The Hot Seat: Gretchen Maneval


Welcome to the Hot Seat, where we interview folks involved in Brooklyn real estate, architecture, development and the like. Introducing Gretchen Maneval, the Director of the The Center for the Study of Brooklyn. It is the only research center devoted exclusively to the study of public affairs in this borough.

Brownstoner: What neighborhood do you live in and how did you end up there?
Gretchen Maneval: I live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with my husband Eric and our 3 year old son Sebastian… and I have to also mention our lovely dog, Winifred (Winnie). We are expecting our second son in May. Before finding a listing for our house on Craig’s List by the previous owner- yes, Craig’s List!- about 6 years ago, we lived in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. We’re very fortunate to have found a close knit and diverse community here in Crown Heights.

BS: The Center for the Study of Brooklyn is the only research center dedicated to Brooklyn. So how did it come to be?
GM: The Center for the Study of Brooklyn was launched at Brooklyn College in 2005. The Brooklyn Community Foundation (then Independence Foundation) approached Brooklyn College with the concept for the Center, and along with Brooklyn College, provided planning and funding to support the Center’s creation. The Brooklyn Community Foundation sees the Center as an extension of their work, as we not only inform their grantmaking to Brooklyn’s nonprofits by providing data and identifying trends on critical issues across the borough, but we also help make communities stronger through information that encourages and empowers residents to take action- to make more Brooklynites agents for positive change in our neighborhoods.

When I became the Center’s director in August 2007, we began developing our research-based agenda with the input of Brooklyn College faculty and staff, the Brooklyn Community Foundation, and feedback from Brooklyn-based organizations and institutions. The Center’s success is certainly a tribute to the initial visionary leadership of Brooklyn College, the Brooklyn Community Foundation and the Brooklyn Borough President’s Office. They’ve all understood for years the importance of data-driven decision making to support more effective public policy, program and service development, and funding.

After the jump, Gretchen talks about the Center’s current priorities, the Brooklyn Neighborhood Reports, and why she loves Crown Heights…
BS: What are the Center’s current research priorities? Is the goal of the center to reach a broad audience or cater to a more specific one?
GM: One of the Center’s ongoing research priorities is to provide pro bono and fee for service (depending up on the scope of work) data analysis and mapping technical assistance for Brooklyn-based groups and researchers that support their funding proposals, advocacy efforts, changes in programming and Brooklyn-focused research. We produce these customized reports using over 80 existing data sets, and visually present the data for these groups in tables, charts, graphs and maps so that it’s as compelling as possible to advance their important work.

The existing data sets that the Center currently uses, including the U.S. Census, are the best and most comprehensive data that we (the Center and anyone who uses data) have to rely on. However, it’s important to consider that all data have their limitations. Whether the limitations stem from how the data are collected, low response rates, self-reporting, and/or how the data are analyzed or presented, data about a particular topic should not be viewed as the definitive truth when being used to inform policy, funding or programming decisions. It’s vital that in addition to considering the existing data, we also hear directly from those who live and work in a community about their experiences, and their perspectives.

For example, the approach of the Center for our current partnership with CAMBA and their federally funded Flatbush Promise Neighborhood project, is to marry the quantitative with the qualitative in order to achieve the most accurate picture of trends and issues impacting that community. During Town Hall meetings or in focus groups, the Center may present and ask people to reflect on the existing community level data. Does the data resonate with them? Does it align with their own experiences? If they agree with what the data are saying, why might the trends and changes be happening? What do the data say about the community’s assets and needs? If people don’t agree with the data, why do they think there’s a difference between the data and their own experiences? The data the Center presents, and the qualitative information we gather, are simply a foundation upon which the community can continue to make informed decisions about policies, funding and programming that impact them.

