Where I live, people ask for directions. Not just occasionally; they ask constantly, every day. It’s a busy, crowded neighborhood, in downtown Brooklyn, and direction-givers are everywhere. Residents and commuters, tourists and students, the court officers and transit workers and security guards wearing name tags — we’re all ready to assist, to direct. I love watching the give-and-get of directions, and not only in my neighborhood. Lately I’ve watched route-seeking people outside train stations in downtown Cleveland and along Congress Street in Austin and in Pittsburgh near the station on Liberty Street, where I sought directions myself. Most obviously it’s tourists who need directions, but in Brooklyn on Monday mornings it’s not hard to spot someone worried about arriving on time for an interview, looking for connections to a train or a bus.
Amidst the triumphalist rhetoric about American cities, it’s important to remember that their vital workings are rooted in encounters at once palpable and mundane.
I’ve come to think of directions as one of the most gratifying aspects of city life, an elegant and utilitarian intersection of the human need to both seek and give help. I’ve also come to think of directions as emblematic of what makes America’s urban environments work, and what makes them falter and break down. Looking at a city through the lens of directions — of people asking and giving, enacting a kind of unsung civic ritual — helps us consider what’s ailing American cities, even those we claim to have revived. Amidst the triumphalist rhetoric about contemporary cities, it feels important to remember that their most vital workings are rooted in human encounters at once palpable and mundane.
I give my share of directions. Just the other day, at noon, I gave directions to four women who live in a village in the mountains outside Barcelona. They’d asked directions to a subway station a mile away for a train that didn’t go where they wanted to go. I walked them around the corner to the stop for a bus that would take them exactly there. Earlier I’d directed a housekeeper who was on her way to clean a house to an out-of-the-way street, a two-block remnant of 19th-century row houses, now flanked by two glass-walled towers. She was standing on my corner, looking flustered, a policeman having just pointed out two conflicting routes; even his smartphone was confused (as smartphones often are in my neighborhood). I think she asked me out of desperation.
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Not surprisingly, a lot of people in downtown Brooklyn are looking for the Brooklyn Bridge. Directions for which are easy because you are never far from the great crossing. Yet it’s not so easy to describe the ways in which this icon of American engineering continues to serve as a vital link to the past, to a deeper history of the national landscape. Most immediately, the bridge connects the borough to Wall Street and the machinations of the financial industry and its encompassing power. More expansively, the bridge connects us to the early years of the American industrial project, to those decades in the mid-19th century when the German-born civil engineer John Augustus Roebling — years before he would create his masterwork in Brooklyn — was designing aqueducts across the Allegheny and Delaware Rivers, and railway bridges across Niagara and the Ohio.
In those decades industrial America, modern America, was creating itself. Our new world cities were beginning to rival the old world cities, and railroads were connecting the great coastal population centers with the riches and resources of the continent, with silver and copper from the Great Basin, with wheat from the Midwest and cattle from the Plains. In those decades modern Brooklyn was emerging as well, urbanizing and expanding, developing the shipyards and factories, refineries and foundries, that would make the borough a manufacturing and maritime powerhouse. This is of course the very infrastructure that would spiral into deep decline as the great industries that arose in the 19th century were inexorably unmade over the course of the 20th century. And it is this same infrastructure that has been revived and rehabilitated, or, to put it more accurately, transformed into valuable real estate, into waterfront parklands and enclaves and incubators that have propelled the rise of post-industrial Brooklyn. But that could make the history sound too neat, or even planned; the transformations are by no means complete.
So let me direct you to the streets of contemporary Brooklyn, to guide you to some places in my neighborhood and in nearby neighborhoods, to places that are wildly popular with tourists and long-time residents alike. But as your guide I would like to try to direct you further. I’d like to describe not only the beautiful new park and busy old downtown, the new condominiums and old public housing, but also the directions I see the neighborhood headed; to describe why I think my neighborhood, and indeed so many urban neighborhoods around the country, seem to me to be headed in wrong directions; and why the more I give directions, the more I worry that we are somehow terribly lost.
To describe our dislocation, I’ll need to direct you again to the Brooklyn Bridge. It is indeed a great place to experience New York harbor and the Manhattan skyline, to feel the wind and watery air and to sense the maritime city in your bones. For my purpose, it is important to point out that years ago the tourists who were asking directions to the bridge were not in Brooklyn. Years ago the tourists were in Manhattan, and usually they’d walk partway across; or maybe venture all the way to the outer borough for a good steak, or to the Brooklyn Museum, which opened in 1897, at the height of the great industrial era.
Years ago the tourists were in Manhattan because Brooklyn had declined but not yet been “revived.” It had not yet been transformed into what CNBC has called “NYC’s most happening borough,” or what the New York Times has described as a “teeming waterfront playground.” 1 In the decades before the new millennium, Brooklyn had not yet become a brand, a symbol and signifier for creative urban lifestyles; and, crucially, pre-revival Brooklyn was not yet what it would manage to become: a premium commodity.
