City Journal editor Brian Anderson and contributing editor Kay Hymowitz discuss her new book, "The New Brooklyn: What It Takes to Bring a City Back," which chronicles the history of New York City's largest borough and its remarkable transformation from a symbol of urban decay by the mid-20th century to one of the most valuable and innovative environments in the world.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Not long ago the term Brooklyn was considered a synonym for urban decay.  During the second half of the 20th century, a nationwide crime wave, the crack epidemic, and economic changes forced many of Brooklyn’s residents out of their homes and into the suburbs of Long Island, New Jersey, and Westchester, among other locals.  Those who stayed behind watched as their once-safe and prosperous middle-class neighborhood turned dangerous and dilapidated.  Today, though, Brooklyn is a borough transformed, home to a growing class of young professionals, thriving immigrant communities, and thousands of new businesses.  Brooklyn is no longer a synonym for decay.  In fact, Brooklyn is booming.  Joining us on 10 Blocks to discuss this remarkable transformation and turnaround is Kay Hymowitz, author of a brand new book called The New Brooklyn: What It Takes to Bring a City Back.  Kay is a contributing editor of City Journal and the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.  Kay, thanks for joining us.

Kay S. Hymowitz: My pleasure.

Brian Anderson: Brooklyn is obviously enjoying a moment and it has been going on for some time now, but going back through the decades, when would you say was Brooklyn’s golden age?

Kay S. Hymowitz: Well, a lot of people look back on the, I would say, the late 1940s, 1950s, just after World War II - what some people think of as the Dodger, might think of as the Dodger era.

Brian Anderson: Before they decamped for Los Angeles.

Kay S. Hymowitz: Before they left for Los Angeles like so many other people have during the decades that follow in either Los Angeles or other easier locations.  So that was a time that, at least in retrospect - and it is always very hard to know just how much people are looking through rose-colored glasses.  But when you read memoirs, when you talk to old timers, they remember that time as one where Brooklyn had a great deal of esprit, there was a sense of possibility of camaraderie, of a distinct civic identity.  And, of course the jobs, industrial jobs, had yet to decline too much.  There actually already was a bit of a decline, even as of 1950.  But in general these were good times.  Now...

Brian Anderson: Who was living in the borough at the time?  What was the population like?

Kay S. Hymowitz: So most of Brooklyn was white ethnic.  Each of the neighborhoods had their own identity frequently defined by the ethnic or racial makeup of that neighborhood.  The names were a little different.  I mean some of the names we are familiar with now, Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, these were imaginations of the real estate industry later on when they realized they had a hot commodity that they could sell.  But at the time a lot of the Brooklyn that this is now being gentrified was called South Brooklyn, North Brooklyn, where Williamsburg, and Green Point, and the really hot areas are, was quite - very much working class.  It was still Italian, largely Italian at the time, and there were, especially in the 50s, more Hispanics moving in and blacks.  Brooklyn always had a black population.  It grew quite a bit after 1930, but in 1930 it was only about 1.4%, the borough was only about 1.4% black.  So you can see that it went up quite a bit until it became something a lot more on the order of 30%, 35%.  But by the 50s the black population was growing and there were a number of black neighborhoods.  But it was still predominately a white ethnic city.

Brian Anderson: And this began to change pretty dramatically in the 60s and the 70s as those ethnics moved out of the borough.

Kay S. Hymowitz: Right.

Brian Anderson: You do write about that in the book extensively.  Perhaps you could describe that a little bit.

Kay S. Hymowitz: So, I mentioned before the industrial jobs that had carried so many generations of immigrants towards the middle class, if not actually into the middle class, were leaving Brooklyn.  And they were leaving Brooklyn for a large variety of reasons.  And by the way, in this sense a lot of what happened to Brooklyn is reminiscent of what we are now hearing about in rural America, so influenced the election - 2016 election.  But at that time, around 1960, the jobs were leaving, there were many more opportunities for home ownership in the suburbs for whites, at any rate, and one of the things that I show in the book is that Brooklynites had always, since way before the time we’re talking about, moved further and further into the more rural areas of the borough to have more space, to have more greenery.  So it was logical that they would eventually move into the suburbs.  A lot of people blame federal...

