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"How Brooklyn Got Its Groove Back": an analysis of the borough's rise, and those left behind (and, I'd suggest, why that helped bring us AY)


In the Autumn 2011 issue of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, Kay S. Hymowitz offers How Brooklyn Got Its Groove Back: New York’s biggest borough has reinvented itself as a postindustrial hot spot.

And, while not about Atlantic Yards (except for one mention), it presents a useful framework, based on personal experience and reportage, for some of the changes that brought us here, while offering more background on the enduring economic divide sketched this week in Crain's.

(It's on the Atlantic Cities' list of ten best CityReads of 2011.)

An early transplant

Hymowitz and her family were relatively early transplants to Park Slope, in 1982, after the first waves of gentrification but before the acceleration.

Back then, she writes, "real-estate agents euphemistically described it as 'in transition,' meaning that the chances you’d get mugged during a given year were pretty good." Crime actually got worse over the decade, with "a nightly explosion of shattered glass from car windows" and hold-ups on the street.

The changes

She asks:
How did the Brooklyn of the Lehanes and crack houses turn into what it is today—home to celebrities like Maggie Gyllenhaal and Adrian Grenier, to Michelin-starred chefs, and to more writers per square foot than any place outside Yaddo? How did the borough become a destination for tour buses showing off some of the most desirable real estate in the city, even the country? How did the mean streets once paced by Irish and Italian dockworkers, and later scarred by muggings and shootings, become just about the coolest place on earth? The answer involves economic, class, and cultural changes that have transformed urban life all over America during the last few decades. It’s a story that contains plenty of gumption, innovation, and aspiration, but also a disturbing coda. Brooklyn now boasts a splendid population of postindustrial and creative-class winners—but in the far reaches of the borough, where nary a hipster can be found, it is also home to the economy’s many losers.
I'd add that the "population of postindustrial and creative-class winners" made it ever more attractive for developer Forest City Ratner to plan a massive project focused on luxury housing, while the fact that Brooklyn "is also home to the economy's many losers" made the announced plans for "affordable housing" and "jobs" tantalizingly powerful.

From the factories to gentrification

Hymowitz recalls how Brooklyn for a century "was one of the nation’s preeminent industrial cities," producing coffee and metalwork and beer and sugar and pharmaceuticals.

Drawing on Suleiman Osman’s recent history, The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, she points to the influx, beginning in the late 1950s, of a new class of gentrifiers, "an educated person with a little more money and a lot more 'culture,'" serving not only the burgeoning businesses in Manhattan but the city's cultural and philanthropic organizations. They sought “authenticity” unavailable in the suburbs or the modernist, high-rise city.

Hymowitz acknowledges the unease accompanying gentrification, as attention to the neighborhood and home renovation "also meant rising rents," even as the borough's manufacturing decline meant fewer jobs for less-educated, blue-collar workers

Meanwhile, bad policy--the isolation of Red Hook by a highway, and failure to allow mixed-use zoning--exacerbated the situation.

She adds, "Lax crime-fighting and overgenerous social programs accelerated Brooklyn’s decline." (More liberal commentators would probably stress other policy decisions. And I should add that, as Francis Morrone pointed out, gentrification increased in the 1980s even when crime went up.)

The changes in the 1990s

Hymowitz suggests that, as "the gentrifying middle class" began to leave in the early 1990s, "Brooklyn came awfully close to becoming an East Coast Detroit."

I think that's hyperbole, because New York City, unlike Detroit, had a much broader economic base, despite the loss of manufacturing.

But she credits three factors for the improvements:
  • "policing reform brought a dramatic reduction in crime"
  • "rezoning of fallow industrial neighborhoods for 'mixed' uses
  • "the arrival of a new generation of gentrifiers"
I'd add the domino effect of increasing housing costs in Manhattan, where the concentration of the 1% working in financial services (and finding Manhattan an alternative to the 'burbs), the plethora of second homes for the global wealthy, and the conversion of lower-cost housing all spurred middle- and upper-middle-income households to Brownstone Brooklyn, thus driving existing residents Brooklynites deeper into the borough or out of town.

Such gentrification made some property owners well off, but was tough for renters.

An AY mention

In the section under rezonings, Hymowitz writes:
Brooklyn also benefited from the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations’ rezoning of fallow industrial neighborhoods for “mixed” uses, so that residential, commercial, and light-industry buildings could occupy the same area. These decisions have met with fierce resistance, with Brooklyn’s gentrifiers—ironically, given their historical role in changing the borough—among the most vociferous in arguing that grabby real-estate interests and their friends in government are driving out an indigenous population. Bruce Ratner’s much-reviled Atlantic Yards project, which took advantage of the government’s bullying eminent-domain powers, lends some credence to the charge. But mostly, Brooklyn’s transformation has come from the ground up. In the beginning, as Osman observes, gentrification spread because “a few families decided to cross” Atlantic Avenue, the southern boundary of Brooklyn Heights. The rezoning that finally took place decades later was simply bowing to reality: large factories were gone for good, and young singles and families wanted in.
For Atlantic Yards, it must be pointed out, there was no rezoning, just an override of zoning.

The impact of the new

Hymowitz sketches the "creative-class gentrification" in Williamsburg and DUMBO, the latter aided by the designation in 2007 as a historic district and the "newly opened, long-in-the-making, and still-evolving Brooklyn Bridge Park."

DUMBO, she notes, requires "twentysomething digerati," part of the borough's (and the city's) new economy, while Williamsburg features the "hippie entrepreneur, who specializes in two consumer industries—music and food." (Not so sure about the "hippie" designation; better to say "hipster.")

The unsolved problem

As with the overall impact of companies like Facebook and Google (compared to, say GM or Kraft), in Brooklyn, "these boutique businesses have a limited impact on the borough’s total economy," because there aren't tons of factory jobs.

Thus, Hymowitz concludes:
[T]he borough is a microcosm of the nation’s “hourglass economy.” At the top, the college-educated are doing interesting, motivating work during the day and bicycling home to enjoy gourmet beer and grass-fed beef after hours. At the bottom, matters are very different. Almost a quarter of Brooklyn’s 2.5 million residents live below the poverty line—in the housing projects of East New York, in the tenements of Brownsville, or in “transitional” parts of Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, all places where single-mother poverty has become an intergenerational way of life.
The statistics are stark:
Between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of the area’s population on welfare did decline markedly, but the number of Medicaid recipients almost tripled, to nearly 750,000. About 40 percent of Brooklyn’s total population receives some kind of public assistance today, up from 23 percent a decade ago.
And even when "manufacturing jobs do become available, they tend to require skills that high school graduates—and dropouts—lack. East New York and Brownsville also remain the highest-crime areas in New York."

Her conclusion: "And no one believes that’s transitional."

I'd add: "And no one should believe Atlantic Yards can solve that."

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