Brooklyn Boro

Tale of Two Downtowns: Historic, commercial, branding for Brooklyn, Manhattan

December 9, 2015 By Sam Anderson Special to the Brooklyn Eagle
This is City Point, a Downtown Brooklyn mixed-use mega-project under construction on a site bounded by DeKalb Avenue, Gold Street, Willoughby Street, Flatbush Avenue Extension and Fleet Street. Rendering by CookFox Architects
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When members of the Alliance for Downtown New York and the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership came together on Dec. 2 for a daylong summit called “Branding the New Downtown,” they brought with them both past success stories and enthusiastic visions of the future. Now linked for over a century by bridges and tunnels, the two vital downtown districts are the very essence of rebirth, in different ways.

The summit, which took place at Brooklyn’s attractive and spacious BRIC Arts Media House in the morning, and at the newly opened and ultramodern Lower Manhattan Headquarters in the afternoon, focused on an array of topics. But first and foremost among those topics was business. The center of attention seemed to fall squarely on how to attract more of it to these two downtown neighborhoods that have remained near the center of New York City life since the Dutch first clapped their eyes on this marshy island in 1624.  

Tucker Reed, president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, and Jessica Lappin, president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, presided over a panel of speakers, namely the owners of large and prosperous businesses. In doing so, they echoed a conversation that has been held by prominent New York capitalists, politicians and entrepreneurs hundreds of times for nearly 300 years. That conversation, and the story of Downtown Brooklyn and Downtown Manhattan, is a story of aggressive development and deliberate planning, based on great hopes for the future.

According to former Brooklyn Borough Historian John Manbeck, “Before this was one city, it was three cities.” He was referring to Manhattan, Brooklyn and Long Island City. Prior to the consolidation of 1898, each of these places had a mayor, a government, and its own post system, population and identity.  Those identities lined up in a way you might imagine they would: Manhattan was considered The City, or the center of business and culture. Brooklyn was on the fringes, and despite some development of its own, it was always seen as the baby brother. Nineteenth-century Queens was nothing more than a loose collection of villages, with rich farmlands and wild forests running north and east all the way to the tip of Long Island.  

Although much has changed since then, some things have remained the same, and today, we can understand the intense and relentless development of Manhattan compared to the relatively easy-going residential neighborhoods of Queens by looking at those very first colonists, the Dutch. Their surnames continue to grace our street signs. Their commercial ambition and revelrous attitude continue to inspire New York’s “work hard, play hard” mentality.

Unlike many European colonies in the New World, whose inhabitants were fleeing oppression and religious persecution, New Amsterdam was created entirely as a commercial trading post. The Dutch never harbored ambitions to settle permanently on the island. Though the fur trading industry they began on Governor’s Island and later expanded to Lower Manhattan was quite lucrative, Peter Stuyvesant knew they would not be able to occupy the territory peacefully for much longer. In 1664, Stuyvesant handed the colony over to the English without bloodshed, effectively cashing out while he still had the chance. But the fur industry created in partnership with the local Lenape natives set the tone for a region that would come to be dominated by commercial enterprise.

Worth mentioning in the history of downtown New York as a commercial trading center is the fact that at one time, it was home to one of North America’s largest slave markets, second only to Charleston, South Carolina.  The slave trade, which often gets downplayed in city history because of the relatively early (1799) passage of an abolition act, played an enormous role in bolstering the region’s trade capacity. This fact was re-emphasized in 1991 when the remains of 419 Africans, buried in the late 17th century, were discovered during the construction of an office building near Foley Square, just a couple of blocks away from the new Lower Manhattan Headquarters.

From this early colonial era through the revolutionary period, “Breuckelen,” as the Dutch named it, remained on the outskirts as a series of small farm and fishing villages punctuated by rich estates facilitated by land grants from the English aristocracy. According to Manbeck, “It was a rich man’s resort.”  Those of European decent who lived there inhabited lavish mansions and enjoyed access to the pristine woodlands, still inhabited by the Lenape, the Canarsie, the Gowanus and other members of the Algonquin tribes.  

