Brooklyn Boro

‘The New Brooklyn’ looks at the borough’s transformation

Brooklyn BookBeat

April 10, 2017 By Ellyn Gaydos Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Author Kay Hymowitz. Photo by Mi Manning
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“The New Brooklyn: What it Takes to Bring a City Back” by Kay Hymowitz begins with the Dutch colonization of New York and follows waves of immigrants and industries as they reshaped Brooklyn’s history. In a new age of deindustrialization and what Hymowitz terms “creative destruction,” Brooklyn has gone through yet another transformation, one that has brought gentrification and opportunity with mixed reactions. She answered questions about her research and writing by email. Kay will appear at St. Francis College on April 11 at 11:10 a.m. to discuss “The New Brooklyn” with fellow author, Fred Siegel.

 

Eagle: You’ve lived in Park Slope since the ’80s. When did your idea for this book begin to take shape?

Kay Hymowitz: When my older children went to overnight camp in the late 1980s, their mostly suburban bunkmates would look at them with horror when they said they were from Brooklyn.  One asked, “Brooklyn?! Have you ever been shot?” Fast forward ten years or so. They’re in college and now everyone they meet is envious that they live in Brooklyn and wants to move there after they graduate. 

This didn’t just reflect a change in Brooklyn’s fortunes; it was a transformation in cultural attitudes, and it fascinated me. The Manhattan Institute where I work focuses on urban issues. I knew that many cities were experiencing similar changes: huge declines in crime, a growing population of professional and creative young people, a lively food and coffee culture, as well as soaring rents, an affordable housing crunch and displacement. Given its international status as the capital of urban cool, Brooklyn could offer a good window into this dramatic shift at the same time that it would give me a chance to explore my adopted home more deeply.

 

Eagle: You reference many works of fiction in your history of the borough. I couldn’t help but think of Mark Helprin’s “A Winter’s Tale in relation to the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. What is your favorite novel about Brooklyn?

KH: I have a very hokey answer to that question: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”  Don’t groan.  The book, which takes place in pre-hipster, pre-artist, pre- Latino and Hasidic Williamsburg, is a wonderful portrait of immigrant life in early 20th-century Brooklyn with all its miseries and aspirations.  I loved researching that period for “The New Brooklyn.” Betty Smith gives it a human face.   

 

Eagle: You mention stoop culture in Brooklyn, citing newcomers’ desire for private space over public recreation. Do you think something is lost when people have the money to be less mutually dependable?

KH: Without a doubt, something is lost, though we should be careful not to romanticize it too much.  Compared to our own highly individualistic time, immigrant working-class culture was neighborly and communal. People belonged to parishes and lived on blocks where they knew each other’s families and roots. Even as late as the early ’80s when I first moved to Park Slope, we had regular block parties, my kids actually threw footballs around on the street, played sidewalk games and walked to a local public school every morning.  

But tight-knit communities can be small-minded places. People passing the time with neighbors on their stoops are often gossiping and judging other people’s habits.  They’re home more in part because they don’t work at interesting jobs that keep them out of the house for long hours nor do they travel very much. Their kids had a more vibrant neighborhood life than kids today, but they were also more provincial and less accepting of outsiders.   

 

Eagle: In your section on Williamsburg, you credit the growing commercial viability of art with changing the area in a kind of impoverished creative free-for-all. Do you think it is easier to be an artist now than it was 20 years ago?

KH: If you’re talking about artists in New York City, then the answer is “not if you need a lot of space.”  More generally, the answer is emphatically “yes.” First, artists have many more creative outlets than they did several decades ago.  The internet has multiplied the number of occupations for creative people and made it cheap to market their art to a much wider audience.  Second, artists have more cultural power in our more educated, well-traveled society.  The middle-class has become extraordinarily design-conscious in their clothing, their children’s clothing, their furniture, their everyday housewares, the places where they buy their coffee and buy their groceries.  Shopping for a pair of scissors or a baby’s bib is now an aesthetic journey. Educated Americans revere creativity, individualism and self-expression; artists epitomize those values.

