Sunday, September 06, 2009

The $30,000 brownstone: Pete Hamill on "Brooklyn: The Sane Alternative" (1969)

It's worth a look back at author Pete Hamill's seminal article, Brooklyn: The Sane Alternative, in the 7/14/69 issue of New York magazine.

This was early in the process of gentrification and rebirth--before the landmarking of Park Slope (1973), Fort Greene (1978), and Clinton Hill (1981), among others, but after the first district was designated, in Brooklyn Heights (1965).

Hamill's signs of progress were renovated brownstones; cleaner streets; block associations; art galleries; and "boutiques and head shops."

The money quote for the Brownstoner crowd:
It is still possible in Park Slope, for example, to rent a duplex with a garden for $200 a month, a half-block from the subway; still possible to buy a brownstone in reasonably good condition for $30,000, with a number of fairly good houses available for less, if you are willing to invest in reconditioning them. Hundreds of people are discovering that Brooklyn has become the Sane Alternative: a part of New York where you can live a decent urban life without going broke, where you can educate your children without having the income of an Onassis, a place where it is still possible to see the sky, and all of it only 15 minutes from Wall Street. The Sane Alternative is Brooklyn.

(What's $30,000 in today's--or at least 2008--dollars? Somewhere between $140,893 and $440,108, according to this calculator.)

Decline and rebirth

Hamill reflected on Brooklyn as bucolic suburb for the working class, then as home for gangs, one of many reasons to leave.

He wrote:
Leaving was made easier by four central factors in the period of postwar decline in Brooklyn. All, in their special ways, were emotional. The four factors: 1) the folding of the Brooklyn Eagle; 2) the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers for California; 3) the long years of insecurity and the final folding of the Brooklyn Navy Yard; 4) the migration of southern Negroes, most of whom settled in Brooklyn, not Manhattan.

He suggests that weekly neighborhood papers had filled some of the void, citing the now-defunct Park Slope News-Home Reporter and observing, at least by 1969 standards:

In any other city its size, there would be at least two newspapers. Brooklyn has none.

The same problem persists.

Bed-Stuy boundaries

In an interesting reverse of current gentrification, where upscale buildings across Classon Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant are identified in real estate ads as "Clinton Hill," back then, Bed-Stuy was applied to "any street that was occupied by blacks."

Hamill wrote:
In Park Slope, across Flatbush Avenue from Bed-Stuy, real-estate operators started breaking up the fine old brownstones into black boarding houses. Most were occupied by transients, as boarding houses have always been occupied, and they simply didn't care what neighbors thought about them. The streets became littered with broken bottles and discarded beer cans; the yards filled with garbage; drug arrests increased; hookers worked the avenues; there were knifings and shootings, and soon the merchants on Flatbush Avenue started folding up and moving away. No insurance could cover what they stood to lose. When the Peconic Clam Bar on the corner of Flatbush and Bergen Street closed up because of too many stick-ups, the game looked finished. The Peconic Clam Bar was across the street from Brooklyn Police Headquarters.
(Emphasis added)

This is very close to the Atlantic Yards site.

Getting over the Dodgers

Just as Michael D'Antonio, in his book Forever Blue, pointed out that nostalgia for the departed Brooklyn Dodgers began to dissipate in the early 1960s--despite what Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz says--so too did Hamill:
The wound of the Dodgers' departure seems finally healed; the arrival of the Mets gave the old Dodger fans something to cheer for, and there are no more of the old Brooklyn Dodgers now playing for the Los Angeles team. Baseball itself has declined in interest: it's slow, dull, almost sedate these days, especially on television. Pro football excites more people in the Brooklyn saloons, and it is a measure of the anti-Establishment, anti-Manhattan feelings of Brooklynites that they all seem to root for the Jets (not all, of course, not all, but the romantics do).

Reasons for rebirth

The example of the Dodgers, Hamill suggested, was part of Brooklyn's emotional rebirth, as was the news that the suburbs had their disadvantage. He wrote:
The New People, as they are called, saw Brooklyn fresh. They had not known it before, so they knew nothing about its decline. Most important, they carried with them no old emotional wounds.

But there were concrete signs, despite the devastation of Brownsville. Hamill cited the new Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. He pointed to the "real rebirth" of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

And he noted that the Pratt Center for Community Improvement (which later became the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development and now, more simply, the Pratt Center for Community Development) was helping revitalize areas around the Navy Yard.

Summing up

Hamill acknowledged "real problems in Brooklyn," including "desperate poverty in the slums," bad urban renewal projects, decrepit schools, and drugs and violence.

But he was optimistic and, in many ways, he was right. He didn't focus on the historic preservation movement, but the desire for--and affordability of--a certain kind of urban life was ready to be tapped.

Nor, in such a sweeping attempt to sum up a borough, did he try to capture its breadth. He didn't quite see--nor, perhaps, could he--a transition to a new service economy. Nor did he mention the post-1965 wave of immigration that began to transform the city, including Brooklyn neighborhoods well beyond those to which Hamill identified for New York Magazine readers.

But to anyone investing in real estate (and I'm not included, btw), Hamill's advice was good for nearly four decades.

No comments:

Post a Comment