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From SoHo to Bushwick

A journey through New York's gentrification

The New Brooklyn: What It Takes To Bring a City Back, by Kay S. Hymowitz, Rowman & Littlefield, 198 pages, $27

Rowman & LittlefieldRowman & LittlefieldSome decades ago, the great divide in New York City culture was between uptown and downtown. The former contained the prominent museums, the commercial publishers, and the WASP establishment. The latter held the less established artists and writers, the best galleries for selling recent art, and the independent intellectuals. Uptown New Yorkers often took pride in never going downtown, where people lived in shabbier lodgings, often renovated from factories. Those of us residing downtown, as I did from 1966 to 2010, thought we might get a nosebleed if we traveled north of 14th Street.

Toward the end of the last century, as downtown Manhattan became slicker, uptown people and institutions started to move downtown, often creating replicas of the areas they had left in a process commonly called gentrification. SoHo, the downtown neighborhood south of Houston Street, started as an industrial slum but became within 40 years a populous artists' colony and then a high-end shopping mall. Kay S. Hymowitz's The New Brooklyn describes how, in the late 20th century, a comparable gentrification developed across the East River in Brooklyn, a borough that had previously been a bedroom community for people who couldn't afford Manhattan.

The crucial truth of this sort of gentrification is that it's essentially extragovernmental. Politicians can't encourage it, because it starts with decisions made by individuals about where they want to live, often renovating newly purchased buildings for themselves and their partners, legal or informal. Developers, who by definition build for others, sometimes follow; other times, not. Governments customarily acknowledge gentrification at the behest of developers and voting residents, who are often in conflict with each other. In SoHo, the most extraordinary concentration of artistic excellence in American history wasn't "planned"—not by individuals and not by any public agency. Major developers never entered SoHo proper because some artists campaigned early to have it officially declared a "historic district" whose architectural integrity couldn't be violated. (The Trump SoHo hotel is actually several blocks west of SoHo proper, exploiting the neighborhood's fame at another address.)

The central setting of The New Brooklyn is Park Slope, the Brooklyn neighborhood where Hymowitz and her family moved during the 1980s. Running slightly downhill from magnificent Prospect Park to the once-polluted Gowanus Canal, it was a century ago a mostly Irish working-class neighborhood filled with uniform-looking handsome brownstones arrayed on long streets.

Into Park Slope after 1980 moved young urban professionals, customarily called yuppies, who, 'tis said, couldn't afford the similar housing found on Manhattan's Upper West Side. They renovated the brownstones, often quite elegantly and sometimes idiosyncratically, as they occupied the streets running down from the park. The lower the number of the nearby crossing avenues (running down from No. 8), the less classy the side-street housing. Different subway lines could get Park Slope residents into Manhattan within 30 minutes.

While this story of What It Takes To Bring a City Back, to quote the book's subtitle, is a good and true account for Park Slope, Hymowitz appears to know less about other Brooklyn neighborhoods with slightly different histories. Just east of there, on the other side of Flatbush Avenue, is Prospect Heights, which had fewer white people than Park Slope; east of it is Crown Heights, which is still occupied by West Indians and ultra-orthodox Lubavitcher Jews.

Well north is Boerum Hill, which had obstacles in ominous public-housing projects absent from Park Slope. Curiously, Hymowitz thinks the novelist L.J. Davis, whose 1971 book A Meaningful Life described an early Brooklyn renovation, resided in Park Slope when he actually lived in Boerum Hill.

Yet another part of Brooklyn, this one north of the active downtown area, is Williamsburg, which attracted artists who might have gone to SoHo before prices there suddenly escalated in 1980. Williamsburg offered artists empty factory buildings that were scarce in Park Slope and Boerum Hill. (Hymowitz notes that between 1950 and 2000, the number of blue-collar jobs in NYC declined from 1,000,000 to 43,000, leaving behind many empty industrial spaces now called lofts.) Indicatively, Hymowitz fails to mention the art galleries, once so populous here, perhaps because she doesn't know about them or, since they were scarce in her Park Slope, because she cannot recognize their importance in gentrification.

Though gentrification displaces people, she notes that the urban working class consists of apartment renters who are as inherently mobile as people in their 20s: Both are prepared to relocate to cheaper housing. Another truth about gentrification that she doesn't mention is that fearsome neighborhoods can be self-policing. One reason that my own Brooklyn neighborhood is not as foreboding as it used to be is that the bad guys have gone, if not to jail, at least elsewhere. During my own years here, a West Indian-Panamanian who worked evening security with his uniform suit and tie would come down my street most afternoons screaming Spanish epithets at the drug dealers operating out of a bodega and a cigar store. Now they're gone, and he's quiet.

