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Kay S. Hymowitz
How Brooklyn Got Its Groove Back « Back to Story

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This sounds so much like the transformation of Stoke Newington in London as to be uncanny. Once it was the home to such as Richard Price, Mary Woolstonecroft, Daniel Defoe, Edgar Alan Poe...and visited by Franklin, Jefferson, John Adams...

...oh, just follow that link for a start.

Post-war there was a period of decline. The large, impressive properties had fallen into a state of neglect, it was the stamping ground for such undesirables as the Kray twins and the area was distinctly run down when I moved in. Although I can't claim to be wholly responsible for its change in fortune, its renaissance did seem to coincide with my arrival. Slowly at first, and then more rapidly as people were priced out of next-door Islington, the area began its era of gentrification. Now, when you tell somebody that you live in Stokey, instead of "eugh, hard luck", you get "oh, very nice too".
I've got history in Brooklyn going back to 1915. Grandparents lived in a rowhouse on Columbia Place.Grandpa worked the docks for ages as did some uncles. Godfather worked at Sucrest. We lived at the Riverside Apartments in the 50's and on Atlantic Avenue and Henry St. from the 60's to the 80's. Went to St. Charles Borromeo on Sydney Place. It always seemed to me that gentrification is what started the change of our neighborhood's identity.With this change came the loss of something special that we had, a real close-knit community. I sometimes pine for an earlier time and realize that all that is left is geography.
Check out their yoga classes here
no doubt that brooklyn is much nicer now! Great post :)
Fabulously-interesting & informative piece! And I've never even been to Brooklyn ... Or to New York for that matter.
Thanks, Kay.
This is a great article about the history of Brooklyn. But I do have an issue with one part of the article where you paint the immigrant influx of the 1960s with a very broad stroke. All of the black and Hispanic immigrants who came to NYC in the 60's were not all unskilled workers, however there was a lot of competition for the few "low skill" union jobs in NYC at that time. And because of racial discrimination, the predominately white foremen and supervisors (sons of Irish, Italian, Eastern European immigrants who had come to NYC a generation before) who did the hiring were more likely to hire other whites than these more recent brown immigrants.

"Lax crime-fighting and overgenerous social programs accelerated Brooklyn’s decline. By the 1960s, tens of thousands of blacks and Hispanics migrating from the South and Puerto Rico had arrived in the borough, almost all of them uneducated and unskilled and hence unprepared for an economy bleeding low-skill jobs. No-questions-asked welfare policies and the easy availability of heroin led many of these new arrivals to become dependent on government, dangerous, or both."
Not just the large cities but a lot of the mid size cities in the US have their problems as well. Take Anaheim Ca which the Brookings Inst in 1990 rank as high income now is mid income. The area around Disneyland is mainly hispanic and about 80 percent of the students receive the free and reduce lunch program. The good aerospace jobs left about 20 years ago and Anaheim is a resort town that's why a lot of hispanics legal or illegal came to it. The Hills area is where the population is mainly white and upper-class.
I live in Long Island December 19, 2011 at 7:30 PM
What was the point of writing this article? To show that those who struggle in this country (which often times have happened to be people of color) are "economoic losers" as you say. The majority of the people who live in East New York, Brownsville and the "transitional" parts of Buswhick and Bed-Stuy want exactly the same things you want out of life; happiness, safety and respect. Our duty, as the more priviledged, is to reach out and lend a helping hand to our fellow "brooklynites' across the way. Volunteer, Mentor, something and get involved. The "economic losers" are worthy of that. And trust me, being well off and living in brooklyn doesnt make you "in" or "cool". Afterall, it isnt heaven.
I found this article to continually make specific claims but only provide very general evidence. The section on the decline of brooklyn is particularly marred.

You blame "Lax crime-fighting and overgenerous social programs" for helping bring down brooklyn. Do you have any statistics from the city for this? You go on to talk about a migration of black and latinos who were uneducated and unskilled. to brooklyn. And, again, without any data, argue that they took a lot of easy welfare and drugs.