Brooklyn settlement didn’t truly get started until 1814 when Robert Fulton and his famous steam ferry — with scheduled crossings that were not at whim of weather — allowed Manhattanites to access the neighborhood more easily. But Fulton’s Ferry was also an instance of deliberate strategic planning. Its operation was made possible through a lease provided by Brooklyn’s first real estate magnate, Hezekiah Pierrepont.  

Pierrepont purchased the original 60 acres that comprised Brooklyn Heights around 1802, and immediately set about turning a profit by manufacturing gin in a distillery he bought on Joralemon Street. Anchor Gin, as it was called, was a great success, and a precursor to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that New York would make in the alcohol industry in the coming years. But Hezekiah knew the value of his real estate investment, and once the transportation was in place, he set about developing it. Today, historians call Brooklyn Heights “America’s first suburb,” making Pierrepont America’s first suburban developer.

In 1816, Brooklyn Heights obtained a “village charter” from the State of New York. From that moment, and continuing to this day, the expansion has yet to cease. Pierrepont continued to recruit merchants and bankers from Manhattan, while competing landowners John and Jacob Hicks divvied up smaller lots in the neighborhood intended for the artisans and small traders who had already moved to the “village.”  

The next step in the development of a downtown that would eventually rival Manhattan’s was the construction of a number of public institutions to serve the burgeoning community. First came a series of libraries and exhibition spaces in the 1820s that would eventually form the Brooklyn Museum (established in its current location in 1897). City Hall was built in 1834 (currently Brooklyn Borough Hall), the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) came along in 1861, and then the network of Brooklyn Public Libraries, largely financed by Andrew Carnegie, and culminating in the construction of the Main Branch built on Grand Army Plaza in 1912.

Throughout this time period, development continued along the Brooklyn side of the East River, which possessed the natural advantage of deeper waters and therefore better ports than the Manhattan side. Along with ship-making and international commerce, beer became one of the most important industries to the borough, largely due to the influx of German immigrants from the city to the suburbs in the middle of the 19th century. This is considered the first major exodus from Manhattan to Brooklyn.

By the end of the 19th century, Brooklyn was growing faster than Manhattan and the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge was underway. Poor Jewish and Irish immigrants from the Lower East Side gradually moved over the bridge and tenement houses were built. The real estate industry was booming, and the word tenement was associated with “modern” at the time.

Says Manbeck, “Tenement buildings boasted central plumbing and indoor heating while the old Brooklyn mansions had fireplaces and outhouses.”  

The year 1908 brought the subway system, linking Brooklyn to Manhattan more directly than ever before, and prompting riders to coin the term “Brooklyn Crush,” their word for rush hour. Newspapers advertisements continued to pitch the neighborhood to business owners as a bustling downtown within easy reach of Manhattan.  Real estate agents today use this exact same pitch.

Despite all of this, Brooklyn was — and arguably still is — considered to be ancillary. Banks and financial firms, to name one of the dominant industries that made Lower Manhattan prosperous, may have purchased office space in this new and upcoming hub, but they were back offices.  The real headquarters remained on and around Wall Street until the electronic age.  

Today, as it has been for centuries, a new generation of entrepreneurs and companies is sprouting up in the city, while others continue to move their businesses here from outside. This new generation of businesses brings a new generation of land developers, real estate agents, urban planners, local politicians, school board members and activists who seek a voice in planning. These individuals have an opinion on how the city’s expansion should be managed.  

Among the major players influencing the direction of the two downtowns are the Alliance for Downtown Manhattan and the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. Each seems to have clear and similar goals in mind, and surprisingly enough, neither claims to be in competition with the other.

