Crown Heights.

In 2000, the black population in Bedford-Stuyvesant was 75 percent. Today, it has dropped precipitously to 45 percent. Meanwhile, both the northern and southern portions of Crown Heights were approximately 78 percent black at the turn of the century, but in the two decades since have dropped below 50 percent.

Many of the African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans displaced from Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights have relocated to East Flatbush, which has steadily maintained a black population, though its class character has begun to change. While the long shadow of gentrification looms, many tenants, activists, and organizers who reside in East Flatbush are determined to keep working-class black residents in the neighborhood.

Michael, who was evicted from Vanderveer in 2002 following a drug relapse, was nearly a victim of displacement himself. Throughout his time filming The Wire, Michael experienced prolonged housing insecurity that was linked to his active addiction. However, upon the show’s conclusion, Michael’s acting stock rose considerably, which helped him steadily secure roles for the duration of his career.

Michael soon found himself in an upwardly mobile economic position. He could not only stay in Brooklyn but live in any neighborhood he chose.

Michael bought a penthouse in the North Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, an artistic landing pad in the 1990s that was quickly gentrifying at the turn of the new millennium. Williamsburg’s evolution was spurred by a large 2005 rezoning which converted many of North Brooklyn’s waterfront neighborhoods — once home to active manufacturing and other light industry interspersed with smaller residential buildings — into larger, high-density buildings for residential use. While newer tenants and celebrities flocked to the converted housing units, the ripple effects were felt beyond the waterfront. Despite tax breaks and incentives, developers failed to keep promises to build affordable housing, which displaced many long-term Puerto Rican residents.

Michael was caught in the middle of these changes, and the conflict between the “old” Brooklyn and the “new” Brooklyn became the subject of great internal conflict within him. Many of his peers at Vanderveer and throughout Central Brooklyn were pushed out, which swelled him with guilt.

“I’m a huge fan of how beautiful Brooklyn has become, but I do have an issue with the gentrification,” he said:

I feel grateful that I’ve got a second chance at life, to be able to afford to live the way I do, coming from where I come from. But, it feels a little lonely. I don’t see a lot of blacks in Williamsburg at all.

Michael, who had grown up in a neighborhood with a thriving black population of nearly 90 percent, was now living in an area where the black population did not top 5 percent, which was reflected in how police interacted with the neighborhood:

Sometimes, when I see, you know, antics on the weekend, I’d feel safer in the Vanderveer projects, where I grew up. I understand that kind of crazy. When I see the people in Williamsburg get crazy, I’m, like, O.K., where’s this going? If they were black, the police would probably be pouncing on them. I kind of just go in the house.

Michael also perceived sharp divergences in attitudes toward drugs. In gentrifying Williamsburg in the 2000s, and particularly in the entertainment industry, drug use was less stigmatized and more normalized. Whereas back at Vanderveer, such behavior was not only criminalized, but villainized.

Arresting people, or ruining people’s lives for a small, nonviolent charge, like marijuana, drug addiction, or mental illness, is not the way to go. Those are health issues, not criminal issues. It’s the grace of God that I wasn’t imprisoned for my antics growing up.

Michael wondered whether the humanity shown to him with respect to his addiction was a result of his fame and financial success. If he had never made it out of the projects, if he were still poor, what would his life look like? The double standard left him disillusioned, which contributed to the deterioration of his mental health and exacerbated his drug use.

Bringing Up Brooklyn

While Michael may have moved out of East Flatbush, his heart never left. He frequently returned to Vanderveer, eagerly reconnecting with his neighbors who still call the complex home. He worked alongside state assemblymember Nick Perry to lead clothing, food, and school drives. Michael gave presentations to the community’s youth, hoping to help carve a path for them that was easier and safer than the one he had traveled.

Michael’s trademark humility — a word that has come up perhaps more than any other in the tributes since his passing — was on display every time he visited Vanderveer. A resident of Flatbush told the New York Times:

We couldn’t believe that he was just walking around like he wasn’t a Hollywood celebrity. People were just like, “Is that him?” We were shocked to see him walking around without security guards. But he was a regular guy.