Think if I made the same statement: in the early 60s there were a lot of white females in queens whose parents largely came from foreign countries. They were mostly uneducated and unskilled, so they probably took a lot of easy welfare and drugs.

There were tons of uneducated, first generation women in queens in the sixties, but did rely on welfare and drugs? I do not know because I do not have the data to support the claim, and if anyone asked me to prove it , I could only provide anecdotal stories.

You go on to write about how these cracked out, poor minorities started to show up into working-class and wealthier areas, and at the beginning of 1990, Brooklyn "came awfully close to becoming an East Coast Detroit."

Again, you provide no qualifications whatsoever--AH! there are drug zombies in Dyker Heights?--but even more troubling: it took me five minutes to check the Census data which showed a 3.1 increase in population for brooklyn between 1980 and 1990. So, Brooklyn is turning into detroit: people are moving there and it has over 2 million residents?

"By the mid-1990s, the dealers and robbers and worse had been moved along, either to upstate prisons or to less antisocial activities." That's it? Oh, all these people were probably arrested or just started doing something else. That passes for a cogent argument worthy enough to published in a journal? (By the way, I can easily cop weed, coke, acid, shrooms, or anything else in Park Slope, right off the 5th ave. you used to live on.)

I can go on and on.

Focusing on poor people in a couple of areas and either exaggerating or making unqualified assertions seems like a grasping attempt just to point the finger at social policies you do not like, and people of color. You stretched tiny little stories into a huge narrative, and made many assertions without supporting them quantitatively or qualitatively. This was a poor article.
Excellent article, Kay. A smooth transition cramming 1.5 centuries of local history into a comprehendable economics lesson.
I found this article to be an interesting summary but lacking nuance. Many other commenters have pointed out specifics so I won't repeat, but I'll just say that I question the writer's ability to distinguish cause and effect throughout the piece. And focussing on a few neighbourhoods to characterize an entire borough is misleading as well. Hipster neighborhoods are clustered, as are the blighted ones, but that polarity leaves out the many solid middle class neighborhoods. Finally too many generalizations add to my sense that her conclusions are unsupported. The commuters all ride their bicycles to work? Sure, bicycle commuting is a tiny trend nationally and it shows up most in the near Brooklyn neighborhoods or Greenwich Village, but Hymowitz makes it sounds as though it's the norm. That's hardly the case. Not every new business is funded by parents without regard for profits either. To take a small trend and make it represent the omajority or cultural reality is sloppy and misleading, and it makes me question the reliability of the article as a whole.
while many facts were relayed in your article..and very educational...I found one thing disturbing. African Americans you referred to as "black" should have at minimum been capitalized "Black". In addiction your article made no reference to the true cultural contributions made by African Americans to Brooklyn. if you deem it relevant to factor in the negative influences you should also mention other cultures as a real Brooklynite knows nothing evolves without involvement.
I still respect your love for our borough but still believe you should do more research before it becomes black & white.
This article is overly ambitious and inadequately researched. It is filled with inaccuracy and over simplified explanations for complex things. I agree with the critique of many of the earlier comments.

By the way, San Francisco events regularly have valet bike parking, including every Giants home game.
Yawn. Another writer who thinks the story of Brooklyn stops at the southern border of Prospect Park.
I lived and grew up on that block in park slope and I knew the Lehane's. I resent the way Ms. Hymowitz describes the people who lived in the neighborhood back then. Also, having lived in park slope my whole life, in my experience, park slope was never as bad as she describes.
Police reform is not likely to have driven the mid-90s crime drop, unless almost every major American city instituted the same reforms simultaneously.

Overgenerous welfare benefits of the 60s did not suck in Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and other migrants/immigrants. The even more miserable living conditions back home did.

Heroin did not make these unemployed people dangerous. The high per-unit cost of drugs (cocaine predominantly over all others) made street dealing very lucrative, and more worth risking murder and death over.

The main cause of collapse of the working and middle class residents of these neighborhood back then was the collapse of manufacturing jobs in the city. Jobs that could sustain their livelihoods and neighborhoods grew increasingly rare. They fled elsewhere, encouraged by the city's financial collapse. We went from 1,000,000 manufacturing jobs in the early 60s to a crushing 200,000 just 15-20 years later. There are 100,000 today.