The revival of the city is by now an oft-told tale. In the familiar narrative, the post-industrial resurrection of New York was the project primarily of two powerful mayors. Starting in the ’90s, Rudolph Giuliani, a former prosecutor, got famously “tough on crime,” and “cleaned up” the streets, targeting drugs and crime, prostitution and pornography. Continuing in the first decade of the new century, Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor, got famously bullish on the city as an enterprise, promoting entrepreneurship and investment. In this telling, Giuliani made the city tourist-friendly, and Bloomberg made it business-friendly. By the mid-aughts, real estate development had taken off like a rocket, and as Manhattan prices hit stratospheric heights, the boom traveled to the outer boroughs, though none more than Brooklyn. Suddenly the borough, long perceived as faded and unfashionable, was viewed as ripe for renewal, from the workaday downtown to the neglected waterfront to the decayed industrial structures. 2
Yet this now familiar narrative largely overlooked the vitality of those borough neighborhoods that had long been populated predominantly by people of color. If you look, for instance, at a map that appeared in the community newspaper The Phoenix, in 1978, you can see such revitalizing neighborhoods as Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, Cobble Hill. But more telling are the neighborhoods not pictured: Bedford-Stuyvesant, Farragut, Red Hook, all lower-income neighborhoods with majority minority populations. In the blank area on the map to the east of Borough Hall is the downtown Brooklyn shopping district known as Fulton Street, where in the 1860s the merchant Abraham Abraham would open the first store of what became the major chain Abraham & Straus. By the 1970s, Fulton Street, now sometimes called Fulton Mall, was the third busiest retail street in the U.S., with an estimated 400,000 daily shoppers. But still it was invisible to the gentrifying neighborhoods, and to city officials it was a “blight” to repair. The unmarked area on the map would thus not participate in the narrative of revival.
The narrative of ‘revival’ largely overlooked the vitality of neighborhoods that have long been populated predominantly by people of color.
Today, at the very heart of the city’s spectacular success, of its “revival,” is not its redevelopment as a place to live but rather its reconceptualization as a brand to market. “I’ve spent my career thinking about strategies that institutions in the private sector should pursue,” Michael Bloomberg told participants at an invitation-only economic summit in 2003, “and the more I learn about this institution called New York City, the more I see the ways in which it needs to think like a private company.” Accordingly the city has been spiffed up and sold as a commodity, a dazzling array of goods and services, a super-desirable location for investment, a pleasure ground for tourists, and a cleaner, safer place to live for that increasingly small percentage of the population which can afford the plutocratic prices. Bloomberg again: “If New York City is a business, it isn’t Walmart — it isn’t trying to be the lowest-priced product in the market. It’s a high-end product, maybe even a luxury product.” 3
New York City had tried marketing itself before, most famously in the “I♥NY” campaign that emerged during the fiscal despair of the 1970s. No matter that the Milton Glaser graphic was an instant icon; the effort had more popular appeal than economic impact. But Bloomberg’s bespoke branding — recasting the city as a premium product, dedicated to the business of businesses — has worked like an opulent charm. In 1990 New York saw 25 million tourists; last year, almost 60 million. The population increased too, from 7.3 million to 8.5 million. 4 All of which helps to explain why the direction-seeking, bridge-hunting tourists, once relatively rare on the Brooklyn side, are now so numerous, and why my neighborhood, once so comfortably quotidian, seems now to offer so much, so many attractions, even beyond the forever iconic bridge.
One of the attractions to which more and more tourists ask directions is Brooklyn Bridge Park, the new recreational space that has become emblematic of the now happening borough. The tourists I direct to Brooklyn Bridge Park will come upon a series of outdoor spaces that are beautifully designed. The sports fields are recreational jewels, built on refurbished piers that years ago were decommissioned as loading docks. One pier has been left to dilapidate, to serve as a kind of designated relic or historic totem — a function it performs especially well at sunset, at high tide, as tourists pose for Instagrammable moments, with Lower Manhattan visible across the river, and the spire of the new World Trade Center a kind of exclamation point on the skyline.
The sports fields on the reclaimed piers are great not just for tourists but also for New Yorkers: the basketball courts that overlook the harbor, the soccer fields that are always booked, the beach volleyball that lasts all night long in summer. There’s even boating: a dock to put in your kayak, a marina for yachts (yachts being a sign of the new Brooklyn). On a weekend afternoon, the esplanade is crowded with people looking out across the tidal strait to Manhattan, an architectural rendering come to life. The greenery is exquisite. The designers have taken seriously the idea that urban nature is no less natural than rural nature. The spartina grass, newly planted in the nooks and crannies of the old piers, primes the harbor’s ecological activity, and is just one small measure of how the new park has improved the environmental functioning of this old site.
