The New Brooklyn: What It Takes to Bring a City Back
by Kay Hymowitz
My City Journal colleague Kay Hymowitz has written a number of great articles on Brooklyn, the borough that is her home. This inspired her to write a great book on the topic of the transformation of Brooklyn called The New Brooklyn.
It starts with a two-chapter history of the borough from its earliest settlement to the present day, followed by a series of chapters looking at Brooklyn today. This includes the transformation of Park Slope (where she and her husband moved in the early 1980s), Williamsburg, Bed-Stuy, and the Navy Yard.
But she recognizes that Brooklyn is not all hipster gentrifiers. It is still a borough of immigrants and still too often poverty. A quarter of Brooklyn’s residents are below the poverty line. So she also presents case studies of this other face of the new Brooklyn, including the looking at the Chinese of Sunset Park, the West Indians of Canarsie and the African-Americans of Brownsville.
There’s a lot of great details in here. For example, that there were once slaves in Brooklyn:
It’s worth lingering over this jarring fact: when you walk past the fine townhomes and churches of Brooklyn Heights, eat at a pizza joint in Bensonhurst, or wander through the art galleries of Bushwick, you are traversing land once tilled by African slaves – and a substantial number of them, given the small size of the white population.
Also how NYCHA income limit rules helped segregate public housing that had formerly been at least partially integrated.
NYCHA residents were required to move out once their income surpassed a certain ceiling. That made sense; public housing was supposed to be for those who couldn’t afford to live in private developments. The problem was that most of those who reached the income ceiling were white. Antipoverty advocates argued that it was only fair to give preference to the most disadvantaged on waiting lists. Perhaps; but as a result, upwardly mobile whites were replaced by poor black refugees both from the South and the cleared slums of other parts of New York.
There are also some passages that would give Richard Florida the tingles:
The postindustrial crowd settling in Park Slop had a somewhat different profile from their educated suburban cousins, a profile that continues to dominate gentrified neighborhoods everywhere. They were an artsy-literary bunch; today, we would call them the “creative class”…Whatever the reasons, the original gentrifiers were in conscious retreat from suburban conformity. Though gentrifier tastes have veered back towards mid-century modern, the Tiffany lamps, stained glass and Victorian antiques that the pioneers collected were a far cry from the harvest-gold kitchen appliances and plastic chairs and dishes favored by suburbanites.
A few of the essays were previously published in City Journal, but the majority of the book is new. The writing is very accessible and not academic. The New Brooklyn provides not just a highly readable look at the current conditions in Brooklyn, but a sense of how we got to where we are. As someone who lacks in-depth knowledge of Brooklyn, I found it very informative.
You can also listen to Kay talk about her book in a recent episode of the City Journal podcast.