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.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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13 COMMENTS

  1. This is what Matt Yglesias has warned about. Extreme zoning laws (it’s all a historic district!) result in neighborhoods that resemble museums, not vibrant communities (if only millionaires can afford to live there, it ain’t vibrant, sorry!)

    Yes, I know, great schools, the park is right there, it’s like sesame street, blah, blah, blah…it’s also, easily, the most boring place to live in the city. (Okay it has Barbes, but that is it.) After living there for four years, I started to yearn for Williamsburg. How sick is that?

    You may not know it, but if you are living there, you are dying a little inside every day. Just send Barbes and the Food Coop to Harlem, and I’ll never bother you (or think about you) again.

  2. Right on.
    Seems today, parts of Brooklyn are charming because only the well heeled can live there. Small town if you’re used to boutiques.
    Grew up in Sunset Park in 50’s and 60’s. It was a neighborhood feel but not small town, 39th and 4th, was different from 59th and 8th. Individual blocks felt small townish, someone there for 5 years was hardly an old timer. We had family on the same block (49th) from 1930 through 1985.
    Went to H.S. in Park Slope., it was a rough part of Brooklyn back then.

    Thank you

    • It may have gone through a rough patch for about 20/30 years, but Park Slope was originally built for the wealthy and was in fact the wealthiest zip code in the United States in 1890.

  3. Why do you feel the residents are oblivious? I kept waiting for you to produce some sort of foundation for that assertion, but it never came. Or I’m not seeing it.

    • Not only does this have no substantial anything but what does this author think of Manhattan then? My god, Park slope is a bargain compared to the majority of Manhattan. So are people raising kids to simply move to the Bronx? Is that the solution this author suggests?? How DARE people want to live in a nice neighborhood with good schools and parks! If you want to be a REAL New Yorker, you gotta live in the HOOD! While I realize this Brooklyn Magazine isn’t the big time, I do usually enjoy it. this one was just off the deep end though. you don’t blame people for wanting a nice lifestyle. The long time people selling their brownstone for 3 million aren’t exactly moving out to live on the streets you know!

      • First off, I grew up near Kings Highway in Brooklyn and also attended college in an actual small town in Iowa (pop: 9000). The idea that any section of New York City has a “small town feel” is laughable as any given few blocks would match the population of that whole town. I presume that some of the associated qualities that are being poorly articulated are lower population density, and a relative sense of safety, cleanliness and communication among common dwellers of a block. Having grown up in NYC when it was broke as a joke, I’m sick to death of people groaning about “gentrification”. Yes, New York is more boring than it was. Yes, New York is safer, cleaner and better managed than it was. Anyone who failed to ride the subways in seventies and eighties doesn’t really know what a shithole this City is capable of being, and it’s pretty dull to see people glamorize the “heroin chic” [and presumed extraordinary equality] of days gone by. Park Slope is dull and fairly safe and a good place to do what many people want to do, which is raise kids. Those are attributes that it would be nice for everyone to have access to but the focus needs to be on finding ways to bring more local jobs and access to programs for kids, not skimming the real estate pages.

  4. Ah, I remember when the New York Times would run Park Slope stories like the 1988 op-ed piece:

    It was 8:30 P.M. on a Friday night in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. Four young black males attacked three young white males on their way to the subway station at the intersection of Seventh and Flatbush Avenues. Two of the whites were basically unharmed, while one of the whites suffered a severely broken nose. I was the one with the broken nose.

    The only apparent reason for the attack was racial. Over the past 10 years, Park Slope has gone from an essentially middle class neighborhood to one of the hottest real estate markets in Brooklyn and maybe even in the whole city.

    What is happening is that mostly rich white yuppies are moving in and the mostly poor black and Hispanics are being forced out. Park Slope has become an island of riches surrounded by a sea of despair. The financial gap between Park Slope and its neighbors is growing daily and the effects are being felt by the thousands who suffer because of the gains of a few.

    What does it mean to a kid who goes to a school infested with drugs and goes home to a poverty-stricken family? His home is nothing but a hole in the wall, and his parents pay little regard to his life. And then he walks through a neighborhood where families of only three or four occupy an entire brownstone. He asks himself, Where did I go wrong? He has no hope for the future. Why should he? He probably has never seen anyone succeed in his neighborhood. It is only ”whitey” who makes it.