As described on its website, the park is “an 85-acre post-industrial waterfront site stretching 1.3 miles along Brooklyn’s East River edge,” offering “vibrant vistas, rich ecology, and expansive piers.” The phrase to which I will direct your attention is “post-industrial.” Except for its location, below the one and only Brooklyn Bridge, the park is similar to many parks across the country that have been constructed on sites once dedicated to industry, to extracting, manufacturing, processing, transporting. And here I need to point out the socio-economic narrative that underpins this new park: the idea that has been central to its creation is that those refurbished piers — the new recreational fields — were once active, “a site of bustling commerce,” but that at some point that activity died. This narrative would have us understand that the piers had become dead; in need of being “reclaimed,” of being brought back to life in the form of a park. “In addition,” we learn from the website, “two historic properties, the Civil war-era Empire Stores and the Tobacco Warehouse, have been integrated into the park.”
I duly note the history that is being described, the reclamation that is being proudly proclaimed. As I walk around the historic properties, which have been refurbished into an upscale mall, I see shoppers enjoying not only the history but also, as you can imagine, the fine-tuned commodities and comestibles — coffee from the most local roastery, ice cream crafted from artisanal chocolate, fine expensive watches handmade in Detroit, another poster city for revival. There’s a Cuban-themed raw bar grill and a West Elm. Yet I wish I could direct tourists as well as New Yorkers to consider how history — or the idea of history — is being used by the park; to see the myriad ways in which Brooklyn Bridge Park depends upon the conception of the old city as being not only dead but also valueless: a wasteland.
Operationally, Brooklyn Bridge Park is a public-private partnership, maintained primarily not by public funds but by revenues from assorted speculative developments and a scattering of nonprofits. The Empire Stores (“one of the last surviving brick warehouses that lined nearly three miles of Brooklyn’s East River waterfront”) now contains an annex of the Brooklyn Historical Society, and the Tobacco Warehouse is the new home for an experimental theater group. But all the rest of the park that is not park is given over to mostly high-end stores and to market-rate condominiums and a boutique hotel. Brooklyn Bridge Park has been designed and conceptualized on the assumption that the city cannot afford the park, or to put it more precisely, that the citizens, the community, cannot afford it. Unlike in the old city, the city presumed to have died decades ago, parks are the products not of public investment but of private largesse that seeks a return on investment.
It’s as if the purpose of the park were to sell the condos, which would be like creating the Grand Canyon only after you have developed the lodge with the scenic views.
This is not so readily apparent. If you are visiting for the first time, you might well think that the apartment buildings and the hotel — the Pierhouse, with its “one-of-a-kind, townhome-style condominiums,” and the 1 Hotel, “your Brooklyn Bridge waterfront retreat” — are part of the park. 5 You might assume that these private developments — built on city piers that once were public — are somehow extensions of the recreational spaces, of the sports fields and boathouses and green lawns so attractive to tourists and locals alike. And indeed in some ways the integration is seamless, which is perhaps the point. But I am familiar with the park, with its planning and construction, and I can say that the park does not feel like a park; it does not feel like a public space.
To describe the park, and how in fact it does feel, it is necessary to borrow the terminology of the real estate industry and to refer to it as an amenity. Brooklyn Bridge Park is an amenity underwritten by the costly residences that overlook the recreational spaces, by the Pierhouse penthouse that cost more than $10 million and by the $1,000-per-night Liberty Suite with the “curated seating area” at the 1 Hotel. 6 But when you spend time in the park, you begin to feel that the public has come up short in the partnership; that in return for the underwriting, the park has become an extension of the condos and the hotel. Which is completely understandable: the owners of multimillion-dollar condos might well want to feel that the expansive green spaces visible from their floor-to-ceiling windows somehow belong to them. But for the public, the community, the concept feels flawed. It’s as if the purpose of the park were to sell the condos, which would be like creating the Grand Canyon only after you have developed the lodge with the scenic views.
But what feels most disturbing to me is that in Brooklyn Bridge Park, history too has become an amenity. Here I would direct you to the signage, which is itself intended to direct you towards the history of the site — towards the narrative of decline and death, reclamation and revival. The park is filled with markers along the walkways and in front of buildings, markers that underscore the before and after of the narrative. If you read them casually, you might think they are genuine historic markers. But if you read them more closely, you recognize that they operate not as communal notes on local history but rather as points of brand awareness. And, crucially, the brand is not so much the park but rather the transformation of the old industrial wasteland into the new recreational amenity.
In this light it is important to note that the markers insist upon a past that was for the most part bad: a perilous history we have overcome. “Dangerous and destructive fires occurred frequently along the Brooklyn waterfront,” reads one marker. “During the 19th century, the East River was choked with ships day and night,” says another; and yet another: “Building the Brooklyn Bridge was grueling and dangerous work.” You might note too that the markers trivialize the history of minority groups that are today being stressed by the development of the park. “In the 1810s and 1820s, free African Americans built a thriving community near present-day DUMBO,” says one marker located very near a modern African American community which today is not thriving at all (about which I will say more).
