There Goes the Neighborhood: Asymmetric Gentrification and the Limits of Development
The first upmarket chain to move in was a Lululemon Athletica in 2013. This year J.Crew announced that they were taking over the location of a former well-beloved natural grocery store, an even more upmarket clothing company called Rag & Bone was taking over the location of a well loved bar called Downtown Bar & Grill, and the only non-upmarket grocery store is being changed into a two floor mini-mall. I also think that a former fruit and vegetable grocer on Court Street became a high end retailer but I can’t find any information on this.
These are the complaints my friends and former neighbors have been making about the changes that have been happening to my old Brooklyn neighborhoods of Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, and Boreum Hill. These are three separate neighborhoods but they exist in such close proximity that they could be one neighborhood. My old apartment was on the last street of Boreum Hill or the first street of Carroll Gardens depending on who you asked. Gone is the charming neighborhood of old brownstones, local bars, affordable but excellent restaurants, and charming small grocers and butchers where you pick up your meat at one location and your vegetables at another. Many of my friends and other people feel that their formally charming neighborhood is now becoming another SOHO. Several of my friends are contemplating moving out to small cities in upstate New York like Hastings on the Hudson or to New Jersey or Connecticut to find that old walkability and community oriented field again.
This is enough of a demographic shift and general feeling that it earned a New York Times trend piece called “Life After Brooklyn” this week (1). The article is basically a real-life version of an old Onion joke “Report: Nation’s Gentrified Neighborhoods Threatened by Aristocratization (2). People moved to Brooklyn because the neighborhoods felt like actual neighborhoods, the rents were cheaper and the apartments were bigger even after several years or sometimes a good decade of gentrification. Gentrification started happening in my old neighborhoods during the 1980s when families began purchasing old Brownstones. The first wave of gentrification in the hipster mecca known as Williamsburg happened in the late 1990s.
The interesting thing is that Brooklyn is not uniformally gentrifying. According to Daniel Kay Hertz, Brooklyn neighborhoods have generally see rents and housing prices skyrocket over the past decade or go into a serious decline (3). Rents and Housing prices in Williamsburg have skyrocket by 147 percent. East New York has seen housing prices decline by 12 to 30 percent. Housing prices in my old neighborhood have increased by 25 to 52 percent it seems. Most other neighborhoods have seen more modest increases or decreases.
I find this kind of asymmetrical gentrification intriguing. Some neighborhoods are seeing more and more development and are becoming mini high-end luxury retail meccas and other neighborhoods have not seen much at all. I first saw the new Williamsburg in 2002 when I graduated from college and my brother moved into Williamsburg in 2006 and I have been back several times to visit him since moving to California. The neighborhood seems to get more and more developed. When friends from college moved in, the neighborhood was starting to get interesting bars and restaurants but still largely maintained its old feel of being mainly populated by Hasidic Jews, Eastern European immigrants, and Hispanics, with college students just starting to move in because they could not afford anything in Manhattan. The first condos were opening around 2005-2006 when my brother came in. The last time I visited my brother was this January and the neighborhood is now extremely developed. There are high-rise condos that look like they are more likely to belong in Miami or the Upper East Side than in former factory Brooklyn. There are various mid to up market chain stores like the 16 Handles Frozen Yogurt chain, French clothing company Sandro, preppy GANT Rugger, and the East Coast outpost of San Francisco’s Blue Bottle Coffee. The authentically Bohemian has been replaced by the expensively Bourgeois-Bohemian. My old Brooklyn neighborhood was fairly to very upper-middle class when I lived there and now it seems even more so with the opening of Lulu Lemon, J.Crew, Rag and Bone, and a Barney’s Co-Op on Atlantic Avenue (this opened around 2010-2011).
This is not to say that gentrification cannot creep into other neighborhoods. Williamsburg spent most of her history as a very poor neighborhood filled with immigrants and factories. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn takes places in this old and poor Williamsburg. My first New York apartment was a sublet on the Upper East Side and when that sublet ended I started looking for apartments in Brooklyn during the summer of 2006. Around this time, real estate agents began advertising for apartments in an area they called “East Williamsburg”. East Williamsburg was another name for the edges of Bushwick. Bushwick was another very poor neighborhood. I went to check out some apartments in the area and many stores still had their clerks stationed behind bullet proof glass. Now Bushwick features upscale restaurants and long-time residents complain about being pushed out of apartments they occupied for decades by landlords looking for rising rents.
Ordinary Times has debated rising housing costs in cities like San Francisco and Brooklyn for a long time and many other publications spill much real and digital ink on the issue. The fight always seems to be about whether the mantra of “build build build” will cure housing cost problems. The answer seems to be not necessarily. My new theory is that for a neighborhood to gentrify, it initially has to offer something to people moving in. Williamsburg is only one subway stop away from Manhattan and three subway stops away from Union Square which offers easy access to midtown and Grand Central Terminal. Williamsburg also offered old factories that could be converted into loft spaces both unofficially and officially (many artists began as squatters during the late 1990s). My old Brooklyn neighborhood offered classic Brownstones which the original gentrifers were able to purchase for a steal during the late 1960s to late 1980s. Neighborhoods like East New York don’t really offer any of this. They were always poor and always far from the city. They merely went from housing one ethnic enclave to another or sometimes not changing ethnic backgrounds at all. The commute to NYC from deepest Brooklyn can take a long time and potentially several transfers and delays. The commute from the farthest sections of San Francisco to the Financial District (where most people work) can take longer than a BART ride from Oakland or just as long as a Ferry Ride from Marin or a commute from Berkeley.
Some neighborhoods seem to hit a kind of gentrification “jackpot” where people want to live there and then the development is unstoppable and potentially takes away what made the neighborhood desirable in the first place. The desire of many is for a true community where a neighborhood is walkable and you can do all your errand shopping in the neighborhood plus have some entertainment options with bars and restaurants. Retail is not a problem. The problem with retail is when it begins replacing every day stores like groceries, butchers, fruit and vegetable markets, cheese stores, etc. Many New Yorkers do not drive or own cars and people choose to live in cities because you can walk instead of driving but once development starts it seems impossible for some neighborhoods to stop turning into high end retail and restaurant destinations and more like an outdoor mall and playground than an inhabitable neighborhood with a sense of community. I think one reason for the often mocked NIMBYism is that there is often a split in needs between residents of a neighborhood and possibly people who own the commercial real estate and developers. A store like J.Crew or Rag and Bone can pay more in rent than a fruit and vegetable market or a butcher or cheese shop but there seems to an unbreakable cycle of one up market clothing store attracting others and this makes it unaffordable for daily bread types of businesses. This is why I often have some sympathy for NIMBYism in urban neighborhoods and prefer a philosophy of SIMBY or “Sometimes in My Back Yard”. There should be a policy recognition of what a community needs versus what attracts maximum profit and development and maximum profit can seemingly change what was charming about a neighborhood into a parody of charm or get rid of necessary businesses like groceries.