Briefly, the lifecycle of many Brooklyn neighborhoods over the past 200 years goes something like this: Farmland controlled by Dutch settlers and worked by slaves slowly gives way to industrial businesses, worked by Brooklyn’s poor. The conditions and wages are typically terrible and there are no benefits. Wealthy Manhattanites move in create America’s first suburb, i.e., homes far from work. Once the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg Bridges make commuting possible for more people, a middle class moves into new row houses—Brownstones and Limestones were the McMansions of their day. At first, they were stunning and well made. Over time, they were built to be narrower and with lower build quality and inferior materials.
In 1904, subways are added to public transit options. Most Brooklyn homes remain intact for middle class commuters while Manhattan’s older homes are replaced by taller buildings for the wealthy.
After the first World War, millions of black U.S. citizens move from the rural South to cities in the North. This is known as the Great Migration. Neighborhoods in and around Downtown Brooklyn became almost exclusively black. Many worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which was segregated through WW II. Other neighborhoods in the south of Brooklyn are dominated by recent Italian and Jewish immigrants. After World War II claims the lives of countless breadwinners, poverty, gangs, street crime and organized crime all explode throughout Brooklyn. Bank redlining and the new Highway Act work in tandem to tear down Brownstones, displace residents, and disrupt communities in “blighted” neighborhoods.
As early as the mid-forties, young Manhattanites move in. Most are white, liberal, well-educated, and middle class. Many are outsiders—artists, musicians, and writers. Many are gay. They want to live among the working class and befriend black jazz musicians. (White Jazz enthusiasts of the forties were the original “hipsters”.) And they want to save old, beautiful buildings from the wrecking ball of eminent domain.
With a greater mixture of income levels and races, whole communities become less invisible. They build political clout and power where neither had existed. Public amenities improve, such as schools and garbage collection, and police take more of an interest in fighting crime. Businesses, restaurants and neighborhood pride all flourish. Property values go up, as does the cost of living and doing business.
As a result, many of the older residents can no longer afford to live in their “saved” neighborhood. Furthermore, after a neighborhood becomes more desirable, old buildings are torn down to make room for tall, luxury condos. The condo dwellers have less of an interest in the community and sometimes regard longtime residents as a nuisance. Brooklyn is more like Manhattan. Old timers lament the end of Brooklyn’s old charm and affordability. They leave New York for places like Boston and Atlanta.
The First Gentrifiers
Pioneering yuppies were the first to see the hidden value of the homes in Brooklyn Heights during the 1940s. The grand houses of the neighborhood had been abandoned by the wealthy elite decades earlier, then subdivided and crammed with low-income families. Each gentrifier could secure a small bank loan to buy an old building in disrepair at an obscenely low price, kick out the tenants and then restore it to its single-family origins and grandeur. Unlike those nearby, this neighborhood wasn’t redlined and the mortgage applicants were white.
It wasn’t until the ’50s that several Greenwich Village writers, artists and bohemians “discovered” the area. There were more street gangs in Brooklyn than anywhere else in the country before or since. Yet, for what a burgeoning writer might pay for a tiny studio apartment in the Village, he or she could get an enormous apartment in Brooklyn Heights with views of Manhattan and creative fuel right down the street.
Truman Capote would extoll the Heights’ virtues to the world in Holiday magazine, February 1959. (Excerpted below. Re-released with previously unpublished photos in this book.) In it, he talks about the famous writers and artists — and gentrifiers — who came before him. He wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s while renting two floors of a restored townhouse on Willow Street. Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller also moved in nearby and wrote their most famous works, inspired by their observations of working-class Brooklynites.
Preservation vs. Eminent Domain
As taxes, unemployment, crime, and drug usage increased from the fifties through the sixties across the country, brownstones in primarily black neighborhoods such as Bed-Stuy and Fort Greene were condemned by the local and federal government. Robert Moses had already “leveled the slums” in nearby neighborhoods. He invoked eminent domain to build massive highways through the outer boroughs, which would most benefit car owners who commuted en masse from Manhattan to the suburbs.
Community activism, at its height in the sixties, wouldn’t have it. Protestors would literally lock arms around a targeted building to prevent its destruction. In addition to local residents, many were preservationists who came in from other parts of New York City. Brooklyn Heights was the first designated historic district under the 1965 New York City Landmark Law. There are now 34 Historic Districts in Brooklyn.
The other big contributor to blighted neighborhoods was redlining — The practice of denying financial services, particularly mortgages, to residents in particular “inner city” areas deemed too high-risk for investment. This targeted black, Jewish and other immigrant communities most. When the GI Bill was created for soldiers returning from WWII, they were guaranteed zero-interest loans by the government to build a new life. But they couldn’t get loans for properties in redlined areas—over half of Brooklyn.
It was a national problem that grew out of the altruistic National Housing Act of 1934. Across the country, activists in urban areas started to combat redlining with the federal Civil Rights Act of 1968, and continued to do so locally in Chicago, Boston, and Milwaukee throughout the ’70s.
What’s Wrong with Gentrification?
In the first few decades of Brooklyn gentrification, new property owners were typically middle-class, liberal whites who could afford to buy these brownstones and restore them. They built alliances with their new neighbors to combat redlining and eminent domain. They also fought local political machines and organized crime syndicates, which were often one and the same. Neighborhoods became more integrated and diversified. Block parties happened with more frequency. Why would anyone have a problem with that?