And most insidiously these markers downplay the work that for more than a century was carried on along the old waterfront. The new parklands were once the site of factories, breweries, roasteries, and wholesale markets, of the Wallabout Meat Market and Arbuckle’s Coffee and the E.W. Bliss Company, which made machine tools, and the plant where Brillo was invented. By the early 20th century, the borough was “one of the world’s busiest commercial harbors,” and the warehouses along the piers were “packed with cocoa, paint, paper bags, preserves, varnish, drugs, coffee, chemicals, lamps, wire, molasses, bed springs, hair-waving equipment, straw hats, glucose, and soda fountain supplies, either arriving from distant ports or waiting to be shipped around the world.” As late as 1936, the Brooklyn Eagle could claim “that no industry or product exists in the country that does not touch, at some time, on one of Brooklyn’s piers or rest, at some point along its way, in one of the terminals.” 7
Brooklyn Bridge Park is rooted in the fashionable political fiction that we can find the money for an amenity but not a community.
One marker in Brooklyn Bridge Park even celebrates the park itself, with a sort of smug self-satisfaction: “A recreational, environmental, and cultural destination, the park reconnects the community to their waterfront.” If I happened to see someone reading this marker, I would be hard pressed not to point out that the mercantile and manufacturing activities of the waterfront and the countless jobs they created over more than a century would have constituted for the community a very real and indeed profound “connection.” I might point out too that what are described as the “reconnections” brought about by the park have caused a variety of disconnections in the old neighborhood; and more, have deepened the historic disconnections in the city. Brooklyn Bridge Park is rooted in the fashionable political fiction that public spaces cannot be truly public anymore; that somehow we can find the money for an amenity but not a community.
But even more frequently than to the bridge or the park, I am asked directions to places that are not recreational or monumental or touristic but instead ordinary and mundane. Almost daily I am stopped by people in a hurry who need directions to the local courthouse, post office, or police station — people who are serving jury duty or wanting to settle a traffic ticket or get their building plans approved or post bail or sometimes get married. (A few weeks ago, a woman held out her phone so I could see the address she was looking for: she was showing me her marriage license.)
Unlike the park, these municipal places are not the upscale results of urban revival; they aren’t sexy or iconic. They are … well, municipal, a term rooted in the Latin municipium, which refers both to the collective entity of the city and to the social contract between individual citizens, a contract offering the privileges of community in exchange for the shared obligations of same. So when I consider the directions in which Brooklyn and other American cities are heading, I see that municipal buildings and their services aren’t mundane at all; they are the powerful engine of the city, and their continuing importance points to an idea of history that is different than the idea of history being promoted at Brooklyn Bridge Park — a history that emphasizes not disconnection and revival but continuity and survival.
In downtown Brooklyn it is the locals, the workers and the errand-goers, who fill the lunchtime diners and cafés. So do transit passengers in the process of making connections. Every day the sidewalks are crowded with attorneys and bureaucrats, nannies and students. Street vendors sell ethnic food from all over and African American books. The main thoroughfare, Fulton Street, is packed with not-so-expensive clothing stores — small places you’ve never heard of as well as the discount Gap and closeout Banana Republic. Long before Brooklyn became a destination for tourists, the Macy’s in Brooklyn was packed, one of the most successful branches of the department store, no matter that the city hadn’t yet been revived. Even back in the ’70s and ’80s, when the city almost went bankrupt and was famously being declared dead, Fulton Street maintained a full gamut of small-time businesses run by locals who understood their customers, who knew how people feel when times are hard; knew how they shopped, what they needed to survive. Here I need to direct you to the fact that the locals who helped downtown Brooklyn survive and thrive despite a lack of civic support were overwhelmingly African American, from black neighborhoods throughout the city.
Before the return of urban investment, it was the workers of the borough, white-collar and blue-collar, who sponsored its economic vitality.
Downtown Brooklyn and Fulton Street, Fulton Mall and the municipal complex, all the old stores and office buildings: these are the very heart of Brooklyn; and before the return of investment to the city, before the conception of Brooklyn Bridge Park, it was the workers of the borough, white-collar and blue-collar, who sponsored its economic vitality. In this version of the history of this place — the one to which I am now vigorously pointing you — municipal workers aren’t decried as creators of red tape or perpetrators of waste; they’re acknowledged as valuable public servants and essential economic drivers.
