The Tale of Two Brooklyns

When I graduated college in 2002, a friend of mine from New England invited me to hang out with her in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn as she went apartment hunting. I thought this was odd because when I was growing up in Long Island, Brooklyn was not cool. Brooklyn was where your grandparents fled from and they went to Manhattan or to the suburbs. People from my older generations did not move to Brooklyn after college, they tried to live in Manhattan. Uptown if they were of a a yuppish bent and downtown in the East Village, Tribecca, Soho, etc if they were of a artistic/bohemian bent.
This summer visit to Williamsburg showed me that Brooklyn was starting to get cool.

Tweleve years later and Brooklyn is now seemingly the default destination of young adults arriving in New York City for the first time. Williamsburg seems to become more and more developed every year with expensive condos, destination restaurants and bars, clubs and concert venues, and high-end boutiques selling expensive clothes, furniture, and small-batch chocolate. Brooklyn and San Francisco are two cities at the heart of the idea that housing costs are just too damn expensive and the middle class are being priced out.

The real story is more complicated. Daniel Kay Hertz shows that in many sections of Brooklyn, housing prices are

Some sections of Brooklyn have seen huge increases in housing prices. Williamsburg housing prices have increased by a staggering 174%. The other areas that have seen huge housing price increases are in North Brooklyn and the neighborhoods that make up Brownstone Brooklyn like Park Slope and my old neighborhood of Boreum Hill. Gentrification is also slowly starting to creep into neighborhoods that border these area like Windsor Terrace, Bushwick, and Lefferts Gardens. When I was living in Brooklyn, real estate agents just coined the term East Williamsburg for Bushwick and it was still a very dangerous neighborhood. The kind where the staff at KFC was behind bullet proof glass. Now Bushwick is home to restaurants with 180 dollar tasting menus. Neighborhoods further South and East have seen housing costs stagnate or decrease.

These are not great neighborhoods. East New York is very violent, very poor, and they are not very well-served by public transportation. People complain about frequent subway disruptions that shut down weekend service on certain lines going to Brooklyn but Williamsburg is still only a stop or two away from Manhattan on numerous subway lines and the neighborhoods are hardly boring on the weekends. The other neighborhoods in Brooklyn that are resisting generation tend to be Italian-American and Eastern European strongholds and look surprisingly suburban at times. Again subway service to these neighborhoods is not great.

Gentrification can still sweep to these unpopular neighborhoods but I wonder how long that will take. As I mentioned above, the popular neighborhoods in Brooklyn seem to develop more every single year. I left Brooklyn in 2008 but my brother still lives there (Hi LeeEsq!) and I visit about once or twice a year. Every year, my old haunts and neighborhoods seem to be getting more and more developed. In 2002, Williamsburg was starting to look cool. In 2005, the first condos were starting to be constructed. Now it looks like a very well-developed upper-middle class neighborhood with more restaurants, bars, coffeeshops, gyms, salons, boutiques, yoga studios, and condos than you can imagine. My old neighborhood of Boreum Hill/Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill also underwent more development including the appearance of a Barney’s Co-Op on Atlantic Avenue and what can only be described as a mega Whole Foods on the Gowanus Canal.

Gentrification can not expand forever because that would imply an infinite amount of people with boregois-bohemian tastes. My guess is that there are enough sections of Brooklyn that are gentrified and developed for now that the less desirable neighborhoods will stay that way for a while. Why move to Brownsville or East New York when Williamsburg or Fort Greene has everything you want and need? The original pioneers to Williamsburg were artists who liked squatting in the abandoned factories. Those days have been over for a long time now.

Gentrification will still produce discontents though. A lot of friends from college lived in my old Brooklyn neighborhood and are not complaining about housing costs but about how the retail scene is changing especially for daily necessities like food. A beloved fruit and vegetable market at Court and Pacific Street is soon to be a J.Crew store. A local (and not very good) supermarket on Smith Street is going to be torn down and turned into a two story mini-mall. My friends were complaining about how there is enough retail in the neighborhood and now the shopping options for one stop grocery shopping are an overpriced bougie supermarket on Court Street, a very long walk to the new Whole Foods on the Gowanus Canal (a former Superfund site!), or an even longer and almost impossible walk to the Fairway in Red Hook near the piers. Brooklyn is not the only place this happens. Last winter, a store in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco closed down and local residents said they wanted to serve their needs to go in its place instead of another expensive clothing boutique. Hayes Valley is largely known for upscale clothing and furniture stores, some bars and restaurants, and being the home of SF Jazz. There is one somewhat glorified bodega for foodstuffs.

