On the Fetishization of a Brooklyn Neighborhood and the Problem with Saying Park Slope Has a Small Town Feel

Carroll Street in Park Slope

Yesterday, the New York Times Real Estate section ran a story about what it’s like to live in Park Slope, a neighborhood which, the paper declared, is an ideal place to “grow into.” And while I have long since ceased to look to the Times Real Estate section for the kind of information that I will find personally useful—there are only so many times one can learn about fixer-upper studios with dingy kitchens in the West Village that go for $725,000 before wanting to cry—I do find it instructive in other ways, ones which don’t just involve the pleasures attendant with hate-reads. Rather, I still read the Times Real Estate section because I think it can offer insight into the ways people with whom I have little in common (i.e. those who can afford to buy $2 million townhouses near Grand Army Plaza) see this borough I’ve called home for so many years, and can serve to further highlight just how disparate the experiences are between the haves and the have-nots here in Brooklyn.

Such was the case with this article, anyway, which sought to promote Park Slope, a “leafy, house-proud neighborhood,” to… whom exactly, I’m not so sure. It would have seemed to me that most readers of the Times Real Estate section have by now heard of the benefits of living in brownstone Brooklyn, but I suppose there are still some die-hard Manhattanites who can’t quite fathom entering a zip code that starts with a “11.” Anyway. The Times’ hard sell for Park Slope centered around the story of one family who had moved several times in the last decade, but all their relocations occurred within a five-and-a-half block radius in Park Slope. The family, the Times reports, had grown irrevocably attached to the area’s “real small-town feel” and so moved from one over-a-million-dollar home to another, all in order to stay within the local “‘Sesame Street’ atmosphere.” Which, sure, it’s doubtful that Oscar the Grouch’s abode is stationed in front of a house like the one on Park Slope’s Montgomery Place which recently sold for $10,750,000, but we get why the comparison to “Sesame Street” was made: Park Slope—like nearby affluent neighborhoods Cobble Hill, Brooklyn Heights, and Windsor Terrace—is a place that has the familiarity and intimacy of a small town, despite being in the middle of a big city. But at what cost?

Lately, anyway, this is the question I have been asking myself about a lot of things in this borough. Sure, it’s possible to have access to “small town” neighborhoods, excellent public schools, a huge variety of foods, multiple public transportation options, but at what cost? The obvious answer, of course, is: at a premium. It’s no secret that there have long been luxuries available to those who can afford to spend exorbitant amounts of money in order to live in close proximity to the best this city has to offer. And yet those luxuries were always that: luxuries. But not just any luxuries, ones specific to living in New York City. Nobody extolled the virtues of living on the Upper East Side or Gramercy Park because it felt like “a small town.” Rather, they enjoyed the privacy and exclusionary aspects inherent to wealth, and relished its existence in the city. There was, at least, an unabashed embrace of elitism, an acknowledgment that there were differences in how people lived relative to how much money they possessed.

Now, though, with the rise in the appeal of “the real small town feel,” something far more insidious is at work. Now, there has become a fetishization for Brooklyn communities where “hundreds of diminutive baseball players parade with Norman Rockwell wholesomeness down Seventh Avenue en route to Prospect Park” and iPhones can be left in unlocked cars without fear and the local public schools boast test scores not dissimilar to those at their suburban counterparts. It’s not that any of these things are abhorrent or something, on the contrary, they imply a level of foundational security that should be admired and even sought citywide—only without the attendant obliviousness that so many of the people who benefit from enjoying these privileges seem to have. Because the thing is, the reason Park Slope now has this “small town feel” is not because it possesses some intangible quality that makes it seem like its residents inhabit a PBS children’s show. No, the reason Park Slope feels like a “small town” is simply because, in the last couple of decades, it has experienced an enormous infusion of wealth. One realtor even mentions to the Times: “A quarter of our deals are all cash. The wealth is staggering.”

And what this wealth has bought is safety and peace of mind when it comes to things like whether or not neighborhood children will get adequate educations, things that hundreds of thousands of Brooklyn residents are still not familiar with, no matter how much crime in this city has dropped. What this wealth has bought is also an inability to recognize that by extolling the virtues of a neighborhood’s charms, you are also ignoring the realities of what it takes to maintain a “small town feel” in the middle of a diverse city full of problems and complications—namely, super-expensive real estate that makes it all but impossible for the very wealthy to have easy access to things like good schools or safe streets or well-maintained parks. What this wealth has bought, it seems, is life in a community that while not technically gated, might as well be, because the chance that anyone making less than the six-figures a year will ever afford to live there is pretty much nonexistent. What this wealth has bought is an abundance of people living together with their collective head in the sand, happy they are living in some brownstone-lined paradise, not knowing or caring to know that the price of their bliss is the marginalization of so many of the people who live right outside their “small town”‘s borders, but will probably never be able to find their way in.

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