To be sure, directions to the courthouse can be tricky. The printed jury-duty summons might indicate a particular street, but the building might actually be accessed by a different street; that’s because of the quirks that happen over time, the meeting of historic roads or ancient grids at oblique angles and other serendipitous oddities that make a city physically intriguing to human beings. 8 Jury-duty servers are usually more relieved than happy to get directions. But if you are lucky you will have the experience of directing about-to-be-naturalized citizens to the courthouse where they will take the oath of allegiance to the United States of America (and, with any luck, make the U.S. that much better a country). These brief encounters are palpably happy and sometimes it seems you are about to be hugged. The naturalization ceremonies happen downtown; as it happens, at the very same courthouse at which a federal judge put a stay on a presidential travel ban just days after the inauguration. That night the courthouse plaza was packed with protestors, with citizens taking seriously the responsibilities of a municipium. From blocks away, I saw masses of people flowing into the streets and also into the park. Later, on the radio, I heard an interview with an attorney who was with the judge who that very evening signed the stay; the attorney said they could hear hundreds of people chanting in the park.
This vital activity — the tremendous rush and flow of people in and around Brooklyn’s municipal buildings and nearby shops — has survived many attempts at downtown redevelopment. But when I say “survived,” what I really mean is that the numerous efforts to “revive” the downtown have actually served to cripple it. I am thinking not so much about the disruption of construction projects but more about the disruption that comes after: the replacement of inexpensive eateries with expensive restaurants, the switch-out of small shops for hotter, bigger brands, the replacement of mom-and-pop taco stands with branded taco experiences. Shake Shack replaces the dollar-a-slice pizza parlor. Domo Taco (“the flavors of Asia in a familiar form of tacos”) competes with Lin’s Yummy Taco. Every once in a while, Junior’s — the Jewish deli turned West Indian lunch place turned cheesecake palace — nearly succumbs to being bought out to clear the way for a new residential tower. Here I will suggest that one reason why city officials and real estate developers don’t tout the tenacious success of the shabby, busy downtown is that this old history contradicts the new history of revival that they are telling and selling — the repurposing of the dead industrial city. Which, as I am arguing, was not so dead after all.
In fact, through much of the 20th century, downtown Brooklyn managed to survive (and thrive) without much help from the federal or municipal governments. Urban planner and filmmaker Allison Lirish Dean, who co-directed the documentary My Brooklyn, describes the different relationship of old-timers and newcomers to Fulton Mall, and the sheer tenacity of the local communities.
People who use terms like “scuzzy” and “crummy” to describe what Fulton Mall was are missing the point. … Downtown Brooklyn fell on hard times due to decades of racist land-use policies and severe urban disinvestment in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. That the mall actually survived this period when many other historic black shopping districts died is a testament to the creativity and perseverance of the people who moved in to do business there after white people abandoned it. 9
To be sure, location is everything, as it always is. I’ve already described the density of transit lines and public buildings, the streams of people crowding Fulton Street. On the street you’ll find shops within the shops, kiosks on every corner. At least you’ll find them now; but maybe not for long. Just look down Fulton Street, to Albee Square, once home to a strip of vaudeville theaters managed by the playwright Edward Albee’s grandfather. A decade ago there was an old three-story mall named for the square; today’s there’s a new mixed-use, 57-story condominium project named City Point. 10 The mammoth project features Target, Trader Joe’s, and Alamo Drafthouse; which might be fine if you are looking for those places that are, as we know, everywhere. But if you are endeavoring to understand a more nuanced history of Brooklyn, you will need to know that the old Albee Square Mall was filled with minority-owned businesses. It was also where Biz Markie helped found hip hop, and where he got inspired to write the second track on his first album: But I’m here to talk about the Albee Square Mall/A place where people shop in downtown Brooklyn/Where I can be found if you’re lookin’.
Longtime white Brooklynites tend to remember that the old mall had crime and drugs; but older black residents remember that it had energy and action. The people who lived and worked and shopped in downtown Brooklyn, and who kept it alive, weren’t big companies or big investors. They were small players, local folk, off the tourist (and the realtor’s) map, planting community gardens, dealing with crime and drugs because they had to. I do not mean to make this sound romantic. That would be a mistake. Things were difficult and complicated, and, for these and other reasons, it needs to be said that it is offensive to refer to the people who lived back then in un-gentrified and un-revived Brooklyn as “pioneers”; partly because it’s a term associated with colonization, and partly because it’s a term that leads us to see urban history according to the logic of real estate development rather than according to the dynamics of community.
Earlier I mentioned that I gave directions to a group of women from Barcelona. As I led them to the bus stop, we walked from the boundary of what has in recent years become the extremely trendy Dumbo neighborhood to the edge of the newly redeveloping Brooklyn Navy Yard. We traveled three large blocks — blocks which do not show up in the maps of realtors or business improvement districts, blocks which seemed to hold no interest to the women from Spain. These are blocks invisible not only to tourists but also to many locals; blocks that constitute a gray zone, a forgotten patch of public housing in old Brooklyn that so far does not figure in the revival narrative. Which is all the more striking, given the high visibility in that narrative of Dumbo and the Navy Yard.