One of Brooklyn’s greatest advocates is filmmaker Spike Lee. Many of his movies are filmed throughout the borough and his unique voice as a storyteller shines a light on lives seldom seen by the filmgoing public. He has tackled gentrification and race in Red Hook Summer, Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It, and his 1989 break-out film, Do the Right Thing, which has this (explicit) scene:
This movie takes place over the course of one very hot day in Bed-Stuy, when tempers are short and racial tensions are pushed beyond average levels.
When Spike Lee was asked about how he feels about the current state of gentrification at a 2014 Pratt Institute lecture, he referenced the lack of civility like that expressed by the white character in his 25-year-old film. He also argued that it’s “Christopher Columbus syndrome”—that white people claim to have discovered a land that was already populated by people of color. He said that black neighborhoods get better public facilities—like daily garbage removal, better public schools, and police protection—only once white people move in. And these children of the “white flight” suburbanites have no respect for the born-and-bred Brooklynites. Because the wealthy newcomers create an expensive, hostile environment for the old-timers, all but the wealthiest black people leave the city. Renters can’t afford it and homeowners sell their properties at a huge profit to buy new houses in the southern states that their ancestors fled about 100 years ago (known as either “reverse migration” or the “New Great Migration.”) In this post-gentrification Brooklyn, there’s another wave of white flight, as well.
A Tale of Two Neighborhoods
If there is a right way and wrong way to handle the inevitability of gentrification, we should probably look to the examples of Williamsburg and Downtown Brooklyn.
Williamsburg in the year 2000 was a very industrial area with terrible pollution, crime, and poverty. It was also easily accesible to Manhattan and had great views but it never had many brownstones or distinctive architecture worth preserving. Like many depressed areas, it was attractive to artists and musicians, who are generally poor but need large, affordable spaces to create. Once more and more famous artists cited Williamsburg as their creative headquarters, it became hip. Underground clubs, fashion shows and performances started popping up, and the New York media took notice. Local community groups emerged, like NAG—Neighbors Against Garbage, which successfully converted the north Brooklyn shore from dumping grounds to park areas. Manhattanites “discovered” that they could get much more for their money among the hipsters than they had among the elites, especially upper-middle class families. A million dollars would get you a studio in Manhattan or a 2-bedroom apartment in a brand new building with a gym, pool and 24-hour doorman in Williamsburg. You also got a huge property tax abatement. But what of the old residents who can’t afford a $1 million apartment?
With the new construction along the Williamsburg coast, builders could only build higher than the 6-story zoned limit if they built affordable housing in the same area. For all of those towers you see, there is a neighboring building with renters that are earning less money than those in the high-rise. The builders also are required to pay for the creation and maintenance of public waterfront parks and green spaces. Now Williamsburg is safe, it has high-end stores, most of the pollution has been cleaned-up. Unfortunately, many artists have had to move to more affordable neighborhoods. Williamsburg is far less hip but it’s not just for rich people. The median price for a Williamsburg home is $940,000. In Fort Greene, which is Downtown Brooklyn, it’s $1,166,000. If you have Netflix, Wyatt Cenac talks about the gentrification of Fort Greene in his comedy special, “Brooklyn.”
Downtown Brooklyn’s Fulton Mall and the Atlantic Terminal area were once world-famous black districts that fell on hard times. A concerted effort by realtors, city government, urban planners and local communities to rebuild and exceed their storied splendor went awry. The community groups wanted to ensure that some of the decades-old small businesses wouldn’t be forced out. They wanted assurance that residence of all income levels would have housing in the area. They wanted to retain the soul of the primarily black neighborhood. But the city government developed their own plan behind closed doors with the big real estate developers. There was no community oversight. Today, luxury high-rise condos and expensive chain stores have replaced affordable housing and the mom and pop shops. There’s a movie about it, “My Brooklyn.”
What Gentrification has become
Where Gentrification used to be about preserving old brownstones and outsiders building relationships in their new communities, it’s now more about corporations and real estate developers invoking eminent domain to build new, profitable buildings.
The Barclay Center is a good example of this. Jay Z was the public face of the Barclay Center during its development. He was a minority owner of the Brooklyn Nets and opened the stadium with eight sold-out concerts. He grew up poor in the nearby Marcy Projects and is now one of the wealthiest entertainers in the world.
It has been very divisive for Brooklyn residents. Some applaud the return of a Brooklyn pro sports team and a venue for arena-worthy concerts. They thought it would boost Brooklyn’s overall reputation and make their home more of a global destination. Others were forced out of their homes and dreaded the construction, added traffic and tourists (sorry!) Again, eminent domain used public funds to profit private third parties. There’s a movie about it, “Battle for Brooklyn.”
The occupants in the new luxury condo towers aren’t all white or middle class hipsters. They are successful, wealthy, multi-ethnic and multi-racial. Many are highly educated new immigrants. They are creatives and entrepreneurs with tech start-ups and innovative business disruptions. One of them is author Martin Amis, who sold his Cobble Hill brownstone to fellow ex-pat Brits and actors Rachel Weiss and Daniel Craig.
So who lives in those restored Brownstones and modernized landmarks? The same kind of people. Gone are the days where your skin color or gender would determine your ability to own a home and join a neighborhood. Now it’s primarily your net worth. Certainly, women and people of color still don’t enjoy earnings or power of white men in general, but the top 5% is more diverse than ever before.