Brian Anderson: Looking for bigger homes, bigger yards, and...

Kay S. Hymowitz: Looking for bigger homes.  That’s right.  That’s right.  And frankly, you know, an industrial city was not an altogether pleasant place to live regardless of crime.  But crime was also getting much worse by 1960.  By 1970 it was really quite a significant factor in people’s lives, so they left.  And then there was the racial tension, of course.  How much that had to do with crime, and how much it was pure racial animus is something that we could debate for a very long time.

Brian Anderson: What was the worst year, would you say, in Brooklyn’s post-war history, or at least the worst period?

Kay S. Hymowitz: I think I would say the 70s were the worst.  I have a chapter in the book on the neighborhood called Brownsville.  And it’s a fascinating history because it started as a slum, started as a Jewish slum at the turn of the century, of the 19th and 20th century.  And it had always been tough.  There had been a lot of Jewish mafia, sometimes referred to as the Kosher Nostra, living there and it was known as a tough area.  But by the 60s and 70s, and the whites were beginning to leave in large measure - the white Jews - because of the crime.  At that time it became so tough that Mike Tyson, when he moved from Bed-Stuy, which was no Eden itself...

Brian Anderson: Right.

Kay S. Hymowitz: Moved to Brownsville and he said as a - I think he was something like six years old, and he immediately felt that he was in much more dangerous territory.

Brian Anderson: Interesting.

Kay S. Hymowitz: The entire commercial street, Pitkin Avenue, really decayed.  There was no commerce moving in certainly and almost all of it was moving out.  Pete Hamill described it as block after block just being given over to the rats and wind.

Brian Anderson: Your subtitle of the book is What It Takes to Bring a City Back, and as we described in the opening and as anybody who has been to Brooklyn recently recognizes, the borough has really come back.  When did that process begin and what drove it?

Kay S. Hymowitz: There were signs very - even as things were going south.  You know, there were some very early signs even in the 60s and 70s.  When I moved there into Park Slope in ’82, it was still pretty much an ethnic, white ethnic neighborhood.  My next door neighbors were Irish with an accent, who you know, a couple who had run a boarding house in their house.  And that was the kind of thing you expected to see.  But already you began to see more and more educated young people, young families, and singles to a certain extent, moving into some of the brownstone areas of Brooklyn.  Why that happened is a story that I try to tell in the book.  It had a great deal to do with a massive shift going on the economy, from an industrial to a knowledge economy.  It also had to do with domestic changes that were related to that.  More and more women wanting to work even after they married and had children and they preferred not to have the commuting hour that their fathers maybe had had.  And there was also the fact that the job market in New York was beginning to - the white collar job market - was expanding.  And we saw some of that in the 80s.  It happened much more so in the 90s and then, of course, in the 90s we got Giuliani and a very, very significant decline in crime that I think lured a lot more of the middle class into the area.

Brian Anderson: Earlier you mentioned gentrification.  The term gentrification.  Many of the Brooklyn neighborhoods that you describe in the book have certainly experienced this.  Now, critics have called gentrification every name you can imagine - evil, racist, a new colonialism.  What is your view of gentrification as you lay it out in the book?

Kay S. Hymowitz: First of all I think we have to understand what it is.  And what it is is the movement of educated middle class back from where they used to go, the suburbs, into the cities, looking for a different kind of life than people in the suburbs had looked for.  It is something that is happening across developed economies.  This is not by any means unique either to Brooklyn, or even to Northern American cities.  It’s happening in places like, of course, like London, Amsterdam, Berlin, I could go on and on.  So it’s a very big macro phenomenon.  So that’s one thing to keep in mind because a lot of people see it as a purely, or as a predominately racial exercise.  It is not.  There were no blacks to push out, or very few, to push out in Berlin.  You know, it’s not...

Brian Anderson: They are gentrifying neighborhoods, yes.