Redlining and FHA rules created the foundation for the segregated, persistent concentrations of poor education, poor finances and poor infrastructure all these years saw.

Post-war urban renewal/rehabilitation ensured all that new construction didn't make a dent in overall housing units when we were still doing Big Construction. If anything, the overall number contracted. Something like only 60,000 housing units were net-added in 35 years, give or take, of housing construction since the 60s. This legacy, for a number of reasons, more or less continues as we've only produced the same amount in the past 20. Complaining about the high-cost of housing in this city is practically a religious mantra. Real estate owners prefer high per-unit value housing, and the laws encourage their advantage. The zoning changes under Bloomberg have slightly improved the situation, but it's just happening at the margins.

We need 300,000 more housing units in 20 years if we're ever going to change the dynamic going on in the city. The only thing that's 'saved' us temporarily is that the population has been decreasing or stable until the last 10 years. Now, it's stable and increasing. The demand is there. The people want in. The city has a real future over the next 60 years, regardless of how the country goes with its financial services reform. But we're not going to change the tune of our lamentations by building a net 1-2,000 apartments every year. We need to think big, improve mass transit, manage anti-dense housing sentiments and continue to improve our education system.
Ms. Hymowitz,

Brooklyn always had a groove, unfortunately people like you never realized that. Its sad to hear people like you and your ilk talk about Brooklyn as if it was some cesspool before young white midwestern imports showed up and overpaid for uncreative, uninteresting, and cheaply made housing. Its true that there are consistently bad neighborhoods (Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky's Murder Inc organization was founded in Brownsville - an area still teeming with crime). Even when NYC wasn't the safest, areas like Park Slope, Clinton Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Windsor Terrace, Sheepshead Bay, Bay Ridge and many other enclaves kept Brooklyn vibrant, livable and community oriented. In fact, much of Brooklyn's uniqueness has been destroyed by this new influx.

I also take exception to your recurring ideology that Blacks and Latinos are nothing but poor, uneducated, welfare laden trolls that contribute nothing to society. Please awaken from your doldrum... most of the employees of Brooklyn's bustling pre and post war manufacturing center were Blacks from the South - and the vast majority of these men, with their wives and children, people lived in housing projects. (Only when this economic engine deteriorated did the downward spiral of the black economic and social class take place). Immigrant Caribbeans saved Flatbush Ave after the bulk of Italians left, buying property and starting businesses. Immigrant Africans opened up restaurants and shops in corridors like Fulton St in Bed-Stuy and Pitkin Ave in East New York when most others wouldn't dare. Latinos set up businesses in South Williamsburg and Bushwick. Just because these places didn't attract or weren't set up by upper income whites doesn't mean that they should be valued any less than the new coffee shops and other "yuppie" and "hipster" ventures that now live beside or have replaced the old dives.
Hipsters are entrepeneurial? Even the most severely brain damaged individual will take one look and realize the insanity of having 8 coffee shops on one block.

These attention starved adult children embrace the entrepeneurial spirit because there's no risk involved when your parents just cashed in a chunk of their retirement fund to pay for little Caleb's urban adventure. Every goofball business idea has to be fun, quirky,artsy and whimsical. heaven forbid some fedora clad film theory major puts that 120K degree to use and opens a hardware store.

Brooklyn character was made on the backs of long term businesses run by hard working people. Businesses who dealt in services and goods that people needed. honestly - how many vegan burrito food trucks can one community support? and if things are so bustling, why are there scores of adults crammed into coffeeshops at 1:30 in the afternoon? where's there money coming from?

The new businesses will not last. The whole thing is a ponzi scheme - an art school house of cards. The only reason there aren't overwhelming vacancies is because there's another trustafarian in line waiting to start yet another venture with "Brooklyn" in it's name.

Brooklyn used to be a solid community - full of hardworking individuals. now it's nothing more than a potemkin village - "West World" for hipsters. High prices does not make for a great neighborhood. I never feared for my life when I lived in Brooklyn (born and raised) because we took careof my own. The current crop of beta males can;t even hold on to their i Phone for a week before it gets stolen ontheL train.