BS: The Center just released its Brooklyn Neighborhood Reports. From those reports, what are your predictions on how Brooklyn neighborhoods will be growing/changing in the next few years?
GM: When we look at data about Brooklyn as whole, we can see that in recent years much of Brooklyn has been booming. Many of the basic indicators show that Brooklyn is doing relatively well compared with ten and twenty years ago. However, as a subtext to this prosperity, immense disparities emerge when we look at data on the neighborhood level. While some Brooklyn neighborhoods and their residents appear to be thriving, certain communities are still experiencing considerable inequities. So while we celebrate and build upon our recent successes here in Brooklyn, it’s important to acknowledge that there is still change to be made.

Each of the 19 neighborhood reports- one for each of the borough’s 18 Community Districts, and one for all of Brooklyn- include over 90 indicators that explore 9 different theme areas in 600 pages. Some examples of data from each of the theme areas of the All Brooklyn report are:

  • Demographics:
  • 37% of Brooklyn residents are foreign born and only half (54%) of Brooklyn households speak English as their primary language.

  • Economy:
  • The percentage of people (including children) in Brooklyn living in poverty has decreased slightly since 1990 (from 22% to 21%, and 33% to 31% for children), but is still higher than in New York City, New York State and the United States.
    Housing: It’s no surprise that the foreclosure rate in Brooklyn has more than doubled since 2000, from the rate of 11 foreclosures per 1000 1-4 family properties, to 25 foreclosures per 1-4 family 1000 properties in 2010 (NYC’s rate is approximately 22 foreclosures per 1000 1-4 family properties).

  • Environment:
  • The percentage of Brooklynites who walk or ride their bikes to work (10%) is three times the national percentage (3%), and the percentage who take public transportation (60%) is twelve times the national percentage (5%). Over 5 million pounds of garbage (85% of total waste) and recycling (15%) are collected each day in Brooklyn- that’s 2.1 pounds per person daily.

  • Public Safety:
  • Felony crime rates are approximately 1/5 of what they were in 1990, but they are still slightly higher than for New York City as a whole.

Listed above are just a few examples of data points for Brooklyn as a whole. A more in-depth analysis of each of the 9 theme areas of the Brooklyn Neighborhood Reports will be included in the Center’s forthcoming Brooklyn Trends Report, to be released in 2012.

BS: Finally, your favorites: favorite Brooklyn neighborhood, favorite BK house/building/or property, and favorite little-known-fact about the borough.
GM: Crown Heights is my favorite neighborhood in Brooklyn. I say this having lived or worked in many of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods in the last decade, both in my current role as the Center’s director and in my past work as an affordable housing developer. Although every neighborhood in Brooklyn has wonderfully special attributes, Crown Heights is where our home is and where we’re raising our family. It’s where I’ve witnessed first hand, every day for the past 6 years, the spirit of community, of kindness and generosity. It’s a community where neighbors who may have incredibly diverse backgrounds, including different religions, ethnicities, incomes, education, etc. strive every day to learn from one another, celebrating together the triumphs, and addressing the challenges, of urban living.

My favorite property is one I worked to develop during my tenure with the Fifth Avenue CommitteeRed Hook Homes. The largest affordable homeownership project in Red Hook’s history, it’s what is called a “mixed income cooperative”, so it’s affordable to people who have a range of incomes.

Favorite little-know-fact: Brooklyn’s population is larger than Boston, Indianapolis and San Francisco combined!

4 Comment

  • Gretchen is a wonderful person doing important work, here in Brooklyn. Crown Heights North is very proud to have the Maneval’s as our own, and as great neighbors, giving good cheer as well as accepting it. I didn’t know you were expecting again – many congrats!

  • stuyheightsarch

    Gretchen you seem like a very cool person!

  • stuyheightsarch

    Gretchen you seem like a very cool person!

  • Brenda from Flatbush

    Nice lady, but golly, I have almost no idea what all that jargon actually means. However, it does seem as if the coming CAMBA honeypot is getting lots of people’s attention. This “federally funded Flatbush Promise Neighborhood project” is a vaguely worded initiative to make life a paradise for every child, from cradle to grave, within a carefully demarcated swath of East Flatbush–to the tune of $30 million! The current phase is, apparently, to find out who would like to do what with $30 million of taxpayer money. I’ll bet lots of people will be ordering up reams of data!