Brooklyn: The Great Awakening

And here is what Suketu Mehta has to say about Brooklyn, my location on the globe currently…

Brooklyn rocks !!!…as Howard Stern says “Broooooklyuen…Top of the Food Chain”

The Great Awakening from The New York Times,

By Suketu Mehta

At a party on the Upper West Side in 2000, a distinguished American author, and longtime Manhattanite, asked where I lived.

“Brooklyn,” I told him.

He snorted. “Poor people live in Brooklyn.” Then he turned away to get some meat.

Shortly after the party, to see if I could move from my rented apartment in Boerum Hill, I went looking to see what I could buy in a part of Fort Greene where cars parked on the street were still regularly stolen. I told the broker that it would be nice for my kids to have a house by a park. “We just sold a house by the park: $510,000,” the broker said. But there was a catch. “It had no walls or ceilings.”

What happened, I wondered, to the distinguished author’s “poor people”?

Several years ago before, representatives of the giant warehouse shopping club Costco had approached the City Planning Department with a question: would it be worth it to open a Costco in Sunset Park, an area of Brooklyn that had lots of the aforementioned poor people? The economic data wasn’t encouraging. Lots of Asian immigrants lived in the area, and their median income was not high. Also, the site was half the usual size, so the Costco store would have to be built in two stories, with costly elevators and escalators.

But the city’s statisticians advised Costco to go ahead. There was money in those undistinguished apartment houses and wood-frame houses, they said, more money than met the eye. Being an immigrant area, the neighborhood has a thriving underground economy, they said, and official housing data doesn’t account for illegally subdivided units.

The store opened in 1996 and turned a profit in its first year. Nine years later, according to company figures, it is among the nation’s highest-grossing Costcos, earning upward of $150 million this year compared with $120 million for an average Costco. In fact, the store has been so successful, the chain is considering opening another giant warehouse in Brooklyn.

It has become a cliché to say that Brooklyn is booming. But the change has become so broad – sweeping up the yuppies of Fort Greene, the immigrant shoppers at Costco, the hipsters of Williamsburg – that it looks for all the world like a difference not just in degree but in kind. Long seen by that distinguished author and by so many others as a poor backwater, Brooklyn now buzzes with a momentum that would have stunned residents of its sleepy streets not long ago. The change has effects salutary (a housing boom, thriving cultural life) and perilous (soaring housing costs, displacement), but the one constant is that it is huge.

With 2.5 million people, the borough is bigger than San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta and St. Louis combined. The population is approaching the historic high of 1950, when Brooklyn was home to 2.74 million souls. Turn around, and you will see the renaissance. There isn’t a single vacant storefront along Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and hordes of shoppers throng Pitkin Avenue in Brownsville. After decades of disinvestment in Brooklyn, major projects are in the works, among them the development of 175 waterfront blocks, complete with 40-story luxury apartment buildings, along the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront; the construction of an 800,000-square-foot sports complex for the Nets in the Atlantic Yards; and, in Red Hook, the return of cruise ships, including the Queen Mary 2 and the Queen Elizabeth 2, to a major new pier and passenger terminal.

And while housing is exploding citywide – the number of housing permits granted citywide last year exceeded the permits granted in all of the 1990’s – the two boroughs with the most housing starts in this bustling market are Queens and Brooklyn. Why so many homes? Brooklyn’s prime appeal is relatively low cost. Let’s not kid ourselves. If rents in Manhattan fell, half the hipsters in Brooklyn would rush the bridges; they’re a floating population. But it can’t be just that; otherwise Staten Island and the Bronx would also qualify.

People are also moving to Brooklyn because – who in the 80’s could ever have guessed? – it has become so much safer. From 1990 to 2000, according to the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, car theft in the borough plunged by 75 percent, robbery by 67 percent and homicide by 69 percent. In terms of mass transit, it’s the best-connected borough after Manhattan, with 167 of the city’s 468 subway stations.

As for me, I live in Park Slope because I’m a writer. It’s in my union contract. Brooklyn has become the Iowa City of the East, an area chronicled and cataloged and celebrated in countless novels and poems, read and unread. The number of Brooklynites who identified themselves as “authors and writers” to the Census Bureau more than doubled to 3,111 in 2000 from 1,506 in 1990. By contrast, the number of “cabinetmakers and bench carpenters” dipped almost by half over the same period, to 334 from 602.

Because of all the creative types who call the borough home, the new Brooklyn is hip. One of the clearest signs of this was a 2002 cover article in Time Out New York that ran under the headline “Manhattan – The New Brooklyn” and tried hard to make the case that Manhattan was cool again. “The Upper East Side is just a dorm,” I overheard a young Asian hipster say to a friend as they walked amid the milling crowds on Court Street. “I like it here. There’s so much life.”

Sometimes all of South Brooklyn feels like a giant set for a sitcom about trendy young people. On plywood barriers at a construction site on Fourth Avenue in Park Slope, I noticed a series of desperate public pleas for a change of heart by a departing roommate: “I Ü€ You Scout Please Don’t Leave”; “Scout if you stay I’ll be nice to you all the time. Even when I’m PMS’ing”; “Kate says if you stay, you can spend another night in her bed.”

It was not always thus. The unnamed young Irish hero of the Gilbert Sorrentino love story “The Moon in Its Flight,” set in 1948, returns to Brooklyn after a party with his sophisticated Bronx girlfriend in equally sophisticated Forest Hills. At the party, “He skulked in his loud Brooklyn clothes,” the novelist writes.