Michael’s consistent involvement within East Flatbush led him to Edwin Raymond, a police lieutenant and prominent activist in the neighborhood. Raymond gained notoriety when he and eleven other black and brown officers sued the city in 2015, alleging that the NYPD had pushed them to discriminate against racial minorities.

Michael and Raymond formed a compelling team, both working to help the community, one from the inside, the other from the outside. Michael eventually brought Raymond to the Academy Awards. As both men appeared together on the red carpet, Michael refused to take questions unless reporters interviewed Raymond first.

Before his passing, Michael started a production company, Freedome Productions, designed to produce and amplify the work of local black artists while casting ordinary community members in small roles throughout the projects. The goal was not only to give an economic boost to black people throughout Central Brooklyn but to provide a medium to share stories and art unfiltered.

Michael also cofounded, with Dana Rachlin, We Build the Block, an organization dedicated to replacing the overpolicing of Brooklyn’s black neighborhoods with community-led public safety models. Michael and other members of We Build the Block focused on voter and civic engagement to combat issues of gun violence, underfunded schools, food deserts, and lack of employment opportunities. The organization advocates for reallocating resources away from the NYPD’s budget toward social service investments.

Michael’s advocacy led him to publicly challenge Eric Adams about narratives Adams had put forth regarding rising crime in the city. During a forum in Brownsville hosted by Crew Count, Michael pointed to how Adams’ willingness to put more cops in the subway and on the streets resembled “traditional ways of dealing with us and our youth and in the community.”

While he did not often engage directly with electoral politics, Michael endorsed a young, queer Black Lives Matter organizer named Chi Ossé for City Council in the Thirty-Sixth District, which includes most of Bedford-Stuyvesant and North Crown Heights. Born to a Haitian father and a half-Black, half-Chinese mother, Ossé says his family is “Brooklyn in itself” — echoing sentiments Michael expressed when reflecting on his own background. Michael’s endorsement came early — in December 2020 for a June 2021 primary — before almost anyone, even hardcore insiders, began paying close attention to the race.

Michael, who has previously testified before the city council about the benefits of reallocating NYPD funds to social services, believed that budget justice was integral to improving the life outcomes of people in working-class neighborhoods. Many of the same violence interrupter programs championed by We Build the Block and Crew Count were central to Ossé’s City Council campaign.

Ossé won the Democratic Party nomination and is the presumptive winner of his race. Next year, Ossé will be able to vote on the new city budget, which means he and his colleagues will have the opportunity to invest more into social programs in under-resourced and overpoliced communities.

Ossé will be part of the most progressive incoming class of councilmembers in the city’s history. He and his colleagues have the opportunity — and the responsibility — to carry out Michael’s vision.

East Flatbush’s Own

One of the most enduring and endearing videos of Michael is a seven-minute clip from celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s show, No Reservations. Like Michael, Bourdain was a rare celebrity with a clear political voice, an abiding love for working-class people, and a darkness that eventually overcame him. The two made a perfect pairing on screen, though the clip is heartbreaking to watch now that they’re both gone.

No Reservations centered on Bourdain’s travels across the world enjoying native cuisine with the area’s locals. The final episode of the show was set in Brooklyn, and Michael was the first guest. In the segment, both men walk around the Vanderveer Estates before stopping for Caribbean food at the restaurant Gloria’s in Crown Heights.

As they walk through Vanderveer, Bourdain, who grew up in neighboring Manhattan, bemoans the fact that he never “really got to know Brooklyn.” While mere miles away, Michael’s world had eluded him up until that moment. Never one to mince words, Bourdain calls his own ignorance “pathetic.”

Throughout their time together, Michael is eager to share his love for all of Brooklyn with Bourdain, showcasing a deep appreciation for the Italians, Russians, Hasids, and West Indians who make up his home borough. But Michael’s love for his neighbors in Vanderveer and East Flatbush shines through brightest.

As they walk throughout the neighborhood, Michael is repeatedly pulled aside and greeted with tremendous enthusiasm and warmth. He seems comfortable and happy, his big smile radiant.

Bourdain was left grinning too. “Michael has not forgotten the people he grew up with,” he says, “and they sure as f*** haven’t forgotten about him.”