Friday, March 04, 2011

City Limits on Defining Brooklyn: image does not quite meet reality, but borough is surely in flux

The March/April issue of City Limits, Defining Brooklyn, is out, with a few pieces on the web, and offering a challenge:
What does it mean to be "Brooklyn?" No borough in the city—perhaps no other urban place in America—has the kind of name recognition that Brooklyn enjoys. From Neil Simon plays to Jay-Z songs, Brooklyn has long had a prominent cultural profile. And in the past 10 years, Brooklyn has embodied New York's boom, from the boutiques that dot once-gritty Red Hook to the luxury high-rises of Fort Greene. But does Brooklyn's cultural mystique—or the view from Red Hook or Fort Greene—reflect reality throughout the borough?
The answer, you might expect, is no, as indicated by the few articles posted.

(While the cover references the coming Nets arena, the articles posted so far barely mention Atlantic Yards.)

The limits of the image

The first chapter, Lunch At Junior's: Reputation & Reality In Today’s Brooklyn, offers this passage:
So the image of the shiny new Brooklyn has a darker side, one of negative changes that accompanied all the cool, new stuff. But perhaps more importantly, the popular image of the borough suffers simply from limitations. The fact is, most of the borough—which would be the country's fifth largest city if it were independent— exists distinct from hipsters, high-rises and padlocked factories.

The new Brooklyn mystique leaves out vast swaths of the borough—from Karen Buryiak's Flatbush, where you can now stroll down Bob Marley Boulevard or dine on Afghan cuisine, to her father's Brownsville, which sank, like neighboring East New York, into the abyss of blight before starting to claw itself out. The popular image leaves out the Canarsie of Allen Fleming, the general manager of Junior's, who arrived there 20 years ago from Grenada, and it leaves out Bensonhurst, where storefront signs change from Yiddish to Chinese in the space of a few blocks

All those places, and dozens more, make up a modern Brooklyn too complex to fit in a slogan. The recent rise of one part of Brooklyn, then, has obscured all the other rises, falls and evolutions happening in the borough at the same time. This conceals, from other urban areas that may want to emulate its rise, the lessons Brooklyn has to offer: why the new affluent people came to places like Fort Greene, why the old businesses left areas like Bedford-Stuyvesant and how other neighborhoods charted their own separate courses of change.
Summing up

The final essay, The Destination: The New History Of Brooklyn, suggests that flux can be both discomfiting and inevitable:
Perhaps the appeal of Brooklyn, [Junior's patron and student of Brooklyn Bob] Trentacoste says, is that—Ebbets Field notwithstanding — most of the infrastructure is intact, even as everything else around it changes. For some people, he adds, that makes the new skyscrapers dotting the borough seem all the more disturbing.

"The way I like to say it is, sometimes history gets paved over," he says. The example he has in mind is the Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower, recently surpassed as the tallest building in Brooklyn. It might seem silly, but something about the height of the new apartment structure that dethroned the bank building just feels wrong. So, for that matter, does the flea market crowding the tower's banking hall. The emotions, though, are hard to explain. On one hand, he says, change is necessary. On the other …

...Now, [Francesco] Buffa [owner of Ferdinando's Focacceria] says, "It's a destination, because they can't get this kind of food nowhere else." The process—regeneration, expansion, adaptation—plays itself out eternally, even in East McKeesport. But when people say Brooklyn is special, part of what they mean is the scale on which this all happens. It is a place with the Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower at one end, the Spring Creek Nehemiah homes at another and dozens of sprawling, roiling neighborhoods in between. In all of them, at any time, someone is leaving and someone else is arriving, and the Chinese in Bensonhurst have the same reasons for coming as the advertising executives in Fort Greene. They come because Brooklyn, whatever it is, can work for them.

The image, though enduring, is secondary. Brooklyn is a concept, but it is also a place. Or really, it is many concepts and many places. They are held together, on a rounded mass on the western tip of Long Island, by convenient accidents of luck and landform and also by a notion in the heads of people around the world who look at the name and think, Now, that's a place to be from. And though they don't quite know why, they're right.
Who's in charge of "boutique Manhattan"?

I'm looking forward to reading the print issue when it arrives, and seeing to what extent it grapples with Brooklyn's identity as a not-quite-city, the role of the media, developers, and politicians, and other issues raised in my very brief recent essay in the Times.

And, perhaps, the biggest question: who sets the rules for how Brooklyn changes, and how?

An article headlined Hot And Cool: How Brooklyn Became A Destination suggests emerging tensions:
That contrast grows subtler by the year, eroded by the rows of glassy Downtown Brooklyn towers like the Brooklyner, or the condo buildings on Fourth Avenue that replaced warehouses and tenements, or the thousands of new housing units that stand to make the Atlantic Yards site one of the densest in the city. Newcomers are falling in love with a changed borough, but they are also changing it themselves, physically, in ways that seem permanent. What is at stake may be what made Brooklyn attractive in the first place.

The appeal of Brooklyn, [Corcoran Group broker Chris] Benfante says, often comes down to a vibe. He thought of the street life, the greetings between neighbors, the small-scale storefronts, and he settled on a metaphor.

"I would call it," he says, "a 'boutique Manhattan'."

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