For more than a century the neighborhood now called Dumbo was known for all those factories and warehouses that made and stored countless products; back then it was called Vinegar Hill. By the 1970s the industries were mostly gone, and artists were moving in, looking for cheap living and working spaces. By the turn of the millennium, a real estate developer began to convert the warehouses into residential lofts, and at the same time to construct purpose-made condominiums. The developer also gave the old neighborhood its new name: the acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. For a while the developer gave some artists deals on rent and inside prices, using them much the way a farmer uses flowers to attract bees; here the bees were the condo buyers who were attracted to the post-industrial setting with the artsy vibe. As the New York Times reported back then:
This tiny enclave of old iron foundries and sugar refineries that artists and other intrepid bohemians began settling quietly more than 20 years ago is moving quickly from the esthetics of industrial grime to yuppie chic. These days, you can feast on crepes for breakfast, and if you live in the condominiums at 1 Main Street, you can have your dry cleaning picked up by a company that says it does Barbara Walters’s laundry. Longtime Dumbo dwellers report seeing newcomers in designer suits strolling through this industrial forest, where not long ago, eviscerated cars were dumped on the street and untamed dogs ran free. 11
The venture proved so phenomenally successful that a Forbes reporter described it as “one of the best New York real estate deals since Peter Minuit bought Manhattan for trinkets and beads.” Last year Shawn Carter, a.k.a. Jay-Z, raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, agreed: I coulda bought a place in DUMBO before it was DUMBO/For like 2 million/That same building today is worth 25 million/Guess how I’m feelin’? Dumbo. 12
Today the median annual income in Dumbo is $170,000, or about 200 percent of the average median income in Brooklyn; the median monthly rent of more than $4,000 makes it the most expensive neighborhood in the whole borough; and condo prices rival Manhattan. 13 The old brick factory where the E.W. Bliss Company once made tools, presses, and torpedoes now houses multimillion-dollar condos and features a 24-hour concierge and yoga room; the old Brillo factory advertises a “select portfolio of oversized luxury residences,” which, the prospectus boasts, “breathes new life and spirit into a historic daylight factory and gives it renewed purpose in the 21st century.” 14 Local historian John B. Manbeck captures the pace of dizzying change:
Only yesterday, it was a relic of deserted warehouses and tracks from the Jay Street Interconnecting Railroad embedded in the streets’ Belgian blocks leading to nowhere. … Now the streets are bustling with delivery trucks for a gourmet food shop, art galleries and an exclusive wine shop. Boutiques have surfaced, theatre is alive in St. Ann’s Warehouse and Jacques Torres sells his delicious, freshly made gourmet chocolates there. … Dumbo was landmarked in 2007. 15
In these same years the Brooklyn Navy Yard has been undergoing transformations no less profound. An old shipyard operated for a century and a half by the U.S. Navy and decommissioned in the mid 1960s, the site has been repurposed as a business park. On the day I guided the tourists from Barcelona to the bus stop, I noticed cabs and Ubers pulling up and dropping off crisply dressed business people. I walked over to the gate of the Navy Yard and learned that they were attending a conference titled “Smart Cities NYC.” According to the pamphlet, it was “the first conference and expo that curates the intersection of technology and urban life.” And more: “Coming to you from iconic public spaces across New York City and the revitalized canvas of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, this unprecedented event features three engagement platforms, world-renowned speakers, and a multitude of public events.” 16 Note that the Brooklyn Navy Yard is not itself one of these iconic public spaces. It is not public. Although technically owned by the city, the site is now run by a non-profit development corporation and leased to private entities. Which is to say that if you are a member of the public, you will be stopped at the gate.
Long ago this site was a public space, or more specifically, a common land; common at least to the Lenape, the Native Americans whose lands were seized first by the Dutch, then by the British. During the Revolutionary War, the site became a naval yard and remained so through World War II, when U.S. Marines patrolled the harbor and the Yard operated round-the-clock and 10,000 workers built mega-ton battleships. The last military housing block was closed up at the end of the 1980s. Today the Brooklyn Navy Yard Industrial Park, like the Brooklyn Bridge Park, is a public-private partnership. The corporation that runs the site describes the enterprise as a “mission-driven industrial park that is a nationally acclaimed model of the viability and positive impact of modern, urban industrial development.” 17
Positive impact is, of course, a question of perspective. From the perspective of those inside the Navy Yard, the brick walls of the old military base might appear as atmospheric artifacts that have been creatively adapted for the new millennium. Certainly the dozens of tenants — digital tech startups, small presses, art and design workshops, film studios and the like — are participating in the “modern, urban” development that is being incubated by the new industrial park, and in the narrative of revival that has become one of the prevailing narratives of our cities.