    So the black kid in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights has nothing, while some white kid a few blocks away in Park Slope has it all. The white kid has a clean private school where he can get an education easily, with no distractions. The white kid has a good home and a meal always waiting. The black youth is not immune to the white dominance that has been going on for the last 200 years and realizes this is just another case of it. And the saddest part is that many believe violence is the only way to fight injustice.

    This is today’s racism. You won’t find this in the laws. It only appears when you open your eyes and look around at what is happening in New York and all of America’s cities. Economic injustice severs the hopes and dreams of today’s poor. And when a majority of the poor is black and a majority of the rich is white, racism builds a wall between the two sides.

    At one time in this country, the problem of racism was de jure – segregation by law. Now the problem is de facto – segregation by tradition. Today there are no laws that can be changed to make everything fair. The problem is the responsibility of every citizen.

    In New York it seems that people don’t mind branding a neighborhood as black or white, Hispanic or Jewish. But we must throw out this idea of segregated neighborhoods and learn to live harmoniously together.

    Getting attacked because of my race made me look at myself and understand what I symbolize to others. It doesn’t matter that I have not a single racist bone in my body; too many white people before me did. The death of Michael Griffith in Howard Beach showed us the incredible hatred that can and does exist in today’s world.

    So where is the hope? The hope lies with people like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and, before him, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We must, for the sake of humanity, rally to their cause. Our future depends on it.

    • That was written by Matthew Strozier, then a student at Berkeley Carroll.

      I Googled the name to see where he is 27 years later and the first few hits are a person who is “Adviser on digital real-estate initiatives for Dow Jones.”

      Oy vey.

    • from Wikipedia: By 1883, with the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, Park Slope continued to boom and subsequent brick and brownstone structures pushed the neighborhood’s borders farther. The 1890 census showed Park Slope to be the richest community in the United States

  5. The average income in Park Slope is about 65k so your entire diatribe is hogwash. Just because the 3 million brownstones show up in the real estate section of the Times doesn’t mean the tons of rent stabilized and long time co-op owners and renters no longer exist. lots of people in Park slope make less than 100K a year but your article is like reading a NyMag piece…full of one liners, no substance.

    Ps 321’s demographics come in more diverse than the Us population as a whole. Some people seem to think crown heights (where public schools average over 80% African American) are considered diverse but I assure you it’s not. African Americans make up %18 of the US population so not that much different than the demographics of Park Slope. Shhhh a Secret: a mostly black neighborhood is not diverse!!

    Having lived all over the city in dozens of neighborhoods, Park slope is one of the finest in the city for quality of life and access to greenspace and culture. its very much a European neighborhood in many ways. When the neighborhood came to be built around 1890, it was the wealthiest zip code in America just as a point of reference.

  6. I happened to read this article about park slope yesterday and it made me really angry. I’m a resident of the neighborhood, but according to the article, in the less affluent section (at the bottom of the hill).

    As much as I love the Times, I’m sick and tired of reading about the same people – those who can afford to “upgrade” to multi-million dollar properties. It’s old news. . I agree that this is where Brownstone Brooklyn is headed, but my experience as a PS 39 mom, is that there are many of us who live rather modestly and while wanting the best for our kids as most do, aren’t looking to live in a “gated” community. Quite the opposite. It’s called, we-don’t-have-the-money-for-private schools and it, at one time, was a more affordable option than Manhattan.

    I would also like to add that 7th Ave alone does not make Park Slope. I live off of 5th Avenue and the scene is quite dofferent – a little funkier, a little more youthful, less affluent, and even more diverse in many ways. When I (reluctantly) moved to Park Slope 6 years ago (after having a kid and needing a good public school), I refused to live much above 5th Ave because I wasn’t feeling it on 7th Ave or in that part of the neighborhood.

    It’s a large neighborhood with many different people of all socioeconomic groups but that will quicky fade, just as it has in the far fancier Cobble Hill.

    Queens is looking more and more appealing as these Brooklyn neighborhoods become wealthier and less diverse.

  7. Anyone who thinks Park Slope has a “small town feel” obviously has not lived in a small town in the last 20 years. Real small towns these days have a lot of distinctive characteristics, but wealth is not one of them.

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