You never crossed Prospect Park to find the
"VICTORIAN VILLAGE" of Prospect Park South and Ditmas Park.
Bernardo T. Alcudia November 29, 2011 at 6:36 PM
I witness the transformation as a telephone man in North Brooklyn for thirty years. I hope it keeps progressing, for the sake of future generation.
Thea author misses a hugely important point: The Brooklyn that was intersting is gone. Hipster neighborhoods in Billyburg are no different than ones in Austin or Seattle: lots of transient bored youth with little real social connections and an interest in liberal politics and smugness. In the Brooklyn of my youth, one had not only deep connections TO the neighborhood, but connections IN it- lots of family and friends who knew and looked out for you. College and post-college scenes with bars and hook ups joints are fun. But they ain't Brooklyn.
This article neglects to mention that many of Brooklyn's wealthiest neighborhoods - including Dyker Heights, Gravesend, Mill Basin, Manhattan Beach and Bay Ridge are populated not by yuppie/hipster gentrifiers, but by a mix of multi-generational native Brooklynites and newer immigrants. Not to mention that many natives and immigrants are(surprise!) both creative and educated.
News from Bensonhoist, Brooklyn USA
"JacquesChirac" wrote: "Brooklyn came back because its nicest neighborhoods were never blighted by "the projects", which cannot be gentrified. If you want to see what Nelson Rockefeller was capable of, take a stroll on Columbus from 90th street upwards. You might as well be in suburban Moscow."

Not sure what your point is. In fact, there are public housing projects smack in the middle of gentrified Brooklyn -- between Boerum Hill and Park Slope. This hasn't kept the streets of brownstones around them from becoming highly sought-after. As for Columbus in the 90s, are you talking about the massive middle-class Mitchell-Lama "projects"?
Guiliani doing the crime thing is myth. Not at all true. Economics explains gentrification, pure economics.
I grew up in Park Slope Brooklyn in the 50's and 60's. This article is so encouraging. I would love to move back!
Interesting article. I lived in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn in the 1980s. Park Slope's gentrification was underway, with the problems you note. 5th Avenue in that area (where we went to church) was still a mess. But Bay Ridge was (and I assume still is) solidly middle-class, although it's a fascinating mix of Scandinavians, Irish, Greeks, Palestinians, and Chinese. Sometimes I miss New York, but you've got it right. Brooklyn really hasn't transformed. Only a few hipster neighborhoods have. The rest is still largely poor.
"Instead, the borough is a microcosm of the nation’s “hourglass economy.”"

This is not correct. The nation as a whole has an evenly downward sloping income distribution. Based on census data:

The slight uptick at the end of that chart reflects only the fact that it does not count higher than $250,000 and thus cannot parcel out the 4 percent of households in that group over the full range of their distribution.
This article demonstrates a prevailing nostalgia for when Brooklyn was the province of white ethnics, who did honest work in manufacturing, shipping, or other industrial trades. (This is too simple and excludes much, as multiple commenters have rightly pointed out, given Brooklyn's remarkable history.) The commonplace view is that "hipsters" and other educated white young people from Ohio have displaced the established groups, themselves admittedly from somewhere else. The article seems to lament that manufacturing jobs will not return to their previous numbers even while exhibiting an awareness that the world has changed. While there will always be uneducated white people, never again will we see such a mass of them dominate as they once did. I'm always interested to see especially how highly educated Fox News contributors will make fun of educated people, people of color and immigrants. This mostly unsourced blog entry makes too many sweeping generalizations to be useful in an academic or public policy context. Statements like "Walentas owned so much of a neighborhood that he could play God" show an author who is uninterested details or is in a hurry. Walentas, it is said, "took a look" and then bought eleven buildings, as if on a whim. I'd bet the story is more interesting than that. There is too much to take on here on one deadline.
"the college-educated are doing interesting, motivating work"

What exactly are they doing? It was my impression most of these kids are supported by their parents back in Ohio.

