Life Before Brooklyn

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Last weekend, the New York Times published an article about how expensive it is now to live in Brooklyn, and how many people—even “normal, middle class” people—are unable to afford life in New York’s buzziest borough and so are forced to move to places like Queens, the upper reaches of Manhattan, and even New Jersey. There was nothing really new in this article, nothing that we haven’t either experienced ourselves (rents are skyrocketing in Bushwick? you don’t say!) or read about before in the Times‘s ongoing, wonder-filled coverage about the indisputably long-established fact that people live in boroughs other than Manhattan, and so we rolled our eyes while skimming the piece and moved on to other things.

And yet. Here we are, days later, thinking about the article, or, rather, not the article, but its headline: “Life After Brooklyn.” The Times article purports that Brooklyn is over because it’s become unaffordable for a very specific type of person, the type who makes a comfortable salary, went to a college—and probably a grad school—with an annual cost of around $50,000, and only eats organic food and wears ethically sourced clothes; in short, Brooklyn has become unaffordable for an average New York Times reader. These are the people with whom the Times is concerned, these are the people who are “moving out of Brooklyn because of high prices.” These are the people for whom life in Brooklyn is over.

But, of course, the life these people are living and the life they are leaving behind isn’t really about life in Brooklyn—it’s about life in “Brooklyn.” And what has become so untenable for these types of people isn’t simply paying high prices, but rather it’s paying high prices on what these people consider to be a diminishing return. In the New York Observer, Kim Vesey astutely points out that it’s not an issue of being unable to afford paying $2,800/month for a two-bedroom apartment, it’s instead about wanting to get a three-bedroom apartment for the same amount of money, and with a better commute: “They left not because they couldn’t afford to stay, but because they couldn’t afford what they wanted.” It’s not, in other words, that those profiled in the Times couldn’t live in Brooklyn (Bensonhurst, Midwood, and Flatbush are all relatively affordable), they just couldn’t live in “Brooklyn” (Williamsburg, Carroll Gardens, Fort Greene, and Park Slope are not). So, what’s a “normal, middle-class” person to do? Move to Sunnyside!

Or, you know, not. The big mistake in this Times article is in identifying Brooklyn as nothing more than a series of buzzwords like “rooftop farms,” “pour-over coffee,” and “Lena Dunham.” It’s obviously been said before (including by us), but most of the people who live in Brooklyn—who live in New York in general—are not here because they watched Girls or Sex In the City. (Although, even if they are? That’s fine too. Those people will either leave eventually or realize that life is not a TV show, by which we mean, they’ll grow up.) Many, if not most, of the people who live in Brooklyn are here for the same reasons that people live anywhere—they grew up here, their families are here, their jobs are nearby—and will stay here for those reasons, not because an artisanal mayonnaise shop opened up down the block. But the people who do come here for the mayo shop and then leave when they can only afford rent in non-mayo shop areas? It’s really not such a loss when they leave. Their interests never lay in contributing to pre-existing communities, or working to establish something beneficial once they arrived, they only wanted to take part in what they thought was part of a larger trend. Their life was never in Brooklyn to begin with, and was rather in “Brooklyn.”

The problem isn’t about people who are dealing with life after Brooklyn, but is rather that there are people who are now being priced out who experienced life before Brooklyn, or, you know, “Brooklyn.” These residents are feeling the economic burden of the rapid rise in rents and increased cost of living here in a way that is far more oppressive than those who would rather be able to get a three-bedroom for their $3,000/month rent instead of a two-bedroom. These are the people who couldn’t care less if there are “Brooklyn-style coffee shops” on their block, and would instead just appreciate having well-stocked grocery stores nearby and high-functioning public schools. And for many of these people, life after Brooklyn isn’t even an option. They have roots here. Jersey City is not a substitute because Brooklyn is more than just a brand—it’s a home. And losing these people—from Brooklyn and the city at large—is what we should be concerned about, because they are what prevents this borough from becoming solely a haven for the transient wealthy, as parts of it have already become. These are the people who were here before “Brooklyn” and who will be here long after the “Brooklyn” craze dies, as it will eventually. These are the people we should worry about losing, because when they’re gone, the Brooklyn that has nothing to do with “Brooklyn” goes too.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter on @kmiversen

7 Comment

  • Nonsense. Most of the people who were from Brooklyn moved out of “Brooklyn.”

  • Fully agreed. Finally.

  • Exactly right. Nobody ever talks to (or for) the truly displaced. Well done.

  • My part of Squirrell Hill Pittsburgh is like what Brooklyn was growing up – minus the hills of course. Here we fix old homes. We don’t build mansions out of 3 perfectly good but smaller old fashion homes. And when I come back to Brooklyn a few times a year I wonder how in the world did I ever drive in Brooklyn. You can have all the high end kosher supermarkets and all the BMWs on R and Bedford Ave. I do miss Meal Mart.

  • Wonderfully said! What a thoughtful and succinct response to what has become a such bloated and convoluted topic.

  • As someone who has roots in Brooklyn spanning about a century-from Brownsville to Greenpoint to everywhere in between, I would have to say this article is very judgemental. Who are you to lump a certain type of people together and say they all don’t contribute anything to Brooklyn? Neighborhoods change, people change, circumstances change. That’s the story of Brooklyn since it’s founding. The author somehow thinks she has a stronger hold on the borough than the people she’s stereotyping.

  • Thoughtful and well-written response. I do agree Brooklyn has become developed too quickly especially my neighborhood. I kind of want to move deeper into a non-trendy area and just live a “normal” life. It’s all about weighing the pluses and minuses. Thankfully I have a landlord who his fair and hasn’t raised the rent so crazily. But I now have to deal with some other issues like a nearby office building where the tenants always come in front of my building loitering and smoking cigarettes.