The Trendification of Brooklyn and the Perils of a Successful Urban Brand
Depending on who you talk to, the borough of Brooklyn is a great urban success story, a painful hipster cliché, or a provincial backwater.
It’s actually all of those things, and many more. Brooklyn is a huge place, 71 square miles encompassing old-school blue-collar neighborhoods like Bay Ridge, trendy enclaves like Williamsburg, and decidedly ungentrified sections like East New York, which has some of the highest crime rates in all of New York City. Some 2.5 million people live in Brooklyn, and they are anything but homogenous.
That diversity allows Brooklyn to be many things to many people. The borough has become a kind of urban Rorschach test. Ask someone what they think of it, and you will get some idea of how they see the future of American cities -- with hope or with disdain. Will creative elites save the urban core, or destroy it? The answer can surely be found somewhere in these brownstone-lined streets.
Members of the New York media love to talk about Brooklyn. (Probably because so many of them, or us, live here.) Now the Brooklyn trend piece has landed in the ultimate mainstream national publication: USA Today earlier this week ran its version of the story, under the headline, "Brooklyn rebounds as the new bohemia." The article leads with the advent of the Brooklyn Nets, the NBA franchise that is making the move from New Jersey to the new Barclays Center in September. A huge corporate sports franchise hardly seems like an indicator of a bohemian lifestyle to us, but OK.
The arrival of the NBA Nets gives Brooklyn its first major league team since the Dodgers' departure for Los Angeles in 1957, and something else: more evidence that, as its denizens claim, the borough that was once a punch line is now the coolest place in America, a land of rooftop farms and pop-up art galleries, of haircuts, eyeglasses, hats and body piercings so chic that even Parisians utter, "Très Brooklyn!"
That last line is a reference to a phrase quoted (without attribution) in a New York Times article about food trucks in Paris. Allegedly, it is "a term that signifies a particularly cool combination of informality, creativity and quality." Does anyone in Paris actually say “très Brooklyn”? I remain unconvinced. But the good people at USA Today are buying the idea as part of a package they say is "one of the more remarkable reversals of fortune in U.S. urban history." The reporter, Rick Hampson, also refers prematurely to "the once-fetid Gowanus Canal." I can say from personal experience that it is as fetid as ever.
To his credit, Hampson also interviews a former Bushwick resident, displaced by a fire, who can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood where she grew up – a place that was not long ago considered a dangerous ghetto. Now the artists have showed up. You know how the gentrification script goes. It will likely be just a matter of time before they, too, have to move along.
The Times, ensconced in its Manhattan home, has looked on with polite astonishment at what might be called the branding of Brooklyn – or of a certain part of it. The paper has run a series of wide-eyed, much-mocked trend pieces on the artisanal, mustachioed, bike-riding stereotypes of Kings County. Old-timers might roll their eyes, but this vision of Brooklyn sells. Real estate values in the most desirable neighborhoods have gotten so high that people are supposedly moving to Manhattan in search of cheaper rent. You can read about it in another Brooklyn trend piece, this one in the Wall Street Journal.
I grew up in Manhattan, and I’ve only lived in Brooklyn for 12 years now. So I'm a newcomer, although my son can lay claim to being a native. In the time that I’ve been here, I’ve seen a lot of change, and I’ve been a part of that change, too. I plead guilty to buying a few jars of artisanal pickles myself.
The burgeoning economic prosperity of the last decade has been a wonderful thing in many ways, especially if you remember New York in the bad old days of the 1970s and ’80s. But it’s hard not to fret. Now that Brooklyn rates its own sections in European guidebooks, we’re losing some of what makes the place great. A lot of my neighbors have moved to less expensive parts of town, or less expensive towns. I worry that my neighborhood is going the soulless way of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. More chains are moving in all the time; they’re the only ones that can afford the prices. Court Street, the main shopping drag just a few steps from my house, has a real estate storefront on nearly every block. The neighborhood is selling itself very effectively, even as it’s getting harder to find a place to buy a light bulb or have your dry cleaning done. That’s the price of having a successful brand, I guess.
But Brooklyn remains a complicated place. As Thomas Wolfe famously wrote in his story “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn”, "It’d take a guy a lifetime to know Brooklyn t’roo an’ t’roo. An’ even den, yuh wouldn’t know it all." I’m counting on that.
In the meantime, now that USA Today has written up the trend, surely it’s time to go back to being uncool again. I can hardly wait.