Kay S. Hymowitz: Yeah, in those gentrifying neighborhoods.  So that’s not what’s going on.  What it is, is the movement, the mass movement, of this educated middle class, in many cases upper middle class, into the cities.  That has been very good for cities in many respects.  It has broadened the tax base.  It has made it safer, or helped to make it safer, the street safer.  It has added to the sense of urban vitality by bringing in all sorts of cultural institutions, and not to mention new businesses.  I mean we have seen a remarkable rise of entrepreneurship in my section of Brooklyn in particular.  These people, young people in particular, are opening restaurants, and boutiques, and all sorts of design businesses, and so on and so forth.  However, there is no question that there is a problem that happens when people start moving in, in mass numbers, into areas where people are still, or have been, living.  And it has created a housing crisis.  Well, maybe that’s the wrong way to put it actually.  It has helped to aggravate tight housing, from what I can see.

Brian Anderson: Right.

Kay S. Hymowitz: New York has almost always had housing problems even when there were plenty of vacant houses.  They were sub-quality.  So, but there is no question that there has been some displacement of people who have lived in neighborhoods like mine in Park Slope, or Williamsburg, or you name it, and that they have found their rent being hiked up.  There’s no question there are some really bad actors among the landlord class who have caused a lot of heartache for families.  These things are happening.  However, I would encourage people, before they find that as reason to reject gentrification entirely, to recognize that poor people still are more mobile out of poverty areas, high poverty areas, than they are gentrifying areas.  So this is something that is a fact of life and related to poverty, and not just about gentrification. 

Brian Anderson: One of the more vivid parts of your book describes the ports and harbors of Brooklyn, which were incredibly important to the borough’s early history, and as you note, they are becoming important again in interesting ways.  The Brooklyn Navy Yard today has become home to what you have described as the new manufacturing in City Journal and elsewhere.  What does the manufacturing economy in Brooklyn look like in 2017?  Who is leading this kind of shift?

Kay S. Hymowitz: Well, this is what’s so interesting about The New Brooklyn, and the industrialization, or neo-industrialization, that is happening right now.  This is not your grandfather’s industry.  These are small, tend to be very small, niche market companies that are producing consumer goods, well I don’t want to say mostly, but to a great extent they are very design and lifestyle-focused.  The food business in Brooklyn has exploded and if you...

Brian Anderson: It has become a culinary destination.

Kay S. Hymowitz: It has become a culinary destination and for good reason.  I’ll tell you very briefly, when my husband and I first moved to Park Slope in 1982, we were always foodies, maybe that’s what brought us in part to New York, but we used to get a babysitter every Saturday night and drive to Manhattan because that was the only place that had the decent restaurants.  That is not true anymore.  We never go into Manhattan to eat unless we have to.  So that is a big shift.  But also food, and not just restaurants, but food manufacturing has become a huge thing and in the middle of Brooklyn we have the Pfizer building, the old Pfizer building.  Pfizer was a chemical company and pharmaceutical company.  The creator, eventually, of Zoloft and Viagra.  It operated out of Brooklyn for at least 100 years - I hope I am not overstating that - and until it left about five or six years ago.  And at that time it didn’t just disappear, we didn’t just tear it down.  What happened was a food incubator moved in there.  So we have a bunch of little manufacturers altogether in this old pharmaceutical factory where they share kitchens, share ingredients, share delivery trucks sometimes.  And there’s a great deal of innovation that comes about as a result of this kind of clustering.  And that happens also at the Brooklyn Navy Yard where we’re seeing movement of a lot of small craftsman companies, the crafts companies.  Woodworkers, metalworkers, again mostly design-oriented kinds of companies, and now also a great movement of tech companies into that area as well.

Brian Anderson: Despite all of these dramatic improvements over the last three decades that you describe, some of the neighborhoods in Brooklyn haven’t been gentrifying at all.  In places like Brownsville, poverty and crime remain very serious problems.  They have among the highest rates of both of those in New York City today.  Do you have hope that the transformations we’ve seen in parts of Brooklyn will spread to the rest of the borough?  And why do you think that places like Brownsville haven’t enjoyed the kind of growth we’re seeing in your old neighborhood of Park Slope?

