Is Brooklyn Just Another Suburb?: On the Reality of the Suburbanization of New York

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Let’s get this out of the way first: Brooklyn has always been a suburb. In recent years, as Brooklyn has come to rival Manhattan for supremacy in terms of the best, the coolest, the most interesting—the only—place to live in New York, it’s become popular to defiantly refuse to do things like call Manhattan “the city” or think of Brooklyn as being anything other than the sun in this particular residential solar system. But the truth of the matter is that the county of Kings has always been—and continues to be—a satellite of sorts to New York county. Hell, Brooklyn Heights was even known as the first suburb in America.

And yet, in the ongoing conversation about the continued development and gentrification of Brooklyn—and New York in general—one of the most insulting ways to categorize the demographic and structural changes in the borough (other than “mall-ification”) is to say that it—and the city at large—are undergoing suburbanization, and are, in effect, becoming no different from places in (gasp!) New Jersey. But what does it mean to even be “suburbanized?” And to what degree is it even possible for New York City to become suburbanized at all? What are we talking about when we talk about the suburbs?

In the greater cultural consciousness, “the suburbs” are a place from which you escape; they represent conformity, repression, and banality. In a more practical sense, the suburbs also mean lower population density, a preponderance of chain stores, a well-established car culture, and a lack of cultural and economic diversity. And the suburbs mean money, yes, but a very specific kind of money; the suburbs mean the kind of money that leads to home ownership, multiple cars in garages, and fenced-in property. It’s the kind of money—and lifestyle—that screams (even while it pretends to whisper) exclusion.

In contrast, cities—with New York being the ultimate city—signify individuality, expression, and excitement. Cities are teeming with all sorts of people from all over the world; within a city’s limits, it can be hard to find a Walmart, but easy to find four Ethiopian restaurants within a six-block radius; people get around by public transportation, on bike, or on foot; and due to the high density of residents, cities force interaction between people from every social and economic strata. Cities, and perhaps none more so than New York, mean money, but there isn’t anything hidden about it. The most impressive buildings are right there for all to see, displays of wealth are always in your face. It’s not an inclusive wealth, but it is in some ways more transparent, and many facts of city living equalize some of the most glaring disparities.

One of the main differences between cities and suburbs, though, is that cities might be where people would come to earn money while in their 20s and early 30s, but cities were not necessarily where most people built a life for themselves and their families—especially once that money had been made. No, the people who stayed in cities tended to be outliers, particularly in terms of sensibilities. In effect, people who chose to be city-dwellers were also choosing to sacrifice certain material comforts—car culture, spacious residences, privacy—in order to live in a more dynamic place, one which offered excitement and diversity. City living has long had a caché that suburban life lacked, but the trade-off was that life in the suburbs was more amenable to raising families and offered things like better public schools and lower crime rates.

But then that all changed. In the last couple of decades, in tandem with dramatically lowered crime rates, investments in public spaces, and the housing boom, many cities—and for our purposes, New York—have not only remained magnets for young adults, but also kept them here long past the time when most would have left for white picket-fenced climes. The resurgence of cities has corresponded with the displacement of many of the people who were long thought to have made cities unique, as well as an influx of the types of stores which are more associated with the Westchester Mall than Wythe Avenue (what’s up, J. Crew). Beyond this, luxury buildings have sprouted up in neighborhoods—i.e. Downtown Brooklyn—that used to barely be thought of as “neighborhoods” at all, at least not in the Jane Jacobs sense of the word. All of these changes have led to many scholars and social scientists wondering if this is indeed the end of the distinction between city and suburbs, because now “urban neighborhoods… [are] denser and have more tall buildings, and… suburban communities have larger lots and more single-family homes, people living in both types of communities shop in similar stores, send their kids to similar schools and enjoy similar amenities.”

But what of Brooklyn? What does it even mean to be questioning whether or not this ur-suburb is undergoing a process—suburbanization—that it went through before anywhere else in the country did? The trouble with Brooklyn, of course, is that it’s too varied and too big to categorize in any specific way. There are plenty of parts of Brooklyn that have an active car culture—particularly the farther south you go, but also including some areas like Red Hook and even Windsor Terrace that lack either good public transportation options or many retail amenities—and there are others where owning a car would border on the absurd. There are places of Brooklyn that are among the most racially and economically segregated in the country (far more so than, say, Greenwich even), and there are others which are emblematic of the diversity and multitudes of experiences that a city can offer. There are, in fact, a host of disparate facts that I can cite that would wind up proving exactly nothing about whether or not Brooklyn—and New York City at large—is becoming more akin to a suburb than a city, because the reality is that this place is impossible to classify as any one thing, too vast are the multitudes it contains.

This isn’t just an issue of facts and statistics, though, this is a question of the spirit of a place. The very idea that the urban status of Brooklyn and Manhattan is being debated almost defies belief. And yet the reason it’s happening is because every day brings news of another “only in New York” institution shutting down and a bank or drugstore or chain restaurant or condo tower going up in its place. Every day brings news of rents getting higher. Every day brings news of the ongoing repression and disenfranchisement of the city’s minority population. Every day it feels like huge swathes of the city are being protected behind invisible white picket fences, making them inaccessible to all but the very wealthy.

And so even though Brooklyn has maybe always been a suburb, and parts of it have always had more in common with its Long Island neighbors, it has also long felt like much of the borough retained the important parts of the urban spirit: the collective attitude that we are part of something larger, that we are all connected while we occupy adjacent spaces. But now that feels more fragmented than ever before. Anonymity isn’t just the reliable urban kind, where we all tacitly agree to ignore the sex sounds coming from the apartment next door, though we’d never fail to get help if a neighbor was in trouble. No, anonymity now means that unless you are among the moneyed elite you are invisible; unless you can afford to pay high rent, you can get pushed out of your longtime home; unless your business is a runaway success, you can be replaced with a Duane Reade. Anonymity now means conformity to the banal. This is what we talk about when we talk about the suburbs, and this is more than just about where we live: it’s about how we live, and how that way of life is disappearing. Maybe for good.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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