Crown Heights, the New York Times and the Myth of the Up-and-Coming Neighborhood
By Kristin Iversen
If there’s one thing even more certain than death and taxes, it’s that—at some point in its history—each and every New York City neighborhood will be described as “up-and-coming.” Even long-established neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights or the Upper East Side go through iterations where they are suddenly viewed as trendy rather than staid. And in the last couple of decades, the gentrification of Brooklyn has led to media outlets anointing one after another of this borough’s neighborhoods as the next “up-and-coming” spot. Clinton Hill, Bushwick, Sunset Park, Prospect Heights, Ditmas Park—at one point or another, each of these neighborhoods was labeled the next big thing, a new area to explore and new territory upon which to encroach.
Perhaps chief among “up-and-coming”-identifying media outlets is the New York Times, notable not only for its enthusiasm for finding the “next new thing,” but also for its savant-like ability to find the “next new thing” several years after everyone else did. Just last year, the Timesbreathlessly noted the new-to-the-Times phenomenon of “Brooklynites” who had been “priced out of Williamsburg, Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens and Park Slope… heading farther in.” The Times revealed that these wealthy (just not, like, Carroll Gardens-wealthy) pioneers were now “turning to neighborhoods like Sunset Park, Crown Heights, Bushwick and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, bringing a willingness and an ability to pay more for housing than the waves of residents who came before them.” (Which, at the very least, you have to hand it to the Times for distilling gentrification into one revealing clause, namely, that it’s really just about the money.)
And as of this weekend, the latest neighborhood bullseye for the Times to draw a target around is none other than Crown Heights. The paper claims that it is now time for Crown Heights to “get its turn,” and that the neighborhood now “seems to be having a moment.” But what does this “moment” consist of, beyond, of course, the arrival of a Starbucks and the Times stamp of approval? Well, it seems to wholly consist of dramatically elevated real estate prices (“both condo prices and land prices have about doubled in the last two years”), the displacement of long-standing businesses in order to make way for the arrival of on-trend, more expensive shops (“the new Brooklyn retail experience”), and an influx of white people (one longtime resident and member of the Crown Heights Tenants Union “said she worries that the company that owns her building may try to drive her out. ‘I think that a neighborhood should have a mix of people,’ she said. ‘It should be racially as well as economically diverse.’”)—in other words, “up-and-coming” means whiter and wealthier.
The Times article addresses this reality briefly, noting at the beginning that some people consider the area’s “rapid transformation” to be nothing more than “gentrification, depending on one’s perspective,” but the paper fails to actually distinguish what makes Crown Heights’s development gentrification instead of transformation. After all, positive or negative connotations about gentrification aside, there are certain definite outcomes that occur as a result of gentrification, namely the revitalizations of commercial sectors, increases in real estate prices, and the arrival of a wealthier demographic. So despite the fact that the Times is vague about what it means by “up-and-coming,” it’s essential to recognize that the term doesn’t actually mean “transformation,” but rather explicitly means gentrification. The Times isn’t, after all, naming Flatbush or Brownsville—neighborhoods that are the destinations for residents displaced from places like Crown Heights—as the next “up-and-coming” spots in Brooklyn. No, that designation is reserved solely for places that are seeing an influx of wealthy, usually white residents, the kind of people who can (and will!) pay $3,400/month to live over a Starbucks.
And so, perhaps unsurprisingly, to the New York Times, the only kind of transformation worth noting (no matter how delayed) is one that involves skyrocketing real estate prices and expensive boutique retail experiences; “up-and-coming” is just another way to say “expensive.” Problematic as this is, though (and it is a problem that the unifying factor among desirable places to live is that they’re prohibitively expensive), it is just as troubling that the Times fails to address what might stand in the way of the total “transformation” (read: gentrification) of Crown Heights: its ongoing problem with violence in a time when citywide violence continues to decline. To the Times—and to many others—the only important aspect of a neighborhood is how much it costs to move there, not the experiences of the people who have actually been living there for a long time, people who might soon find themselves casualties of the gentrification that the Times so thoughtlessly promotes. These are the residents who have made Crown Heights what it is today (maybe some of them even remember the first time the Times labeled the neighborhood “up-and-coming” in 1985) and they are not served by being thought of as trendy or the next new thing, rather they need the focus to be on things that are more important than the addition of a couple new restaurants, things like over-development and higher than average crime rates. But it seems like those things just don’t make for compelling copy, at least not when condos are sprouting like weeds and sale prices are reaching record levels.