The Alliance and the Partnership are Business Improvement Districts, and therefore non-profit organizations. They don’t work for the government, but are obligated to maintain a number of services such as sanitation, graffiti removal, snow removal and public safety. In addition to those services, members of the Alliance and the Partnership are working tirelessly to draw new businesses to their respective downtown areas.

Jessica Lappin, former City Council member and president of the Downtown Alliance, speaks about the neighborhood like a child that has grown to adulthood. “We are the oldest neighborhood in the city,” she says, “and we’ve been through some tough times.” She’s referring to the 9/11 attacks, the financial crisis of 2008 and Superstorm Sandy — each of which affected the district disproportionately to the rest of the city, leaving it in a state of falling employment, shrinking residency and depleting optimism.

Despite this, the neighborhood has made a remarkable comeback and has even higher hopes for the future. According to Lappin, the population has grown robustly since 9/11, from 20,000 residents to the current population of 60,000. The Alliance also predicts that Downtown Manhattan will add 40,000 new private sector jobs between now and 2019. Going further, Lappin claims “60 percent of these jobs will be available to those without a college degree.”

Nicole LaRusso, the Alliance’s Senior Vice President of Planning and Economic Development, elucidates that astounding statistic from a couch in the chic and sophisticated Lower Manhattan Headquarters (LMHQ) on 150 Broadway, a collaborative workspace that opened in July. “Many of the jobs added will be in tech,” she says, “a field that draws many successful programmers and web developers who have never gone to college.” This is in addition to the porters, door men and women, and other staff to be employed by the building owners, as well as the retail, restaurant and nightlife workers that are expected to flock to the neighborhood in the coming years.

While LaRusso continued to speak about the exciting new companies and industries coming to the area, Tupac was playing on the speakers and a smartly-coiffed barista pulled espresso shots for members of the LMHQ while they put the space to use.  It’s undeniably well designed, and clearly focused towards attracting millennials, who pay $1,800 a year for 24-hour access to the space.

Riffing off the WeWork model, LMHQ favors open spaces and movability as opposed to closed offices or cubicles, and this design is intended to promote collaboration, cooperation and creativity — values considered essential to the success of tech and media startups, which seem to be at the forefront of the industries LMHQ is trying to attract.  One detail that jumps out is the walls themselves, which are covered in a special paint that allows one to drawn on them with markers.

LaRusso makes it clear, however, that unlike WeWork, LMHQ is a not a co-working space, but a collaboration space. We don’t rent offices, we provide additional work spaces outside of the office in a way that allows people to think creatively, share ideas, and network.”

Part of the reason for the success of the two downtowns in attracting new businesses has to do with the places people live and are currently moving to. “Brooklyn as a hub of art and creativity is a relatively modern phenomenon,” historian Manbeck says, “and it’s a huge factor in people’s decision to live and work in that borough.”  

Lappin and LaRusso say that during the middle of the century, the typical businessman worked in the city and commuted from the suburbs. The rise of the Midtown business district, a neighborhood that was described as “lifeless” during the panel discussion, became popular because of its proximity to the major hubs of public transit, which allowed people to commute to work from New Jersey, Westchester, or Connecticut.  Today, people are favoring the suburbs less, preferring to live in and commute from Brooklyn or the riverfront cities of New Jersey like Hoboken or Jersey City.  

Miguel McKelvey, co-founder of WeWork, who was among the panel speakers during the Branding the New Downtown summit, put it succinctly: “The entrepreneur’s dream of creating something from the ground up is about accessibility — it can’t be done from the suburbs.”

LaRusso corroborates this statement, saying, “The development of Brooklyn as a creative hub has a halo effect on Lower Manhattan. There is a synergy between the development of both.”  

Ah, Brooklyn. Still the younger “little brother” as far as Downtowns go. But anyone who hasn’t been in a coma for the past few years knows that Brooklyn as a place, a “once and future city,” is perhaps, at this moment, the strongest brand in the world.


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