The fairytale of urban life that Jane Jacobs wrote about still seems to be in full force. People want neighborhoods that are filled with local restaurants and businesses to suit their needs including some retail like clothing stores. No one seems to like when they live in a neighborhood with destination restaurants and bars, more boutiques than practical stores, etc. I am not sure if there is a way to balance the needs of the ideal urban residential neighborhood with mixed-use and also the simple fact that sometimes neighborhoods get known for certain kinds of shopping. Some urban neighborhoods seem to serve double purposes: one for residents who live there and another for those who want to visit and shop on weekends and these groups often clash in irresolvable manners.

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16 thoughts on “The Tale of Two Brooklyns

    • This is difficult for a variety of reasons:

      1. I do think that there are people who grew up in neighborhoods and get priced out and need to move because of gentrification and I do have sympathy for these people. Bushwick is now gentrifying and they can no longer afford to live there.

      2. That being said there are also people who live in neighborhoods as gentrifiers and complain about when the neighborhood slips away from their platonic ideal or what it was when they moved in and I find it a bit hard to have sympathy here. But it is an interesting pull between the needs of residents and the needs of visitors and how a J.Crew can replace a fruit and veggie market. Hayes Valley was always a retail corridor of the fancy sort since I moved to SF. Now they are building more codos though.

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  1. Oddly, I was in Brooklyn for the first time in my life the weekend: at a friend’s art show in (what I think is) Williamsburg, at an adorable little gallery. After the show a bunch of us ended up at a little nearby bar where they played R&B too loudly and a couple dudebros tried to chat up me and my wife. (About which, awkward!)

    So, yeah, the gentrification was pretty thick.

    I still like Manhattan better.

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      • I kinda don’t get them, since they weren’t visibly queer in any way and I’m quite visibly trans. I mean, some men like me, but not these sort of men.

        My current theory is the one talkative dude was pulling his buddy along for PUA training or something, like can he chat up these low-risk girls, since — like — who cares if the tranny shoots you down.

        Which is really awful and cynical and maybe I’m totally wrong.

        But then again, dudebros.

        In the end, however, they were a minor distraction. I was there to see my friend who I haven’t seen in 10 years, and she was amazing and beautiful and her art was awesome and Yay! friends who I still love.

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      • v,
        I must not be understanding this story very well.
        If the guys were just there to practice “conversational” skills, well, I suppose that’s okay until you gals tell them you’re not into that. [Presume idiocy of anyone in a bar imbibing alcohol. better to be surprised.]

        (also, I didn’t realize you were married…)

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      • — Well, they joined us at our table and chatted for a while, and they were reasonably entertaining and did nothing creepy or overtly offensive. But they were still pretty bro-tastic, just that cocky male thing — you know. And they were clearly playing an “alpha and his wingman” routine, which makes me suspect they follow the PUA script.

        Anyway, there were no overt “negs” and I found them charming enough. So, yeah, just a thing.

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      • “The dudebros are a pretty recent addition”

        i disagree – the original inhabitants (and their kids) in the italian parts of wburg are guidos. are guidos not dudebros, though? maybe they’re not “white” enough, as it were?

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  2. Squirrel Hill manages to have a mostly local shopping scene. That’s because a lot of people walk. But it’s also because we’re solidly not hip. Sure, some people come for the restaurants, but the parking sucks, and it’s not a real place to be “seen”.

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  3. “A lot of friends from college lived in my old Brooklyn neighborhood and are not complaining about housing costs but about how the retail scene is changing especially for daily necessities like food”

    That’s not the gentrification pattern in DC, though. The first thing a gentrifying neighborhood gets in this area is either a renovated Safeway or Giant and/or a new Harris Teeter – with both Whole Foods and now Walmart w/ groceries thrown into the mix.

    But there were always fewer bodegas around here and the ‘international’ supermarkets are generally (50’s and 60’s) supermarket size, having arisen since the age of suburbanization.

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