Kay S. Hymowitz: Yeah.  Well, you know, remember that Park Slope and Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, had a great housing stock.  Bed-Stuy too, and we are seeing some transformation there, although that’s a more interesting story than simple white gentrification.  I’ll let people read the book to find out about that.

Brian Anderson: Right.

Kay S. Hymowitz: But a place like Brownsville has the largest concentration of housing projects practically in the country.  And I think that because of that it is going to be very difficult to gentrify, although people are talking about that.  I have my doubts.  So almost every place that has gentrified had some kind of appealing housing stock.  Even Williamsburg, which did not have the kinds of brownstones that Bed-Stuy had, for instance, still had those factories which have been repurposed and are quite appealing to this generation of educated newcomers.  Brownsville, I fear, remains in trouble, as it has been since the 1960s and 1970s.  And with the complete collapse of the family in those areas, and a collapse of the schools, and a collapse of order on the streets, even though crime is better than it was in the 70s, much better, it is still bad enough to really have a big impact on locals.  I fear that the kids growing up in that neighborhood are not going to be equipped to move on, move on up, the way that we might hope.  And remember, in the past we had those manufacturing jobs all throughout Brooklyn that provided for thousands of low-skilled workers.  Many, many tens of thousands.  Many, many people.  Those kinds of kids are far less numerous in the new industrial world of Brooklyn.  As I said before, very small companies and very productive companies.  They rely on a lot of machinery and skilled workers.  And it is no longer possible, or I should say it is no longer easy, to just assume that you are going to be able to walk into a job if you haven’t completed some kind of training or higher education, even in these industrial, small industrial firms.

Brian Anderson: A final question.  Cities across the country, indeed across the world now, are hoping to become the new Brooklyn or the next Brooklyn.  What are the important lessons in your view, having spent time writing this book and thinking about your home borough, that other cities can learn from Brooklyn’s experience?

Kay S. Hymowitz: Right.  So Brooklyn was blessed in a few ways.  One, of course, is it is right across the river from New York City, which was the commercial and financial center of the United States for a very long time.  It also, and I can’t emphasize how important this is, it also has an amazing subway system.  I think that one of the most obvious but important lessons that I learned just working on this was how important the transportation was to expanding Brooklyn and creating viable new neighborhoods.  So transportation, number one.  There are not many places that have the funds, including New York City, it seems, to expand a subway system or to create or expand a subway system, but it is absolutely vital that transportation be central to planners thinking.  Crime, terribly important.  You know, Brooklyn - I think that a lot of people, newcomers, just don’t realize what life was like before we had this crime policing revolution and before we were able to stay out late at night, and walk down the street, and not really be terribly worried about it.  I used to, if I stayed out until even 9:00 or 10:00 at night, I used to walk down the middle of the street, and this was in Park Slope, because I wanted to be able to see...

Brian Anderson: Both sides, right.  Yeah.

Kay S. Hymowitz: I wanted people to be able to see me, yeah.  So, you know, it’s impossible to describe how different it was in those days and how hard it is to endure day after day.  So there is the crime as well.  And then I think that there is the recognition also among planners increasingly that there needs to be some freedom given to innovators.  That is you need to allow them to create the businesses that they do want to create.  You can’t have too many regulations that stop people from being able to have a kitchen, a commercial kitchen, let’s say, in order to be able to create you know, their new pickle business, or whatever it is.

Brian Anderson: Sure.

Kay S. Hymowitz: You need to make it possible for people to do that.  You know the tech progress over the last decades have made it much easier for young businesses to grow in a lot of ways, but governments are often working against them.

Brian Anderson: Thanks very much, Kay.  Kay Hymowitz’s brand new book is The New Brooklyn: What It Takes to Bring a City Back.  It’s a terrific read and a very important book for 21st-century urbanism.  It is available on Amazon and you can also locate it on the Manhattan Institute and City Journal websites.  We would also love to hear your comments about today’s episode on Twitter, @CityJournal with the hashtag #10Blocks.  Lastly, if you like our show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes.  Thanks for listening and thanks again, Kay, for coming by.

Kay S. Hymowitz: Thanks Brian.

Photo: Andrew Cribb / iStock

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