What I Miss About Brooklyn

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Longtime Brooklynite and Brownstoner reader Heather Murray recently moved from Clinton Hill to Washington, D.C., because of a job change. But the Brooklyn she misses was already history before she left. She writes:

I’ve always loved places with history — and Brooklyn used to be such a place. Old lived easily alongside the new. People had rent control and rent stabilization, which meant –- pretty much –- that if you stayed in one place for long enough, you could build a nice life there.

But Brooklyn has changed. I’m stating the obvious, but that’s what I do.

Brooklyn used to be a place where you could step back in time. Parts of the city seemed to be completely unchanged from the ’20s, the ’30s, the ’40s, the ’50s and so on. There was Italian Williamsburg, and Polish Greenpoint, and Prospect Lefferts Gardens (which I only remember being referred to as “Flatbush” back then) and the Dyno-mite Lounge. Pork stores and Wash-O-Matics. Century-old bakeries on residential streets, and the fresh bread smell in the morning.

What I find most depressing about the pace of Brooklyn’s change is the erosion of the communities that Chris Arnade celebrates in his article, “Some Things I Will Miss About Brooklyn.” Working class people in Brooklyn are now under siege. If they’re lucky, they might get a buyout, or a lottery slot for affordable housing. If they’re not, they’re displaced. I knew a family at our old school in Clinton Hill who commuted from Staten Island. STATEN ISLAND — so that their kids could stay with their friends and be near extended family for childcare. In Clinton Hill and elsewhere in Brooklyn, churches are closing. And the people — the people that spun the fabric of these amazing communities? Those people are leaving.

They leave for East New York, for Atlanta, for the Poconos, for Forest Hills, for Yonkers. They leave for Mamaroneck, for Montclair, for Austin, for Florida. And they are replaced with people who are never home (perhaps because they work all the time?). They are being replaced by investors, or relocated bankers from Europe on two-year assignments. New York City has always been a place where people come from elsewhere and move to — in that sense, none of this is new. But what’s being lost now is being replaced with a facade of itself. Behind that reclaimed barn wood is cheap drywall. And all the patina of old Brooklyn that the new Brooklyn loves — the Edison lights, the “hand-crafted” cocktails (as opposed to made by… robots?), the artisanal pickles –- all of that doesn’t make up for the real thing that’s gone forever.

All of that fake patina, replacing the real.

I’m a hypocrite. I enjoy a good restaurant with reclaimed barn wood and old timey wallpaper just as much as the rest of my herd. But, having left Brooklyn and most of that motif behind (we live now in a part of D.C. that doesn’t have much of it) — I’m not missing having three wood-burning pizza restaurants that make their own cheese within a five-block radius of my house. I’m not missing much, actually. Except the people. I miss the people terribly. And I hope that everyone who wants to can manage to stay.

67 Comment

  • What a ridiculous rant. Sort of a greatest hits of hating on new Brooklyn. I’m not going to waste my time pointing out every inaccuracy and gross generalization in here but this one

    “they are replaced with people who are never home (perhaps because they work all the time?). They are being replaced by investors, or relocated bankers from Europe on two-year assignments”

    takes the cake. Citation please???!????

  • This essay is insufferable, and I am speaking as a native-born Brooklynite from working class roots.

    Memo to Heather: the role of the working class in Brooklyn is not to serve as a backdrop in your life, to somehow make you feel good about yourself and your search for authenticity. Like everyone else, they are looking to get ahead in their lives, and if that takes them out of Brooklyn, so be it. I grew up in an area that has not been gentrified (Gravesend). The vast majority of people I grew up with moved out to Staten Island and Jersey, way before the real estate boom. They did so in search of what they perceived to be a better life, and that is what is important. Deal with it.

    I note that, like many of these insufferable essays, you don’t actually don’t relate too many stories of actual dealings with working-class people. Again, they are just to serve as a backdrop or fodder for “photo essays”. I’ll tell you what, Heather: for a fee, I’ll have my dad come to your place and regale you of stories of old-time Brooklyn. He’s old-school Red Hook, and says “terlet” instead of toilet. OK?

