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The Resurgence of Brooklyn, Explained by Kay Hymowitz

by brooklynmodern | December 1st, 2011


In the latest issue of City Journal, Kay Hymowitz, who adventurously moved her young family to Park Slope in the early 1980s, charts the fall and rise of Brooklyn over the last century and change, from its industrial heyday through the drug- and crime-addled decades of the sixties, seventies and eighties and to its remarkable turnaround of the last fifteen years in which it’s become a magnet for the city’s burgeoning creative class. The first section of the article starts on a personal note, describing the boarding house next door run by the widow of the postal worker who owned it; house became progressively more run down and depressing until it finally burned down in 1995 when one of the bed-ridden elderly tenants fell asleep with a lit cigarette.

If you’ve been in Park Slope recently, you can probably guess how things turned out for the Lehane house. But you may not know why. How did the Brooklyn of the Lehanes and crack houses turn into what it is today—home to celebrities like Maggie Gyllenhaal and Adrian Grenier, to Michelin-starred chefs, and to more writers per square foot than any place outside Yaddo? How did the borough become a destination for tour buses showing off some of the most desirable real estate in the city, even the country? How did the mean streets once paced by Irish and Italian dockworkers, and later scarred by muggings and shootings, become just about the coolest place on earth? The answer involves economic, class, and cultural changes that have transformed urban life all over America during the last few decades. It’s a story that contains plenty of gumption, innovation, and aspiration, but also a disturbing coda. Brooklyn now boasts a splendid population of postindustrial and creative-class winners—but in the far reaches of the borough, where nary a hipster can be found, it is also home to the economy’s many losers.

Hymowitz credits Giuliani’s campaign against crime with laying the groundwork for the gentrification that began in the nineties (“After the 81st Precinct, which encompasses the eastern half of the neighborhood, saw a 64 percent plunge in violent crime between 1993 and 2003, the lawyers, editors, artists, and nonprofit administrators started venturing in.”) as well as the rezonings of formerly industrial neighborhoods that made way for a residential building boom.

The third reason for Brooklyn’s “modern revival,” as she calls it, was…

… the arrival of the college-educated creative types. How’s this for a great stat? Between 2000 and 2008, the number of college-educated residents in Williamsburg increased by 80 percent. Importantly, she notes, these creative types (which includes the “culinary hippies”) were decidedly more entrepreneurial than their predecessors.

And it’s definitely not a happy ending for all, according to Hymowitz:

Brooklyn’s story, then, doesn’t lend itself to a simple happy ending. Instead, the borough is a microcosm of the nation’s “hourglass economy.” At the top, the college-educated are doing interesting, motivating work during the day and bicycling home to enjoy gourmet beer and grass-fed beef after hours. At the bottom, matters are very different. Almost a quarter of Brooklyn’s 2.5 million residents live below the poverty line—in the housing projects of East New York, in the tenements of Brownsville, or in “transitional” parts of Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, all places where single-mother poverty has become an intergenerational way of life. Between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of the area’s population on welfare did decline markedly, but the number of Medicaid recipients almost tripled, to nearly 750,000. About 40 percent of Brooklyn’s total population receives some kind of public assistance today, up from 23 percent a decade ago.

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