Take this precious, special snowflake:

Alexandra here does freelance graphic design work because she can't find a permanent job. She can, however, afford rent in North Brooklyn? Hmm...

It's good for the city to see property tax revenue increase, and you can always rely on City Journal to lick Bloomberg's boots. It's less clear whether it is good for the city to have an entire borough of spoiled, clueless, unemployable fashion victims.
"Try our Soy Oatmeal" on the blackboard in the hipster photo is an unimaginably perfect touch. Very interesting piece.
Like my parents, I was born and raised in Windsor Terrace and I have always lived in Brookyn. I have experienced the highs of my childhood the 50's through the 70's, the lows from the late 70's to the early 90's and now the highs (well mostly) of today. Even though the avenues were somewhat abandoned--Fifth, Flatbush, parts of 7th--the homes on the side streets were not. The Irish, Italians, Poles remained, like Mrs. Lehane. Sure many fled and so did their children, my friends. But some that frequented the smokey bars of Farrell's or Snooky's refused the allure of the suburbs despite the constant remarks about how clean, safe Long Island is--you should see the schools, they have real baseball fields. And they stayed for simple reasons: family, friends and church. They loved living near a sibling, loved seeing neighbors daily who they knew since birth, and, most importantly, loved attending Mass at Holy Name or St. Savior's or the other churches which were the centers of their lives.
Excellent piece. But it fails to stress the absolutely torrid pace of 1980s gentrification. Following the monumental crash in home values after 1987, it took 10-15 years for prices to go back up in real dollars to where they had been pre-crash. In other words, gentrification was not driven by the crime reduction. The two most intensive decades of gentrification in the city's history were the 1920s (mostly Manhattan but on its way to Brooklyn before the '29 crash put an end to the good times) and 1980s (in which Brooklyn was a full participant). Still, this is probably the best essay-length summary/analysis of Brooklyn's (or part of Brooklyn's) resurgence that I have read.
I'm surprised to see a self-described conservative paper endorsing the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Sure, the LPC helped Mr. Walentas' company, however it surely increased real estate prices for the remainder of Brooklyn residents by arbitrarily restricting housing supply. I'd hope that a paper like City Journal would recognize the inherent market failure associated with a government body protecting Mr. Walentas' investment.
Cassandra Clarke-Belgrave November 28, 2011 at 4:34 PM
What would be the race of your "educated middle-class couples" that lived along side of the Irish, Italian and Puerto Rican immigrants? What about the former Black Slaves? Or the Free Blacks that have lived in New York City since Dutch occupation? My parents bought a brownstone on Greene Avenue around 1947. My Father was a Veteran and worked as an electrician at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. My Mother was a school teacher from Georgia who did not have the credentials to teach in NYC but she was not uneducated and neither were my Father's and Mother's 22 combined sisters and brothers. My parents were not the "exception". Your article is insulting to Blacks from the South and you should apologize for: 'almost all of them uneducated and unskilled and hence unprepared for an economy bleeding low-skill jobs'. Brooklyn has always been "cool" with and without educated middle class couples. Question: were the Irish, Italian and Puerto Rican immigrants grouped as couples?
I agree with the previous poster, but for one thing. Park Slope and Williamsburg are now homogenous based on economic and political sensibilities instead of ethnic ones. As a boy, what is now "South slope" had Italian, Irish and Polish churches in a 5 block area. One knew when crossing an avenue that the neighborhood's flavor had changed. Now it is poltics and culture- bike lanes, food coops, etc that mark a place. Yet, for all this, Brooklyn has a two Republican members of Congress, a Republican state senator, and enclaves like Gerritsen Beach that won't fade away like the old timers in the article.
The author misses two huge factors. First, housing prices priced out young families from the neighborhoods that didn't do down in the '60's and '70's. Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, Windsor Terrace, Marine Park became too pricy for the locals to stay put. An exodus to Staten Island, New Jersey, Westcheter, Rockland, etc ensued. The second is the changing of immigration laws in the '60's. Brooklyn was ethnically marked. An influx of huge amounts of people from the Caribean resulted in changing realities. Flatbush changed in 10 years. Park Slope and Williamsburg are now like suburbs- the stratification is economic instead of ethnic.
