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.
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.