Talking With Owen Gutfreund, Associate Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College

Photo by Kristy Leibowtiz, Brooklyn Historical Society
Photo by Kristy Leibowtiz,
Brooklyn Historical Society

Why is Brooklyn a place where culture and arts seem to flourish?
The same things that made Soho an attractive neighborhood for arts and culture, the people who want to live and work near arts and culture in the 70s and 80s, were present in Brooklyn ten years ago, but less so now. What I mean by that is cheap space, affordable housing, varied architecture, and square footage that you couldn’t get in most of Manhattan that would enable artists to work or display their art, as well as performance space for theater and music.

Is the kind of real estate development we’re seeing here unprecedented?
The first place in Brooklyn that saw this was DUMBO 15 years ago, when people were staking out empty lofts in a neighborhood that was basically abandoned. Clearly that’s not the case anymore. These neighborhoods have this housing stock that’s now being bid up in price. But the housing stock was there for a reason. People have very short memories, and New York has so much population turnover that there aren’t many people around who remember the last boom.
Brooklyn is mistakenly sometimes thought of as a bedroom community, and that big businesses are a new introduction. Brooklyn has always been a business community. Remember, Brooklyn was once a big manufacturing and port center. It’s the character of jobs in Brooklyn that has changed.

So is this the same thing that’s happened in the past?
What is new is that there are more people than there have ever been before. People are always moving in and out, but more people are here than ever. The 2010 census showed that it’s about 400,000 residents higher than most estimates. That requires us to refill the places that had been empty and to build new housing. There’s no way to avoid the fact that we have an affordable housing crunch, and that’s because of people moving in. All the demand for housing isn’t coming from Russian oligarchs.

How can we make sure there’s a place for artists in Brooklyn going forward?
If we want New York to continue to be a place where a wide range of people can live, we have to make sure we’re producing housing at all price points through rent control and other policies, and protecting housing stock. The natural inclination of the market is to produce housing with higher margins. We need to rein that in so that we don’t increasingly become a city of only gentrified neighborhoods or about-to-be gentrified neighborhoods.


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