 

Eagle: You use Bed-Stuy as an example of an area that is attracting gentrifiers but still home to crime and inequity. The discomfort with gentrification, among other things, seems like a despair over racial inequality that isn’t solved by proximity to money. Can you speak to this? 

KH: Actually, Bed Stuy’s story complicates our expectations about race and gentrification.  Most of the whites moving to the neighborhood are clustered in census areas near Williamsburg; in other words, they are Hasids, not hipsters.

Yes, there are gentrifiers as we ordinarily think of them: [a] professional and creative class whites who have bought some of the area’s wonderful homes from older black families who have moved south or passed away.  But many of Bed-Stuy’s gentrifiers are black.  They are recent college graduates, artists, young entrepreneurs opening shops and restaurants on Lewis Avenue.

In addition, Bed-Stuy has gained a significant number of Hispanics over the past decade or so.  Diverse as the neighborhood has become, it remains predominantly black. Despite the growing number of black gentrifiers, sadly, as in nearby Brownsville and East New York, most of Bed Stuy’s blacks are multigenerational poor living in public or subsidized housing, going to failing schools, and coping with violence that still plagues their sections of the neighborhood.

 

Eagle: In your book, you argue gentrification can help poor and disenfranchised residents of a neighborhood. Why do you think this idea has been so hard for people to believe?

KH: I would put it differently.  Gentrification brings lower crime, better services and more orderly streets. Researchers have found that long time neighborhood residents often benefit from that. [But some can] no longer afford the rents and others simply resent the changes brought by the newcomers.  

We need to be able to talk about gentrification in a more dispassionate, practical way.  For too many people, it’s a simple social justice issue, another instance of American racism, the power of 1-percent developers and their friends in government and the prevalence of capitalistic greed. That means it is always a bad thing requiring unilateral opposition — no nuance allowed.

That kind of thinking is not only incomplete; it’s counter-productive. Gentrification isn’t going away. “The New Brooklyn” shows that these changes are happening in advanced economies everywhere; even in progressive cities like Stockholm and Copenhagen you’ll find working class decline, a dearth of affordable housing, a successful professional, hipster and artist class and expensive coffee. The challenge is to figure out how to make the massive economic shift that has given us gentrification work for the less educated.

Keep in mind also, that as difficult as the challenge is, the alternative — a more equal city with no development and static housing costs — is worse. Brooklyn has inequality, but left-behind cities like Milwaukee or Dayton have more concentrated poverty, less opportunity and little money for services.  We haven’t been very good at solving the problems introduced by gentrification; we also haven’t been successful at addressing concentrated urban poverty, something that’s been troubling our cities for far longer.

 

Eagle: How do immigrant groups from early Irish and Italians to African Americans from the South and later Chinese and West Indians cycle through processes of boom and bust in Brooklyn and interact with the change gentrifiers have brought to Brooklyn?

KH: New York City’s immigrants tended to cluster in monocultural enclaves. That’s still the case today.  Go to Sunset Park’s Chinatown and you’ll run into lots of immigrants, especially older ones, who can’t speak English and rarely leave the area unless it’s to go to Manhattan’s Chinatown. Same thing for Brooklyn’s Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Mexicans. They usually work in low-skilled, service-sector jobs where they may interact with gentrifiers, but they tend to socialize and live with people like them.

The big question is whether Brooklyn can offer the same upward mobility for today’s immigrants that it did for those of the past.  Yesterday’s Irish, Italian and Jewish newcomers were uneducated, but they could find work in Brooklyn’s numerous factories, warehouses and piers. They could feel fairly certain that their children were going to schools where they were learning the skills that would lift them at least into the lower-middle class, or perhaps even higher. Today, the factory and waterfront jobs are largely gone, the schools are at best uneven and the future for the next generation, far more uncertain.


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