    • LOL – DC has an even bigger socio-economic / race divide than Brooklyn/NYC does.

      Trading in banker bros for k-street lobbyists – progress!

      • I’d agree with that now, but this, from my perspective, is a relative recent phenomenon. When I was growing up in Bed Stuy, the neighborhood was so black (as were Harlem, ENY, Brownsville, Crown Heights, with the exception of the Hasidic Jewish area, etc.) that it was big news when the first Hispanic family (who happened to be Hispanics of predominately non-African origin) moved on the block. Things have definitely changed with gentrification as more whites have moved back into what had been traditionally segregated, overwhelmingly black or Hispanic neighborhoods.

  • hate these essays as well. i’m white, bought a house in bed stuy recently, love my block and would consider myself part of this “new brooklyn”. no, i don’t work all day, don’t work in finance, didn’t kick out a poor black family living there, my neighbors are a mix of white and black working class people who bought their properties at the right time and don’t intend to leave…i could go on and on.

    sure there is a new brooklyn and areas are indeed changing but to say that everything good is being wiped out by new people who don’t care about the neighborhood and it’s all “so sad” is really just a dumb argument.

  • The writer could have easily kept the people and lost the woodfired pizza places long ago by simply moving to the other 3/4 of the borough which – shocker – still exists, and still has most of the attributes that the writer claims to value. You just can’t find those people AND a 15 minute commute to Manhattan anymore.

    • Duh. If the job hadn’t happened, I would have penned a similar rant from Woodhaven.

      • “Duh.”

        Ok you really are a moron. I’ll stop trying to interact intelligently with you.

        • And then there was the Brownstoner community itself.

          I would not say it was ever a happy place; but it used to be a nice place. An amusing place. A place where you could ask someone what they thought of your wallpaper choices, or buying a house on Bergen Street and you’d get honest responses. And snark. But amusing snark. It felt like a community too–because the posters themselves were from such a wide swath of Brooklyn-dom pretty much every group was represented and united in their love of Brooklyn.

          What’s changed? Where are they now?

  • Also this irony of this “essay” being published here is just too much. Heather- FYI brownstoner is so complicit in all that you seem to hate about what Brooklyn has become (the stupid flea and smorg, champions of escalating real estate prices, etc). It would have been prudent of you to publish this crap elsewhere.

  • Whatevs, Benson :)

    If you think I don’t hang out with my community, you don’t know me very well. But that’s okay. You’re not one of the ones I miss.

  • I liked the essay.
    I’ve been in Brooklyn 15 years. My family has been in Brooklyn for over 100 years.
    I’m about to buy a house in Flatbush. We almost couldn’t make it work and were thinking of Beacon, California, or out of the country. Many of my friends are trying to buy, to raise families, and going upstate, or the Bronx, or the West. They are in the arts or teachers. Brooklyn is losing them.
    There are good gentrifiers and bad ones – I’m going to try (like most of you have) to be good.
    The essay has some hyperbole but mostly rings true to me.
    Jane Jacobs talks about balance and economic diversity as part of healthy neighborhoods. In the past decade or so, some Brooklyn neighborhoods have gained balance and some have lost it.

  • Funny, these comments don’t reflect my own response to this article at all. I was at a goodbye dinner last week for a longtime Brooklynite who’s moving out of the city. Nearly all of the attendees felt what Heather expressed, that there is something missing in the gentrified neighborhoods, that feeling you get when you live in a small place–I don’t mean Ohio, by the way–where people know your name. I felt it yesterday afternoon in Carroll Gardens, on line at an Italian bakery for ices–the real kind. I didn’t feel it last weekend in Clinton Hill. If I were buying now, I’d be looking at the working class neighborhoods in Queens or, if I had a little more money, at the long-gentrified and stable parts of Brooklyn. But there is something terrifyingly hip and transient about today’s Brooklyn. I appreciate the safer streets, but I don’t love the attitude and the $8, locally sourced chocolate bars. Silly of me, I guess.

    • “the long-gentrified and stable parts of Brooklyn.”

      oh ok, so carroll gardens where houses sell for $3+mm is OK because you got “that feeling” at the quaint italian ice shoppe but newly gentrified fort greene is bad because places sell $8 chocolate bars and that does not give you the same feeling? makes perfect sense.

      (FYI no chocolate is locally sourced so if you are gonna hate at least try to hate in a factually correct manner, mkayyy???).

      • It makes perfect sense to me, actually. By “locally sourced,” I mean that it’s manufactured in a cute warehouse somewhere in Brooklyn with adorable, old-fashioned looking faux hand-drawn labels. And washed down with something from a micro-brewery that comes in a mason jar. I didn’t say Fort Greene is bad (I live here and am grateful I bought several years back), just that I find it tiresome and stupidly hip, which it wasn’t when we moved here.

    • wow – i wish i had your problems.

    • “I didn’t feel it last weekend in Clinton Hill.”

      could have been because on the weekend (especially saturdays when the dumb flea is going on) clinton hill is full of tourists.

    • I was in a Carroll Gardens Italian bakery a couple of weeks ago and there were some life long residents in there getting their lard bread and seeded loaves and talking about who was cooking what for Sunday dinner.

      Mastellones has reopened so there is that. In surprised there has been no coverage of that.

    • It’s just a fantasy you’re having – you wouldn’t last 5 minutes in a working class area of Queens.

    • I do know what you mean. I don’t think that really exists in many places in New York anymore and ironically I think that’s what made a lot of people pick Brooklyn over Manhattan. Manhattan has certainly lost that flavor. On the flip side, I do think you can try to establish those connections in the more gentrified sections. It may not come as naturally and you probably have to work harder at it, but I bet it’s there.

  • What is the Old Brooklyn? I’m born, raised and I reside in Brooklyn. The Old Brooklyn to me a 28 year old guy, is my parents & grandparents Brooklyn. Playing in the gutter, watching the Dodgers & maybe taking a ride in to “New York City” aka Manhattan, playing scully etc etc…that wasn’t MY Brooklyn. My Brooklyn is basically still the same minus crime, the mob, fireworks on the 4th of July & seeing kids play in the streets all day and night at any opportunity just throw in new people, new restaurants & more culture & its still Brooklyn. My Brooklyn is different from my parents Brooklyn, my parents Brooklyn is different then their parents Brooklyn and so and so forth…the beauty of Brooklyn is that it for ever changing. Every generation has their own take on what Brooklyn was for them. Brooklyn has changed the most where ever there is a train, there are still plenty of Brooklyn neighborhoods where “This change” hasn’t happened yet. I do feel that the real estate boom in certain parts of Brooklyn ie: Bed-Stuy, Bushwick, Crown Heights has happened way to quick and is kind of un fair but so is life…at the same time Brooklyn has become a global phenomenon, a central hub for ideas, art & culinary awesomeness. 20 years from now when the next generation grows up they’ll be commenting about how they miss charcutterie & cheese shops, the stroller mafia & when a brownstone only cost $2mil….BROOKLYN IS THE WORLD.

    • Spot on. The only issue I have with what you wrote is that Brooklyn in not a “hub…for culinary awesomeness.” Yes, there are some very good reataurants, some great even but it has a long way to go

    • Thank you, BigGuy. Really, this pseudo-nostalgia is so tiresome. I first lived in Brooklyn in the early 1980s and hated it. Everything was seedy and run-down. Rental apartments were squalid. Petty crime and muggings were rampant. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. I was thrilled to move to Manhattan in 1988. I reluctantly returned in 1999 and quickly discovered, to my delight, that things were finally improving. Now I’d never want to leave. Do I regret that the RE market is absurd and people have been priced out of neighborhoods where they’ve lived for years. Yes, of course. Am I sorry that empty lots — there are still many on the eastern edge of Prospect Heights where I live — are being built on and the area has been totally revitalized? No, certainly not. Progress is a fact of life.

  • Heather,
    Good luck in DC. If I remember correctly I think you and I have had some conversations on this blog about schools, particularly the expansion of Arts and Letters.

  • no bickering here. My thoughts are that these types of ‘how things have changed’ are more nostalgia for ones youth. Kind of mourning for a more innocent time in ones own life. The person has changed (aged/matured hopefully) and misses the younger self

  • Sunset Park, with its miles of affordable brownstones, limestones and rowhouses, plus rent-stabilized apartment buildings, has barely changed at all since I lived there in the late 1980′s, with one exception: it is much, much safer now. Our block even then, 25 years ago, was about 33% Chinese, 33% Hispanic, and 33% white. All working class. My Italian immigrant in-laws still live in the neighborhood at the demographics of their micro-neighborhood in the Chinatown end haven’t changed much at all, except maybe the renters nowadays are better educated, if not better employed. OK, it’s about half Chinese now in our area, but many of our old neighbors are the same teachers, firemen, cops, plumbers and bus drivers who lived there there when I did, but now most of them are retired. There are still plenty of mom and pop shops, small grocers, great transportation options. Public schools there are still undesirable to many so there is no stroller gridlock, but Fourth Avenue no longer has obvious drug dealing. There is nothing twee or hipster in the neighborhood, despite the fact that many artists do in fact live and work in Sunset Park. A few good cafes (plus of course the Chinese, South American and Mexican restaurants and plenty of old-man Irish bars), but no Starbucks or yoga studios. Heather, had you not changed jobs and needed to leave the city, you would have done well to consider Sunset Park.

    • Sunset Park is lovely, but it has gotten expensive over the last year. 2 family houses east of the expressway are pretty much all over a million now. Nothing currently twee or hipster in the neighborhood, but those people buying row houses are going to want coffee and a bistro pretty soon.

  • Although the essay is well written, and I understand the sentiment, I’m a bit tired of reading the articles about the evils of gentrification. I think we are putting our energies in the wrong place. Firstly, change happens We need to accept this. New York especially has always changed. Old Jewish Irish and Italian neighborhoods became immigrant, Puerto Rican and black neighborhoods, etc. The population keeps growing so middle class people will begin spreading to the outer boroughs Also people that used to move to the suburbs now want to stay in the city. These are signs of a city with economic prosperity.

    I believe we need to focus on education and economic empowerment of people of color. We are still living in a capitalist system and money talks. Until this changes, we will not be able to make choices as to where we’d like to live. We need to pressure our government officials to improve our schools and provide a SAFE method for poorer people to get home loans. The homes may no longer be in brownstone Brooklyn but in a new area that in some years will become the next “new” neighborhood. This is coming from someone who is as nostalgic as the rest of you.

    • Property tax reform would be a good start to raise revenue to improve schools. It is absurd that a $2mm row house is only paying $2500 a year in taxes. Unfortunately no politician will go near this issue, so we are stuck with a situation where rich people buy expensive homes with low taxes and send their kids to private school because the public schools are crap. As long as this is the equation the schools are not getting better any time soon.

  • “They leave for East New York, for Atlanta, for the Poconos, for Forest Hills, for Yonkers.”

    A: East New York IS in Brooklyn.
    B: What is wrong with East New York?
    C: I’m born and raised in East New York and now own a brownstone in Crown Heights. Brooklyn is a great place to live and I love it but there are other great places. I miss some people but people tend to come and go. Life is what you make it.

  • I just gotta say. This was kind of a weird read. So What You Miss About Brooklyn is nothing. Well ok. The only thing you miss about Brooklyn are the people. The people who are apparently being forced away. Um. Ok.

    Look. Nostalgia is fine. We all experience it, but sometimes it doesn’t need to be aired, but that’s your choice.

    I also lament the branding of Brooklyn and the sameness of it all. Please – no more Edison light bulbs, subway tiles and reclaimed wood! However, contrary, to your assertion, history never stops.