What Are the Real Reasons Behind Brooklyn’s Popularity?

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It’s not news that Brooklyn has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades. In fact, that’s kind of the opposite of news, even though it continues to get reported on all the time. (I mean, have you heard of this place called “Williamsburg” that the New York Times recently discovered? Amazing!) And so the reasons that Brooklyn has become implanted in the public’s consciousness have also been widely discussed, dissected, discarded, etc. Bottom line? Everyone loves talking about Brooklyn. There are even two new TV shows in the works centering around Brooklyn parenting, so, yeah, Brooklyn’s done more than just arrive. It’s gotten the Chuck Lorre treatment. But so beyond the anecdotal reasons for Brooklyn’s rise that we all know of, what are the official reasons for this borough’s success?

Well, considering these reasons come courtesy of a member of the Bloomberg administrations, they’re both what you’d expect to hear, and so also they’re not the whole story. Robert K. Steel, New York City’s deputy mayor for economic development, spoke at a panel hosted by The Atlanticwhere he described “the pillars of Brooklyn’s success.” Steel claims that “Brooklyn is the place where lots of the new economy companies want to be” because of “four key factors:

  1. Public safety. By enhancing public safety across the city, said Steel, New York became a bigger place, with Brooklyn neighborhoods once considered dicey now very livable.
  2. Real estate development. Steel pointed to investments made in Dumbo ‘which basically re-birthed it.’ (Oddly enough, as The New York Times recently pointed out, the original name ‘Dumbo’ was conceived in the 1970s by a group of artists hoping to deter development.)
  3. Alternative transportation. Expansive as New York’s subway is, it still doesn’t do a great job reaching the outer boroughs. But an expanded ferry service and the Citi Bike program have made it possible to access a neighborhood like Dumbo in a sustainable way even without a subway line nearby.
  4. Quality of life. By this Steel meant amenities as basic as urban parks—a type of lifestyle, he says, that ‘competes with Portland, Seattle, and Boulder.'”

So! Let’s take a look at these reasons. I’ll give Steel public safety as a reason that Brooklyn has been on the rise in the last two decades; the big gentrification push in the early 90s did coincide with the beginning of the huge drop in crime rates, so there’s definitely evidence that, while gentrification preceded the increase in public safety, it probably was spurred along by it as well. As for real estate development? Well, the major development that Steel mentions—that of DUMBO—didn’t really start until the early 00s, while the Williamsburg rezoning and its subsequent building boom wasn’t until 2005. And while Brooklyn maybe hadn’t become “Brooklyn” by then, it was already well on its way. The alternative transportation that Steel mentions is just a flat-out strange thing to credit for Brooklyn’s popularity. The ferry is great and all, but there’s no way it’s a major selling point for the people who live in Brooklyn to get around… at least not compared to the subway system. The ferry serves such a small area of Brooklyn and is also only convenient to such a small part of Manhattan that it’s hard to say that it’s anything more than a pleasant way to travel once in awhile. Plus it’s way more expensive than the subway! And that still counts for a lot of us. And Citibike is obviously successful—more than most people imagined it would be—but crediting a less than a year-old program for Brooklyn’s popularity is, well, silly. And urban parks? I like the idea that urban parks and the more abstract “quality of life” have contributed to Brooklyn’s rise, and I definitely think they’ve made it more enjoyable to live and work here, but I don’t think that parks are a main factor in Brooklyn’s rise, any more than bike lanes. They make living here better, certainly, and they might draw some visitors, but it’s not why people move here.

It makes sense that the deputy mayor of economic development under Bloomberg is touting advances that the administration he works for had a big hand in pushing for, but these reasons also straight-up neglect to factor in all the changes that were not backed by large amounts of capital. What I’m trying to say is, the real estate developers didn’t get here first. Part of Brooklyn’s rise is due to the influx of people who came to Brooklyn after being priced out of Manhattan. And, yes, many of them were creatives, but many were also just people who couldn’t afford Manhattan anymore. But beyond that, what’s made Brooklyn attractive are things that weren’t necessarily brought in. This shouldn’t come as a huge shock to most of you, but people have actually been living in Brooklyn for a really long time, giving character to different neighborhoods and working to build vibrant communities, and doing all this before Citibike was even a glimmer in the mayor’s eye. In fact, many of the Brooklyn neighborhoods that are currently on the rise? Aren’t even served by Citibike! Or at least, not yet.  It would be ridiculous for me to outright dismiss all the changes (many of them positive, many negative) that have happened in Brooklyn since Bloomberg took office. The revitalization of public parks, the increase in public safety, and the introduction of alternate forms of transportation are all great things. But many of the reasons why Brooklyn has developed into the place it is today started to happen decades ago, and were the products of the people who moved here and the people who already lived here and wanted to make this borough as great of a place to live as possible. Does that sound unbelievably hokey and ridiculous and Brooklyn booster-y? I don’t know. Maybe it does. But it’s also true. The reason that Brooklyn is what it is today is not because of the multi-million dollar condos in DUMBO or the perfect-for-wedding-photographers Brooklyn Bridge Park. It’s the people who opened small businesses and refurbished run-down buildings so that they could build a life here. And those are the kind of people who will keep things good. Communities aren’t pre-made, they’re built from the ground up. And it takes a lot longer than twelve years to do that.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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  1. In the end what made Brooklyn so popular, I reiterate your essay, it was a lot cheeper than Manhathan & its proximiety to Manhathan compared to the Bronx, Queens, and even Staten Island made it so attractive.

    But as it becomes the city’s second center, it’s in danger of losing its attractiveness due to developers who want to make Brooklyn into a second Manhathan. The only difference this time is that the local residents of today are perhaps a lot better informed then they were lets say even 20 years ago – Thank you internet.

  2. The irony of this is that people move to Brooklyn because it was more affordable than the skyrocketing prices in Manhattan, which pushed out the artists and creatives — the record and bookstores and mom-and-pop shops — across the bridge. But now, hypergentrification and greedy RE developers and chains are following the “smell” of money into Brooklyn and rents are going-up way too damn higher than that of Manhattan. Sooner or later there’ll be a reverse trend where Manhattan will have lower rents than Brooklyn and it’ll become “popular” again. That or the new new Manhattan will be Staten Island.

    And, apropos of nothing, but Did Brooklyn Magazine and The L magazine split-up? I remember that one can click on the L magazine to get to that site on the Brooklyn Magazine site. Also , The L Magazine still has the old commenting system (where one can like or dislike a comment). Just an observation.

  3. “…an expanded ferry service and the Citi Bike program have made it possible to access a neighborhood like Dumbo in a sustainable way even without a subway line nearby.”

    You do realize that the York Street F train stop is in Dumbo, and that High Street on the A line is right nearby, yes?