Upgrading blighted Brooklyn– how gentrification reshaped the image of two New York City’s neighborhoods

Upgrading blighted Brooklyn– how gentrification reshaped the image of two New York City’s neighborhoods

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  Maciej Jakub Świderski  1 Upgrading blighted Brooklyn – how gentrification reshaped the image of two New York City’s neighborhoods. At the end of the 20 th  century, nearly all of the major American cities were under the influence of gentrification – a social, cultural, and economic phenomenon that was reshaping their usually devastated and blighted inner-cores. Nowhere this trend was, and still is, more visible than in New York City, more specifically in Brooklyn, its most populous borough. The aim of this paper is to demonstrate how gentrification influenced recent urban development of Brooklyn. In order to describe this process more accurately, I will concentrate myself on two specific neighborhoods that can serve as examples of a classic gentrification and something that can be called a cultural gentrification. These neighborhoods are Park Slope and Williamsburg. The first one, with its characteristic, late-19 th  century brownstones and the latter with its thriving artistic scene that became the motherland of New York’s hipsters. I would also try to answer the question that appears to be pivotal when analyzing the whole  process of gentrification – whether it is good or bad for a neighborhood it is reshaping. Before analyzing the impact of gentrification in Brooklyn, it is crucial to understand what actually is represented by this term. Many studies provide varied definitions that at first seem quite similar, but are very different in details. Probably due to this incoherence, nowadays the term “gentrification” is often misused, leaving a sense of ambiguity that allows certain journalists or even scholars very open interpretation. Using an accurate and well thought definition provided by Kennedy and Leonard, gentrification is the “process by which higher income households displace lower income residents of a neighborhood, changing the  2 essential character and flavor of that neighborhood.” 1  Thus, it can be described as an enormous power of change that occurs on a socio-economic, as well as on a cultural level. The term itself, was coined in 1964 by a British sociologist Ruth Glass who was describing changes affecting inner-city London at that time. 2  What she observed, was a sudden influx of middle-class people moving into poorer parts of the city and upgrading them by implementing their way of life. As the term refers to the mid-19 th  century urban gentry that can be placed on a social ladder somewhere between the poor and the landed gentry, at first, it was not broadly used. In fact, when this movement emerged in the United States in 1950s and 1960s and  became a visible response to urban renewal’s ideology of destroying all that is not compatible with modern architectural and spatial theories, nearly each major American city had its own name for the process of gentrification – “in New York City it was called ‘brownstoning’; in Baltimore, ‘homesteading’; [. . .] and in San Francisco, ‘red-brick chic.’” 3  It is worth noting that the term “gentrification” also has a quite ironic overtone since it “makes fun of the snobbish pretensions of affluent middle-class” 4  that would gladly escape the city and  preferably settle in the countryside. This can be seen in the way gentrifiers accommodate themselves to the built environment of places such as Park Slope. Although the term is not neutral, it is now used very often to describe any kind of upgrading of the urban tissue. PARK SLOPE Today’s Park Slope is one of the more affluent neighborhoods in Brooklyn. What is  probably the most significant characteristic of this part of the city are its streets lined with 19 th  century brownstone buildings. The neighborhood, as it looks today, was created in the 1870s 1  Kennedy and Leonard, "Dealing with Neighborhood Change: A Primer on Gentrification and Policy Choices." 2  Lees, Gentrification , 4. 3  Ibid., 6. 4  Ibid., 5.    3 when the area became a typical, rich streetcar suburb that bordered the huge Prospect Park – “526 acres of rolling meadows, picturesque bluffs, and luxuriant verdure.” 5  It became a  powerful alternative for the densely populated Manhattan. For decades, this place was known for its fine Victorian residences, brownstone and brick luxurious row houses, and vast green spaces. The first major change was brought by a massive outflow of upper middle class in the 1950s, known as the white flight. The effects of suburban sprawl were reflected in neighborhood’s dilapidated and often abandoned houses and the fact that local industries were  becoming less and less profitable. As a result, 1950s’ Park Slope saw a great influx of working-class Italians, Irish, and later, in the 1960s, Latinos and Blacks became another visible part of the area. 6  The situation was grave to the point that in 1965, Park Slope was named “[t]he run down area of downtown Brooklyn” by the  New York World Telegram . 