“When he got off the train in Brooklyn an hour later, he saw his friends through the window of the all-night diner, pouring coffee into the great pit of their beer drunks. He despised them as he despised himself and the neighborhood. He fought against the thought of her so that he would not have to place her subtle finesse in these streets of vulgar hells, benedictions, and incense.”

But the new Brooklyn has more than one face. “There are two Brooklyns,” pointed out Arun Peter Lobo, deputy director of the population division of City Planning. “At the very least.” Indeed, anything you could say about Brooklyn, the fourth-largest city in America, is true somewhere within its borders. Yes, it’s full of hipsters; Rhode Island School of Design students hop on the bus to Williamsburg as soon as they graduate. Yes, it’s full of parents, marching their strollers down Union Street to shop at the organic foods co-op. Yes, it’s also full of immigrants.

Although Queens, the borough most thought of as the new melting pot, is home to more than a million immigrants, Brooklyn is fast catching up, with 932,000. About 38 percent of Brooklynites are foreign-born; if you include their children, their numbers jump to more than 55 percent.

This isn’t the Jewish Brooklyn of Woody Allen or the Italian Brooklyn of “Moonstruck.” There are people living in Brooklyn who have no idea what stickball is, what stoop-sitting is, who the Dodgers were or why they left Brooklyn. These people play cricket in Marine Park, barbecue suckling pigs in their backyards, listen to Russian matinee idols in Brighton Beach nightclubs, and worship not Kobe Bryant and Derek Jeter but Diego Maradona, an Argentine soccer player, and Sachin Tendulkar, an Indian cricket star. They are inventing their own Brooklyn, a Brooklyn their kids will be nostalgic about 20 years from now.

Willy Loman, too, still lives in Brooklyn. Desperate working folks, salesmen and otherwise, struggle to provide for their families, to make the commission; attention is still not being paid. Income disparities are as big as Brooklyn itself; in 2000, the median household income in the wealthiest census tract – in Brooklyn Heights – was $112,414. In the poorest tract, in Coney Island, the median income, at $7,863, was not even one-tenth of that. The housing crisis exacerbates this inequality, with the world divided between those who own and those who rent.

Another big division in Brooklyn is between neighborhoods close to the water, or to a park, and those away from the blue and the green. People live in the western parts of Brooklyn with their eyes fixed westward. There are people in Park Slope who can tell you where to get the best gelato in Manhattan but have no idea where to find the best roti in Brownsville. Well inland are the nonimmigrant poor, people who have been poor for a long time and aren’t just off the plane from somewhere else, aren’t hoarding hope for their children as they toil in sweatshops.

The new Brooklyn has not cured poverty or solved related problems like inadequate schools. Low-quality schooling hits poor and immigrant families the most because it depletes the only substantial capital they have: their children. The children, with their great promise, are these families’ Microsoft before Windows, their I.B.M. when it was just a typewriter company. When a public school succeeds spectacularly, like P.S. 321, in whose Park Slope district house buyers must pay a premium, parents storm the gates, with varying success. So it’s private school for many Brooklyn parents – at $20,000 a year. “It’s become punitive living here,” says a writer friend who was trying to raise her kids in Park Slope. She couldn’t afford a house, even though her husband is a corporate lawyer. Eventually she left Brooklyn to ride horses in a mountain village in Spain, and is happier for it.

Moreover, the various redevelopment plans, grand as they are, are being fought block by block by people who will be displaced by them. The Nets arena will sit in a spot that has among the best access to mass transit in the city – “every train but the F,” as my landlord proudly said when I was renting an apartment near there in 2002. Traffic, already hellish on Flatbush Avenue, may get still more hellish as several thousand fans converge at game time.

So there are downsides to the new Brooklyn, but there is the boom – and beyond all the economic data, there is a very human pull to the borough. In the world’s loneliest city, Brooklyn offers community. Everybody can find community in Brooklyn: the body-fluid artists in Bushwick, the Chinese restaurant workers in Sunset Park, the die-hard Marxists in the Park Slope food co-op. No matter how foreign or fringe you are, the borough has a support group for you.

One reason for this is that Brooklyn is famously a series of neighborhoods. Another has to do with the physical structure of that emblem of Brooklyn – the brownstone. Adjoining rear gardens facilitate communal interaction, gardening tips exchanged over a backyard fence. Maybe what attracts the hipsters to Brooklyn isn’t just cheap rents. It’s the closest they can get to the families they left behind, in Kansas, in Vermont, in Tokyo.

For me, Brooklyn became a neighborhood one steamy August night in 2003. It was the night of the great Northeastern Blackout. In Park Slope, volunteers were out directing traffic at every intersection, even if the drivers laughed at them and zoomed past. Other Brooklynites shared phones and flashlights, or helped the elderly down dark stairwells.

As night fell, the texture of the city changed. The street lamps were out, and people strolled about with flashlights and lanterns. There was a bright white moon high above the city competing with the red glory of Mars, the warrior planet, which hadn’t been so close to Earth in 60,000 years. The ancient Brooklyn tradition of stoop-sitting enjoyed a sudden revival.

At midnight, the bars were still dispensing ice for our whiskeys. We took our drinks out on the sidewalk; we’d make our own laws tonight. Everyone’s face was illuminated in flickering, flattering light, and everybody looked beautiful and desirable. The floodlit megalopolis was transformed into a series of villages lighted by millions of small lights, in whose glow Brooklyn was revealed to be what we had forgotten it really is: an impossibly romantic, a 19th-century city.

Suketu Mehta is the author of “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found” (Knopf).

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