While this book's chapters about Sunset Park and Bedford-Stuyvesant are informative, Hymowitz doesn't seem to know anything about Bushwick, which has become the favorite for artists and art lovers born after, say, 1980. The development of this "New Brooklyn" is yet more remarkable and surprising, because the 'hood resisted the efforts of urban planners for so long. What the wise guys couldn't imagine, and were slow to recognize, is that a semi-industrial neighborhood far from any large park or waterfront—as geographically distant from Park Slope as it is from Manhattan—could attract urban pioneers prepared to purchase and renovate.

The City of New York responded to these developments in the early 2000s by refurbishing the Canarsie subway line, now called the L-train, that services Bushwick. (This also benefited the developers who built high-end high-rise apartments along Williamsburg's coast on the East River.) In my 2014 book Artists' SoHo, I suggest that the current successor to SoHo is not a single circumscribed neighborhood but areas near stations along this L-train, most of which are east of Williamsburg. Now that its western precincts have become more expensive, I think gentrification will continue in Bushwick east of the Morgan Avenue stop, which has been for several years now the outpost of art galleries that have survived.

It might even reach my own (mostly Latino) neighborhood, which is four subway stops farther east, although one discouraging factor on my immediate avenue is a huge automobile junkyard with spare parts for the many small car-repair shops that constitute the principal business around here. A second obstacle is the presence, opposite the junkyard, of a vivero—a store traditionally selling live fowl. This one also offers live winsome sheep and goats, thanks to a young halal butcher in residence, and it stinks into the street, to put it mildly.

Jeuri Live Poultry Inc. has occupied its single-story building for decades, so it is likely to stay put until its customers for very fresh meat evaporate. (Free market rules.) Meanwhile, the owner of the junkyard told me recently, as he was closing his outer fence, that no developer has ever made him an offer for his land, even though the height of his piled wrecks has visibly declined over the past few years.

Conversely, my 'hood might mark an Old Brooklyn—an outlier of modest two-story residences between factories (and a mammoth Amazon distribution center), all of which resist development. Just east of me is a huge cemetery, which can't be violated. Either way, whatever happens, the city government can't move us.

Photo Credit: Rowman & Littlefield

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  • Schu||

    I personally don't see gentrification moving further east than Crown Heights. Beyond that and your subway ride to midtown becomes over an hour long. Might as well start looking at the suburbs at that point.

  • Crusty Juggler aka "Chad"||

    I think most of Brooklyn will eventually become gentrified, but I think a lot of it depends on the train system - further areas will become more gentrified if it is only an hour commute, as opposed to however long the commutes end up taking from Jersey or wherever.

  • Rhywun||

    Large parts of Brooklyn have no subway access at all. All plans to expand it were shelved in 1929 and never revived.

  • Crusty Juggler aka "Chad"||

    I guess that's my point - it's all about train access.

  • GILMORE™||

    I lived in Wburg from 2000-2013 and the J/M/Z and the L were already showing signs of being serious bottlenecks. Look at any picture of the bedford station @ 8AM every day = or the union sq platform @ 5-7pm Its already Tokyo-style crowded. The G is useless for anything other than an emergency escape hatch to go to the 7 train.

    Unless they double the number of subway trains on those lines, they wont significantly improve. and they're not going to double the trains because the L line (and i assume the JMZ) infrastructure is already fucked up and couldn't handle it.

    So the development boom is going to tail off. Its not going to fill the rest of brooklyn up, and its not even going to extend very far past the already spiffed-up zones, imo.

  • Rhywun||

    they're not going to double the trains

    Rush-hour trains are pretty much at maximum capacity everywhere - and they can't run more because the signal systems are a hundred years old. Even the R train is sardines every day now.

  • Crusty Juggler aka "Chad"||

    I did not mean just trying to access for the city - I mean for surrounding areas as well. If there is adequate train - or public transportation - access to and from an area, those areas will be desirable places to live.

    I know that right now there is a push to avoid Penn Station, because it's become a commuting nightmare hub.

    There is a already a need for better tand more train service. If that need is met (obviously a big if), then gentrification will expand throughout the city as well as areas north.

  • GILMORE™||

    I have yet to see the evidence that there's been some big boom in Yonkers real-estate.

    i have no doubt its 'better than it was', but compared to the way brooklyn has been rebuilt... its odd that people are willing to completely redevelop areas in brooklyn that are 40mins/1hr by subway from Manhattan - but if you look at places on the metro-north which provide easy access within as much or less time, they simply aren't experiencing anything close to the same thing. Young people want the intra-city access is why, imo.

    if it were just about commuting for work reasons, i think that would be a different issue.

  • GILMORE™||

    Beyond that and your subway ride to midtown becomes over an hour long.

    this is true, but i think its also worth considering that the increased traffic that the L /JMZ already get has already increased the time of travel.

    there were frequently times it took me more than an hour to go door to door (from home to work) and I lived on Bedford avenue. Because the crowding on the prime-time/rush-hour trains was so fucking ridiculous. It would get backed up even worse anytime there was heavy rain because the tunnel floods and the trains had to go slow. They've spent huge amounts of time and effort trying to beef up that line, but i don't think it will come near to meeting demand - the fixes they've been doing only prevent the sort of shutdowns/slowdowns that were super common in 2008-2012

  • Rhywun||

    I've been in Bay Ridge for 10 years and I'm amazed that there's little sign of gentrification (other than steeply rising rents). Occasionally a new hipster-looking shop opens but most of the old-timey shops are being replaced by hookah joints, not wine bars.