There is a British comedy sitcom called ‘Rev’ staring the actor Tom Hollander about a church of England priest who becomes a vicar of an inner city church having formally lead a church in the English countryside. Most of the series deals with all of the dilemmas a liberal leaning vicar would face, when dealing with a complex, apathetic and socially deprived community. Although the vicar is very well meaning and often has the local crack head or alcohol turn up at all hours, his voiceover indicates his true thinking. Although the vicar is stuck between his social conscious as a ‘man of god’ and the realities of the street his goodness always shines in the end. In other words our ‘Rev’ or reverend is a man of action not just deeds. The problem I have with this article is that many of these ‘entrepreneur’ hipsters who move into neighbourhoods such as Brooklyn are in my opinion just as mercenary as those bankers they say they despise. i live in an affluent area of London UK yet next to this affluence is poverty. Although this area of London (Notting Hill) is ethnically diverse, many families live in a ‘wealth bubble’ and do not actively engage in the community. No one wants crime and other social ills in their community, and its good that some areas can undergo regeneration. However merely buying up a property in former ‘problematic’ communities and berating those that for whatever reason do not live up to social norms is not conducive to social cohesion. You start of one of your paragraphs mentioning that dockworkers once were housed in the projects, in the same paragraph you say that African Americans and Hispanics and the ‘nonworking, welfare-dependent, and increasingly dysfunctional poor. I think I know what you are getting at, in other words those African –Americans and Hispanic were never part of the hard working immigrant class.
New York City is still the place to be. Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg saved New York City from the fate of once-great cities like Detroit and Newark by greatly reducing crime and building the city's economy for the 21st Century. I don't see any new Giulianis or Bloombergs on the city's political horizon. At this point it appears that the next NYC mayor will need the imprimatur of the New York Times editorial board and the blessing of Al Sharpton to even be considered for the mayor's office.
That does not bode well for New York City as the local, state and national economies head into unprecedented and uncharted waters.
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Very interesting. The Ansonia was not the first condo, the Atlas Abrasive factory was when we bought our place in 79/80.
It hasn't been the same since 'The Dodgers' (dem bums) left!
Interesting reading!
Fascinating article for a long-time LOs Angeles resident who lived in New York City for one year after law school while he clerked for a federal judge in Manhattan. The City continues to fascinate me!
Brooklyn came back because its nicest neighborhoods were never blighted by "the projects", which cannot be gentrified. If you want to see what Nelson Rockefeller was capable of, take a stroll on Columbus from 90th street upwards. You might as well be in suburban Moscow.
I drove from Indianapolis to visit my mother in New Jersey a few years back. I took the wrong highway and ended up in Brooklyn. My lasting memory of that brief drive through the city is that I was surrounded on all sides by beautiful, Italian men in their cars,of course. It was quite fun to be lost that day, even with three kids in the car. (Very interesting article.)
My old Newark neighborhood will not come back in
my lifetime. I miss the conveniences it gave the locals. Everthing was within walking distances and we knew each other on a first nane
basis. I was glad to read that parts of "old"
Brooklyn have come back, and hopefully the rest
of the Borough will have its resurgence soon.
I learned a lot about Brooklyn. Thank you for sharing some history. Regards, e
This article higlights the entrepeneurial good and the lingering, and some would say, increasingly bad of social welfare programs and their deleterious effects on the Borough. The way forward may not be industrail employment, but rather service employment via neighborhood services, social and health care related jobs. Brooklyn's industrial assets (roads, ports, utilities, non-union workers, local tax strucutre) may be too old to be efficinet for today's economic realities. Brooklyn is competing in a world economy now, not just a regional one. Re-use of indutrial/commercial buildngs makes sense for people looking ot make homes in the former industrial hubs of the borough. Neighborhood services need to sprout up in these new residential areas to service the new families. This will spur the economy for these much needed serviecs. It will not, however, bring back the industrial need for laborers those sames neighborhoods employed for so many years.