7  But in the late 1960s, as the whole city was drowning deeper and deeper in the hopelessness, violence, and omnipresence of drugs, the neighborhood was experiencing another turn in its fate – artists and young liberals started to reshape the history of Park Slope. The neighborhood “started to open up; the boarding houses were bought for as little as $14,000, cleaned out, rebuilt and rewired,” as Pete Hammill, a local journalist, wrote in 1969. 8  The  process of gentrification began. Throughout the next decades, young, liberal couples, gays and lesbians, and many artists started to renovate abandoned or blighted houses across the neighborhood. They managed to infuse the area with a great dose of optimism, bringing with themselves their creativity, eagerness to change the overwhelming effects of suburbanization, and, most 5  Federal Writers’ Project, The WPA Guide to New York City . 6  Lees, Gentrification , 22. 7  Ibid.,23. 8  Hamill, "Brooklyn Revisited."    4 importantly, their vision of life in a nice, well-maintained urban space. People that moved to the area were generally regarded as “alternative,” liberal, and very tolerant, so their arrival triggered a massive influx of lesbians, attracted by the overall appeal of the neighborhood. Definitely, “Park Slope became a supportive, liberal, and tolerant queer space.” 9  Of course, such revitalization of both architecture and social strata of Park Slope would not be possible without appropriate financial strategy. Starting with a so-called “sweat equity” at the very beginnings of the whole gentrification movement, the area underwent many changes thanks to gentrifiers’ progressiveness and favorable actions taken by the federal government at that time. Probably the most significant of the acts passed by the Congress, was the 1977 Federal Community Reinvestment Act that made mortgages on  previously redlined parts of the city much easier to get. 10  What also appears to be crucial for the rapid revival of Park Slope, were the many initiatives of public utility companies. They invested in so-called “Cinderella Schemes,” projects that helped to renovate buildings that were far too big to be cared by private persons. The most notable example of such company is Brooklyn Union Gas which started to invest its money in the neighborhood as soon as in 1965. Such “Cinderella Schemes” were profitable not only for the local community, but also for the company itself, as it gained a stable and faithful consumer base. 11  Beginning in the late 1980s, Park Slope gradually regained the title of one of the most affluent parts of Brooklyn. Gentrification turned from the hands of private owners of the  brownstones to more schematized process triggered by the developers called “Ready Maders.” They sold what was influenced by the years of gentrification, creating a type of a  property that already had a certain “ready-made image.” Later came the phenomena such as super-gentrification in the parts situated closer to the Prospect Park, and overspill 9  Lees, Gentrification , 24. 10  Ibid., 29. 11  Ibid., 27.    5 gentrification 12  that struck cheaper areas of Park Slope. 13  Nevertheless, the neighborhood is nowadays considered one of the best places to live in the whole city. WILLIAMSBURG  Situated just across the East River from the dazzling streets of Manhattan, Williamsburg is now considered one of the most hip neighborhoods in the United States and  probably in the whole world. Just as in Park Slope, this outstanding characteristic is a result of many years of gentrification, but in this case, instead of upgrading mainly residential areas, the phenomenon took a much more cultural dimension. For this part of Brooklyn, creativity was the main force of influence in reshaping its identity, both physical and spiritual. Contrary to the neighboring Park Slope, Williamsburg was always identified with the industry and cheap dwellings for working-class immigrants rather than affluent residential space for those seeking refuge from the congested streets of Manhattan. In fact, it was quite hard to live in this part of the city as “factories were Dickensian sweatshops of dirt and squalor, social life was lived on the street, and residents often turned on each other.” 14  Instead of rows of brownstones and brick houses, the district was lined with ugly factories and tenements full of Polish and Latino immigrants. What is probably the most emblematic landmark of this area is not any park, nor a beautiful mansion, but a Domino sugar refinery – a huge complex of industrial buildings, dating from the end of the 19 th  century, 15  that dominates a portion of East River waterfront. Despite all that, the first hint of what was going to happen to the neighborhood appeared as early as in the 1940s, when numerous writers 12  Overspill gentrification – outward spread of middle-class households beyond neighborhoods where high rents of gentrification have been previously established (Allueva, "Gentrification and the Four Sisters: Towards a Shared Inner City"). 13  Lees, Gentrification , 30. 14  Zukin,  Naked City , 39. 15  Ferri, "A History of the Domino Sugar Factory Controversy."  
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