  • gaoxiaen||

    We all live on the Lower East Side.
    We don't care if we live or die.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Except for the Hells Angels.

  • Azathoth!!||

    The fact of the matter is that no matter how you think you're prettying it up, you live in Brooklyn.

    Not Manhattan.

  • ||

    Brooklyn has better pizza than Manhatten.

  • Azathoth!!||

    Where?

  • Rhywun||

    Literally, everywhere.

    The two joints on my block in Bay Ridge are better than anything I have ever had in Manhattan.

  • GILMORE™||

    Brooklyn has better pizza than Manhatten.

    I'd go further and say its also better/cheaper food and better quality of life. My supermarket had a fresh butcher and daily fish, and it cost 1/2 what the places in Manhattan cost. And i lived on the ground floor of a building in Bklyn and didn't have traffic/people noise in Bklyn nearly as bad as I did living on a 4th floor walk up in manhattan. Also, you can own a car and actually use it/park it. and more.

    I grew up as a kid in Manhattan and lived there for ~5 years after college, and i never saw any particular benefits vs. living in the boroughs. Plus there's the fact that manhattan gets saturated with tourists and NJ/LI/Westchester people all the time, and its far harder to find a proper "local scene" where you can go regularly and be a recognized customer, etc.

  • Rhywun||

    I'd say overall I prefer Brooklyn to Manhattan in every way except it's less convenient for my commute to Jersey City. My partying days are long over. And yes, it's "friendlier" here.

  • GILMORE™||

    it's less convenient for my commute to Jersey City

    You should do some math on the expense you pay in fees/time to ride the trains every day, and then compare that to Boat Leases.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Cut that gentrification shit out, NYC. The last thing this tired old world needs is more places for Vampire Weekend to name-drop.

  • ||

    Personal note. I stayed in Buskwick a couple of years ago. We were near the DeKalb stop, which is I think one stop west of yours. We managed to be there by accident on the annual open galleries weekend, and had a fabulous time. It seemed as if the epicenter of the Bushwick art scene was in the vicinity of Maria Hernandez park, around Wycoff and Jefferson, but maybe that's just because it was closest to us.
    Definitely a gentrifying neighborhood, but still cheap and still accessible to artists and hipsters.
    Watch out for bedbugs.

  • Jerryskids||

    Either way, whatever happens, the city government can't move us.

    Ok, I'm gonna call bullshit on this guy's claim that he lives in NYC. Enough grease for enough palms and anything can happen - in fact, it's the only way anything at all happens.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    ""Either way, whatever happens, the city government can't move us.""

    Yep, I'm sure people that were evicted so their buildings would be torn down to make way for the Barclays center would disagree.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    "Either way, whatever happens, the city government can't move us."

    Which doesn't mean that a deranged government stooge with a vision won't move heaven and earth to try.

    One of my dear hopes for the twenty-first century is that we finally put a stake through the heart of that most Progressive of conceits; City Planning. It doesn't work, it costs the flipping earth, it produces 'urban renewal' wastelands full of ostentatiously ugly buildings, snd it's hard as hell to undo.

  • Fuck You - Cut Spending||

    No props to Giuliani for harassing brown people until they left?

    And if that doesn't get them to leave, there's always tax increases that will force them out.

  • Rhywun||

    I have no idea what you're talking about but...

    I do recall the absolute venom hurled at him by the left. All the cool kids including myself had "Giuliani Sucks" bumper stickers. And do you know why? It was all bullshit culture war stuff - he was a meanie to "artists" and shit like that.

  • GILMORE™||

    Giuliani ...harassing brown people until they left?

    that's one of the dumbest claims i've ever seen.

    1) the 'brown people' (black + hispanic) havent' left.
    2) Guilinai-era changes were mostly crackdowns on 'quality of life crimes' - littering, turnstile-hopping, smoking crack in public, urinating. they weren't specific to minorities and didn't force anyone out of the city. the population boomed under G, not because of any specific policy but because of economic recovery.
    3) All the sources i see credit G. for 'inventing' stop and frisk, which is complete bullshit. its a policing tool that long predated him. Stop and frisk really became vastly expanded under bloomberg. They weren't even *counting* the incidents in the last year of Guiliani's tenure - in 2001-2002 they amounted to less than 100K - and were 600% higher by the end of Bloomie's.

    That said, from my impression, S+F was less a mayoral priority and mostly a police-initiated policy to ramp up their own statistics for crime-prevention. If Bloomberg was bullish about it, it was because he was convinced that it worked by a police force that wanted to justify its very-large size in an era in which crime was 1/3 of what it used to be 2 decades earlier.

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