USA TODAY US Edition
Young + hip in Brooklyn
Once the butt of jokes, this now-chic borough is finally giving Manhattan a run for its money
NEW YORK — At the end of another disappointing season, Brooklyn Dodgers fans would console themselves with the refrain, “Wait ’til next year!” The team is long gone, but for Brooklyn, next year is here.
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!”
“People I know from London don’t want to go to Manhattan,” says Kari Browne, 33, a former broadcast news producer who last month opened a cafe in the up-and-coming Victorian neighborhood of Ditmas Park. “They want to come to Brooklyn.”
As do art students from Iowa and tourists from Helsinki, urban farmers and suburban shoppers, Swarthmore and Oberlin seniors, do-it-yourselfers and indie rockers, German graffiti writers, vegans, surfers, Manhattan writers, NBA stars.
The New Jersey Nets’ relocation to the new Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn is a big reason why guard Deron Williams re-signed with the team and why the league’s best center, the Orlando Magic’s Dwight Howard, once tried to join him.
When the arena opens this fall with concerts by Jay-Z and Barbra Streisand and the first Nets’ game, it will cap one of the more remarkable reversals of fortune in U.S. urban history.
Barclays is part of a planned $5 billion high-rise residential-commercial complex that community groups have criticized for abusing the power of eminent domain, uprooting residents and ripping up the neighborhood fabric. But to Fred Siegel, a New York writer and political activist, the project says: “Brooklyn is back.”
A burg with cachet
It’s more than back; it’s where it never was. The Brooklyn the Dodgers left was unsophisticated and unfashionable, the butt of the kind of jokes now directed at New Jersey. The Brooklyn after that, from roughly 1970 through 1995, was synonymous with crime, drugs and welfare. But the Brooklyn where Kari Browne has opened a business and plans to raise a family has been transformed into what she calls “a brand.”
It’s dangerous to generalize about a borough of 2.5 million (if it were a city, Brooklyn would be the nation’s fourth most populous) or to romanticize it. The government defines almost a quarter of the residents as poor, and although Brooklyn has fewer than a third of the city’s people, it accounts for about 40% of its murders. Most occur in troubled pockets such as Brownsville, East New York and East Flatbush.
This year, pastor Gilford Monrose of Mount Zion Church of God (Seventhday) in East Flatbush has buried two murder victims in their 20s, one of whom was gunned down in front of his uncle’s fried-chicken restaurant. Monrose says getting a gun in the neighborhood “is as easy as going to the corner store.”
That said, Brooklyn at its best is Sesame Street: integrated playgrounds; small shops on tree-lined, three-tofive-story streets; locally crafted beers, artisanal pickles and home-made granola; bike lanes and occasional valet bike parking. Spike-haired, tattooed skateboarders zip past bearded Hassidic Jews in long black coats. Houseboats ply the once-fetid Gowanus Canal.
So many writers, actors, artists and chefs live here that borough President Marty Markowitz calls it “New York’s Left Bank.” Writer Malcolm Gladwell has observed that “intelligent thought is not dead in New York. It has simply moved to Brooklyn.”
Jerry Krase, a Brooklyn College sociologist, says the buzz stems from a contrast between what the world thought it knew about Brooklyn and what Brooklyn really is.
Old Brooklyn was a place you came from (including Aaron Copland, Woody Allen, Larry King, Wolfman Jack, Mike Tyson); New Brooklyn is a place to go to (as have Maggie Gyllenhaal, Paul Giamatti, Anne Hathaway, Björk.)
Kriss Roebling is a filmmaker, musician and descendant of the engineers who built the Brooklyn Bridge. After their apartment house was demolished for the Barclays Center, he and his fam- ily moved to Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), a former warehouse and factory district.
They love it. “We’re two blocks from dropping a kayak in the river and 12 minutes on a bike from the East Village,” he says. In Brooklyn, he adds, “people are more apt to get together to create art scenes and events and parties. It has what Manhattan had in the ’70s and ’80s.” Including tourists. “Bus tours of Brooklyn!” marvels Krase, who was born in the borough in 1943. “It’s like we’re like the zoo. They’re waving at us out the window.”
Once, as native son and writer Pete Hamill has noted, nothing in Brooklyn ever seemed to change; now, change is a constant, as artists, homesteaders, hipsters and developers hopscotch across the borough in a process that Francis Morrone, an architectural historian who has studied city neighborhoods, calls “hyper-gentrification.”
