When I was a kid, people said that Sunset Park extended from about the Prospect Expressway to about 65th Street, where the BQE rumbles overhead, a stretch of almost 50 blocks north-to-south, and more west-to-east—First Avenue? To… what, Ninth Avenue?—for a total of hundreds of square blocks. What defines a neighborhood beyond geographical boundaries? Demographics? Architectural Styles? A shared culture? Could we really say that those things linked a person living on 58th Street and Eighth Avenue with another living on 25th and Fourth, more than two miles away? Did they really live in the same neighborhood, in any meaningful sense of the word?
Huge swaths of the borough used to be just single neighborhoods: a big chunk of central Brooklyn was Flatbush; another large piece on the west was South Brooklyn. Today we’ve broken down “South Brooklyn” into more manageable chunks: Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, Gowanus, Park Slope, even the Columbia Street Waterfront District. Sunset Park has started to break down, too, at least closer to Park Slope, with its real estate desirable to the young and/or moneyed: near the cemetery we have South Slope, also called (or overlapping with?) Greenwood Heights. Many other neighborhoods have been invented in the past few decades: DUMBO was once just an industrial no-man’s land north of Brooklyn Heights; what today we call Prospect-Lefferts Garden and Ditmas Park were just Flatbush. Have we gone too far?
“Too often, these new names… come from realtors looking to brand an area that otherwise isn’t distinguishable from the one next to it,” Harry Siegel wrote in the Daily News last week, “dividing the map into finer and finer parts with precious little to tell them apart.”
When I lived in Fort Greene in the mid-1990s, when Fort Greene Park was dead quiet after the sun set and Myrtle Ave. was Murder Ave., the next neighborhood east was Bedford Stuyvesant. Now, Clinton Hill sits between them. That’s actually where Biggie Smalls grew up, though it was Bed Stuy then.
Not all of these neighborhoods is a Pro-Cro, though, devised by real estate interests to bring in more affluent residents: the South Brooklyn divisions were created by the people who moved in during the 60s and 70s like Paula Fox, LJ Davis and Jonathan Lethem’s parents; DUMBO, as the story goes, was coined by artists trying to keep out the yuppies, who they assumed wouldn’t move to a place with such a silly moniker.
As Brooklynites, we tend to accept new neighborhood names, or new divisions, when they’re adopted by communities themselves—and we reject them when they come down from the owning classes. As one commenter to Siegel’s op-ed notes, “I have lived in Fort Greene/Clinton Hill since the 70s… The neighborhood ‘Clinton Hill’ was certainly here at this time, and the term has been in use at least as long as I lived here.”
I agree with Siegel that the dividing line between Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill feels arbitrary; when editing the pages of our sister publication The L Magazine, I call the area South Brooklyn, even though the occasional commenter questions my knowledge of geography. (“South Brooklyn would be south, stupid!”) But if those communities want to distinguish themselves, I say let them: we have such distinctions because people want them, because neighbors want to identify as smaller and thus stronger communities. Back when people said hundreds of square blocks were “Sunset Park,” it’s because a lot of those people—not the people who lived there, but the residents of elsewhere in the city, the general observers—didn’t really give a shit about those hundreds of square blocks.
Now people are paying more serious attention to Brooklyn. This might have a negative effect on real estate prices for those who don’t belong to what Siegel calls “a self-identified and self-celebrating creative class, many of its members with shallow roots in the city, [who] spread a curated-to-death monoculture that prizes ever-finer distinctions in its alcohol, caffeine, food and culture while elbowing aside all competing groups.” But it’s also why both major parties’ mayoral candidates were Brooklynites, and why two of three citywide offices went to Kings County politicians. As I write in the new print issue of Brooklyn Magazine, “Brooklyn is on the map, a power center, no longer just an outerborough full of commuters who could be taken for granted”—tens of thousands of whom can’t just be written off as living in the same disregarded ‘hood.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart