There’s more to contemporary Brooklyn than meets the eye, argues author and Brooklynite Kay Hymowitz in her new book The New Brooklyn.
The book explores the transformation of the borough by neighborhood, displaying Brooklyn’s famous diversity and questioning whether the new wealth that gentrification has brought about can drive positive change for the borough’s disadvantaged communities in the midst of a widening wealth gap. Each chapter explores a different neighborhood, painting a different picture of the causes and effects of gentrification in each area.
A resident of Brooklyn since 1982, Hymowitz is the Williams E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a free-market think tank concerned with public policy, and also a contributing editor at the Institute’s City Journal. The New Brooklyn is Hymowitz’s fourth book.
Hymowitz spoke to Brownstoner about her reasons for writing the book and what she learned during the process.
Brownstoner: Why did you write this book?
Hymowitz: My husband and I brought a house in Park Slope in 1982. We’ve watched the extraordinary changes that have come to the borough since that time: not just development and gentrification, but new waves of immigration. At the same time, I had been studying poverty and inequality in my work at the Manhattan Institute. I wanted to understand the broader forces that led to both Brooklyn’s growing affluence as well as the reasons so many have been left behind. What I gradually came to realize was that Brooklyn’s transition from industrial powerhouse to decline and now back to a growing post industrial economy was one that was happening in many cities around the world. I’m in Sydney, Australia at the moment: half way around the world, it was the same story, in the same time frame, including impossible housing prices.
Brownstoner: Was there anything you discovered when researching the book that surprised you?
Hymowitz: So many things: the prevalence of slavery in the 17th and 18th century, and abolitionism in the 19th. I knew about the discrimination and terrible poverty suffered by Brooklyn’s blacks, but not those experienced by the Irish. I knew about Italian and Jewish immigrants, but not Scandinavians, or the rags to riches entrepreneurs who gave us so many of our architectural gems — the mansions of Clinton Hill, Park Slope, and even Bushwick, BAM, the museum, and Prospect Park.
More generally, I was struck by how much technology fueled Brooklyn’s transformation over the centuries. Today it’s the Internet and digital tech that is changing Brooklyn’s population, labor market and neighborhoods. In the 19th century it was ferries, steam powered and electric trolleys, subways, new kinds of building materials, refrigerated train storage and so much more that took it from being rural farmland, to an industrial center, to bedroom communities like Park Slope.
Brownstoner: What do the old and new Brooklyn have in common?
Hymowitz: Brooklyn was always an immigrant city and it still is, although today immigrants come from very different parts of the world than they did in the old Brooklyn. During its industrial years, Brooklyn took in millions of poor newcomers. They came because the city’s factories and piers meant jobs – dangerous, back breaking jobs – but jobs that provided for their families and gave their children a foothold into the middle class. One question I try to examine in The New Brooklyn is whether the poor immigrants of today will find opportunity despite the disappearance of manufacturing jobs. My answer is mixed, but you’ll need to read the book to find out why.
Brownstoner: Where do you see Brooklyn going in the next generation or so given all the changes?
Hymowitz: Brooklyn, like other successful cities in advanced economies around the world, will continue to attract educated young people looking for good jobs. That means the conditions that led to gentrification will not go away and neither will housing pressures. If President Trump is able to make changes in the nation’s immigration policies he has in mind, we will see fewer poor immigrants settling here. That means fewer opportunities for the world’s poor but maybe also rising wages on the lower end. Brooklyn needs its immigrant labor; with fewer workers competing for those low skilled jobs, incomes should grow at the bottom, though consumer costs may rise.
Brownstoner: Do you see a breaking point for the kind of rapid, dislocating gentrification like Brooklyn has experienced? What comes next?
Hymowitz: We’re reaching that breaking point, aren’t we? Brooklynites face a difficult choice: Build more housing, which inevitably means changing the character of neighborhoods, or continue to see rising housing costs and displacement. We’re already seeing a kind of trickle down effect where we lose talented newcomers who would like to live here to cheaper places like Columbus, Houston and even Detroit. That’s good for those cities, but a bad sign for us. Cities rely on new talent to innovate and solve urban problems.
Researchers find that displacement — that is, residents moving involuntarily from a home or apartment due to rising home prices following the arrival of more affluent newcomers — is not as prevalent as some people think. The poor have always moved a great deal even before gentrification was a thing. But displacement happens and it’s a problem facing many cities. We can and should make sure building owners are following the law and we can use civil society groups to take advantage of their bully pulpit to sway people’s consciences.
Brownstoner: What can other cities learn from the Brooklyn experience?
Hymowitz: Most mayors would like nothing more than to attract the sort of educated newcomers Brooklyn has in spades. Those are the people who will create jobs and innovation and grow tax receipts that can be spent on infrastructure and help for less advantaged folks. Cities need to figure out how to make sure their existing businesses and institutions could take full advantage of the digital age. Along with that, they need good public transportation, low crime, decent schools. There’s nothing radical about these ideas: they’ve always been the main job of effective urban governments. Easier said then done, of course, but local municipalities are where some of the best ideas are coming from these days. We ordinary citizens need to hold our public officials accountable for these necessities.
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