Despite a national housing market collapse, this gentrification has attained a momentum rarely seen anywhere, he says. It jumped the East River from Manhattan about 20 years ago and surged into the neighborhoods of Dumbo, Williamsburg and Greenpoint, into Park Slope and Ditmas Park, and now to Red Hook and Bushwick, places once synonymous with urban dystopia. It’s stopped by nothing, not even the lowincome housing projects that traditionally marked gentrification’s limits.
Once, pioneer artists in search of low rents and big work spaces with natural light moved into derelict or impoverished neighborhoods and slowly made them attractive to less intrepid settlers. Now, “the new places get overrun before they have a chance to develop an identity,” says Robert Anasi, a writer who lived in Williamsburg when it became the city’s hottest neighborhood.
How did this happen to a place known for its grating accent (“Fuhgeddaboudit!”), odd foods (knishes, lox), tacky amusements (Coney Island) and cartoonish TV characters (The Honeymooners’ bombastic Ralph Kramden)?
Paradise, lost and found
An even better question: How did Bushwick become the new bohemia?
Wilson Meredith was 14 when the lights went out, when the looters tied ropes to car bumpers, pulled down the security gates from stores on Broadway and stole everything inside.
That was Bushwick in the citywide power blackout of 1977. Vandals torched 44 stores, including Woolworths, which burned to the ground.
It was just one in a series of plagues to hit Bushwick, in better days a hardworking place where German and Sicilian immigrants and an influx of Puerto Ricans (such as Meredith’s family) made everything from beer to glue to glass.
Real estate agents panicked many white homeowners into selling quickly and cheaply with the rise of minorities. Mortgage brokers helped the newcomers buy homes they couldn’t afford. When they defaulted and home prices plunged, bankers red-lined the area against loans. Landlords torched devalued buildings for insurance money. Then, things began to change: -New York’s recovery from its 1975 fiscal crisis spurred development of new housing in Bushwick.
-The ever-rising price of Manhattan real estate forced artists east, where the austere beauty of Brooklyn’s semiabandoned, post-industrial landscape of piers, warehouses, cement factories and textile mills proved irresistible.
-Crime dropped, starting in the early ’90s, in part because of more police and less tolerance for “quality of life” offenses.
-The rezoning of Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront touched off a residential land rush in neighborhoods such as Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Then, the eternal search for the $1,000-amonth one-bedroom apartment brought homesteaders all the way to Bushwick.
Today, Meredith, 49, has a good IT job in Manhattan. He still lives in Bushwick, which he barely recognizes as the place where he grew up.
There are more art galleries (16 and counting) than there ever were breweries (14), plus an ever-expanding number of performance spaces, restaurants, cafes and bars.
Meredith likes the safer, cleaner streets, and places like The Bodega, a wine bar started by two newcomers who wanted to recreate the ambiance of cafes they enjoyed while living in Spain.
He’s amused by some of the people he meets there, “young people from the Midwest. ... It’s ghetto chic. They think, ‘I’m a pioneer.’ . . . They all want to come to Bushwick.” But he worries about those who have to leave.
In March 2011, Maria Marques, her husband and three children were forced out of their Bushwick apartment by a fire. They could find no place in the area for anything near the $600 a month they had paid for their rentcontrolled apartment; the newcomers have bid two-bedroom market-rate units up to around $1,500 a month.
They wound up in the city shelter system in the South Bronx, an hour trip via three different subway lines. “She lived in this neighborhood for 20 years,” says Yolanda Coca, a tenants’ advocate at the Brooklyn Housing Independence Project. “How is she supposed to come home to Brooklyn?”
That also worries Nyssa Frank, 27, who moved to Bushwick four years ago from London. She grew up in the affluent Long Island community of East Hampton and majored in philosophy at UCal-Santa Barbara. With her blond hair swept long on one side and shaved close on the other, her nose ring, her tattooed arms and her cat-eye makeup, she looks like what Meredith would call “a hipster.”
Frank used to work in a gallery in Manhattan; now she runs her own in a former textile factory that backs onto a dump. The gallery shows the work of local artists — many of them Hispanic and not formally trained — and offers free art classes.
When hipsters first moved to the neighborhood, some said they lived in “East Williamsburg,” because they were embarrassed to say Bushwick. No more, Frank says: “It’s cool here; you can express yourself however you want” — open a gallery, start a community garden, paint a mural on an old factory wall. It’s a very hip, very selfcontained world that one needn’t leave to find a meal or concert or gallery or anything, except an airport.
What Brooklynites still call “the city” is only a subway ride away, “but I never go to Manhattan now,” Frank says, “unless I have to.”