Yet outside the walls of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the perspective is not so positive. Outside the new industrial park is an old neighborhood that has not been incorporated into the real estate revival; a neighborhood whose existence and persistence challenge the very idea of revival. The Farragut neighborhood is home to about 3,400 people who live in a cluster of ten residential towers known as the Farragut Houses, a public housing project run by the New York City Housing Authority. Here I need to mention that in all my years in Brooklyn, nobody has ever asked me for directions to Farragut.
At Farragut, more than half the tenants are poor; the median income is about $16,000 and the average rent about $460. The buildings are deteriorating. Steam pipes are broken; intercoms don’t work. Residents report water leaks. The daycare center closed in 2010 and the space has been empty ever since. There’s no supermarket in the vicinity, only a few bodegas struggling to stay alive as rents increase in the nearby reviving neighborhoods. Farragut residents can still go to Eddie’s Deli and the Betel Deli & Grocery and also to the Bridge Coffee Shop and Los Papi’s, a Spanish-American restaurant that the Dumbo newcomers tend to ignore. If you were walking with me through Farragut, I would direct your attention to a rubble-filled lot across the street, just inside the Navy Yard, where a new building is in the works. Until recently, there were trees in the lot, saplings that had grown up in the decades since the yard was decommissioned. The non-profit corporation cut down the trees and is planning to develop a supermarket. So now the question rises like dust from the construction site: Will the new market cater to the people of Farragut, or to the newcomers in Dumbo? 18
The Farragut Houses were built in the early 1950s; the original tenants included World War II veterans and Navy Yard workers. The buildings are typical postwar projects, loosely inspired by the International Style, constructed on land that had been cleared to create a superblock. As always in those years, Robert Moses was the all-powerful master planner, the head of the city’s Committee on Slum Clearance. Moses ordered the tearing up of an old neighborhood; in this case a dense cluster of blocks in Vinegar Hill filled with small wooden row houses from the mid 19th century. It was a neighborhood of narrow streets and cobblestone alleys, the kind of place we can imagine Jane Jacobs fighting to preserve. Jacobs is referenced often by real estate developers who are inventing neighborhoods like Dumbo. But I would argue she is being used by them; they turn her famous phrases into aspirational ad copy.
Farragut residents are keenly aware of the changes happening all around the neighborhood, and fearful their own homes are about to be somehow ‘reclaimed.’
For some of the tenants who rented in Farragut, back in the ’50s, the project was a temporary stop on the way to more spacious places in the suburbs; but since the suburbs were then restricted by race-based covenants, this option was available almost exclusively to the white tenants. Today Farragut is almost 100 percent black and Hispanic, and more than a few residents have been there since the ’60s. They are keenly aware of the changes happening all around the neighborhood, and fearful their own homes are about to be somehow “reclaimed.” And for good reason: a couple of years ago the city unveiled a plan called “Next Generation NYCHA Sustainability Agenda,” which proposed that the way to save public housing was to make it private housing, at least partially. 19 The new plan proposes that “underutilized land” at projects around the city be offered to private developers to build market-rate housing that would in turn generate the funds to support the low-income units. Likewise the public schools are being replaced with charter schools, and now P.S. 307, the elementary school across the street from Farragut, is under pressure. Families that have flooded into Dumbo are attending P.S. 307, and many Farragut residents are being forced to look elsewhere. Thus is the neighborhood that is not named coming under quiet siege from the revived and branded neighborhoods that surround it.
One of the sites to which I might direct you to see how the neighborhood is trying to hold back the siege is the Farragut Community Center, run by Brooklyn Community Services, which has been providing social services for a century and a half. 20 The place is rundown, with water-damaged ceilings and crumbling walls: a result of inadequate city maintenance budgets. But the rooms are neat and cozy. One day this spring, Stephen Nembhard, the director, showed me around. On the ground level there’s a small weight room, a modest cafeteria, a room for children to study and do arts-and-crafts projects. Children were coming in after school. “Hi, Mr. Stephen!” one after another said. On the second floor, where the rooms are decorated with art made by the young kids, volunteers offer help with homework. There’s a job-training program for high school students that includes paid internships. BCC is reaching out to the Navy Yard, which has announced that it expects the number of jobs on the site to double in the next few years, from 7,000 to 14,000.
Nembhard and his team work hard to connect the young people at Farragut to a larger community that can seem impossibly out of reach. “There’s a disconnect to the point where they don’t even see the disconnect,” he says. But connections still happen: one student is determined to get into the NYPD cadet program, and the local precinct is helping him prepare his application. Nembhard, who grew up in Brownsville, sees Farragut as an unusually strong and close-knit community. He doesn’t discount the struggles, or the violence; a young man was shot nearby not long before my visit. “But there’s a camaraderie here that you don’t find in other places,” he says. “When you put something on for the community, the community turns out.” That night a crowd filled the stands in the gym to watch Hidden Figures.
The gym is the centerpiece of the facility, and for years it has been furiously loved, the site of countless basketball tournaments and dance contests. But today the beautiful old maple floor is buckling from leaks; the court is off limits and the basketball program on hold. There’s no fix in sight as BCC tries to connect with outside partners to fund the repairs: yet another contrast with the well-maintained playgrounds and courts in Dumbo, and the gorgeous recreational spaces of Brooklyn Bridge Park.
One of the volunteers at the community center is Marcia Roberts. A Brooklyn native, she spent part of her childhood in Farragut; in fact, her family was one of the original tenants, back in the ’50s. “Farragut is always going to be dear to me,” she told me as we walked around the neighborhood. “My roots are here.” Today Roberts works as a clerk to a judge in Manhattan, and rents an apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, but three times a week she takes the subway back to Farragut. It was Roberts who first described the housing project as “Forgotten Farragut,” which then became the title for a short documentary. 21 Roberts is baffled by the disregard for a community that has anchored the neighborhood for decades, and she fears that hyper-development and privatization will only intensify. “And you can see why,” she says, “because the location is excellent and the apartments are huge, with views of the bridges and the harbor.” 22
Roberts is passionate and determined, and in her days at the center she explains to the Farragut teenagers the history of disinvestment — the redlining that restricted the suburbs, the municipal incentives that have long supported the “pioneers” and “revitalizers” of Brooklyn but not the communities of color. She’s anxious about the persistence of segregation and worried about galloping inequality. “All around us they’re putting so much money into the neighborhood — but they’re not doing anything for Farragut,” she says. One recent Saturday, as we were walking to get breakfast, Roberts interrupted our conversation to take a call from one of the young people she sees at the community center, a kid who was wondering if the cafeteria would be open that day so he could get some food. When she hangs up, she explains that volunteers often pitch in to offer meals on weekends, when there is no formal lunch program. “The kids are hungry,” she says.
On that same sunny spring morning, after I left the community center, I continued to walk around the neighborhood, and came to the border of Farragut and downtown Brooklyn — or DoBro, as it’s been newly branded — to the area where the NYC Parks and Transportation Departments worked in partnership to convert a couple of acres underneath an expressway into a skate park. It’s unquestionably a great skate park, the best (or second best) in the city, depending on which skateboarder you ask. When it opened, I assumed it was perceived as a positive addition to the neighborhood. But lately I’ve come to realize that people in Farragut see the crowded skate park as yet another amenity built to attract newcomers — a feature for developers to point to as they market the revival of the borough.
Near the skate park I happened upon a casual acquaintance, a man named Lenny, from Farragut, roughly my age, in his mid-fifties. Lenny seemed frail — he had just had minor surgery — but he was at ease, and easy to talk with. That day Lenny was shaking his head as he looked across the street, and then he cut to the heart of the matter. “How are you supposed to feel when you are, let’s say, financially challenged, and that goes on?” By that, he meant the renovation of what had once been the Dr. White Community Center, run by the Church of the Open Door, into a new development of several dozen condos, with duplexes and terraces, and parking for cars and bicycles. What seemed to him especially jarring was the preservation of some old murals on the façade; perhaps the intention was to be sensitive, but to my companion it seemed a kind of insult. “How are you supposed to feel?” Lenny asked, again. The old murals had, it seems, been painted by school kids, and they depicted efforts to save the neighborhood from drugs and crime.
I have taken his question to heart, and employ it frequently when I look at my city: How are you supposed to feel? This strikes me as one of the most incisive questions that can be asked about all the places to which one might be directed in and around Brooklyn, or indeed about any place in the midst of rapid transition. It’s not the sort of question that is addressed in planning reports or development proposals, or that is factored into the data of administrators or investors. It’s not a question that’s raised when the city is being run as a business or marketed as a brand.
What’s the distance from old Brooklyn to new Brooklyn, if your measure is not proximity but public investment and collective benefit?
Yet it seems to me a crucial question if we’re to understand the directions in which we’re headed, in the cities that we now champion as success stories. And it’s crucial if we are to understand not just directions but also distances. What’s the distance from old Brooklyn to new Brooklyn, if your measure is not proximity but public investment and collective benefit? What’s the distance from the spectacular new condominiums with concierge service to the rundown public housing project where the residents wait months for the leak in the ceiling to be fixed? 23 What’s the distance from the highly capitalized new tech incubator with the media studios to the old downtown where the immigrant from Africa opened up a hat shop after saving for years? And for that matter, what’s the distance from the cheap live/work lofts of Dumbo, where a generation ago artists sprouted like weeds in the empty factories, to the hothouse office renovation known as Dumbo Heights that houses Etsy and WeWork, and is partly owned by the Kushner Companies?
As you ponder these distances you can see more clearly than ever that the narrative that has built the new Brooklyn is not only partial but also false. The old Brooklyn of Farragut and Fulton Street wasn’t in need of revival but care. Can we find the directions back to the city that wasn’t dead, to the city that’s not a marketable commodity but a collective responsibility?