“We have to come up with another word for gentrification,” said Daniel Murphy, who runs the Pitkin Avenue Business Improvement District in the decidedly non-gentrified neighborhood of Brownsville in northeastern Brooklyn. “It’s always a term used for ‘the other.’ If I get a raise and I’m making twice what I’m making five years ago, I’m not a gentrifier. But some guy who gets a raise and buys a house next to me is. It’s really become derogatory.”
A Brooklynite since birth, Murphy knows a thing or two about civic transformation. His mom grew up in Park Slope but left for Sunset Park in the 1960s, searching for a better address after getting married. The family that stayed behind in Park Slope now resides on some of the most coveted land in the city. According to Street Easy, the median price per square foot of real estate in Park Slope is $708. In Sunset Park, it’s $338. In Brownsville, $203.
Murphy said he would love it if a few “arbiters of the creative kind” were to set up shop in Brownsville. “We have lots of window space,” he said. “The glass might be missing, but that can be rectified. The challenge is getting the tenant.”
“Improvement of neighborhoods — some people call it gentrification — provides more jobs, provides housing, much of it affordable, and private investment, which is tax revenue for the city,” Amanda Burden, director of the New York City Department of City Planning (DCP), told the New York Times in May. “We are making so many more areas of the city livable. Now, young people are moving to neighborhoods like Crown Heights that 10 years ago wouldn’t have been part of the lexicon.”
No matter how complicated the feelings surrounding the “g” word are (and rightfully so, given the city’s affordable housing crisis), it’s safe to say that the opposite phenomenon — a forgotten, deteriorating neighborhood — is not a good thing. And in a cityscape where real estate values are sky-high, Brownsville is, according to the Times, a “counterpoint to the reigning mood of municipal optimism.”
Rendering of Brownsville’s master plan, which debuted in fall of last year. Credit: Grolin Architects
“It’s striking that in the last seven years, there have been two rezonings on the Upper West Side, and Brownsville hasn’t been touched,” said Raju Mann, director of planning at the Municipal Arts Society (MAS), an influential non-profit in planning and preservation circles with its own reputation for Manhattan-centric thinking. “That’s an area where the regulatory framework doesn’t support the investment we want to see, and the city wants to see.”
Starting in November 2011, Mann embarked on a three-year planning analysis of Brownsville. He and his colleague Mary Rowe, vice president and managing director for MAS, are at the moment gathering information on potential development sites – roughly 8 percent of the land here is vacant – and strategizing on how to spur economic activity and strengthen commercial corridors.
Mann said efforts are “several steps back” from the realization of the imaginative vision that won headlines in the fall of 2011 when their partner organization, the Brownsville Partnership (a multi-agency collaborative that’s part of the national anti-homelessness non-profit, Community Solutions), debuted a master plan by architect Alexander Gorlin.
Using infill development and lightweight rooftop additions, Gorlin’s concept would add up to 1,000 new housing units to four adjacent public housing complexes spread over 60 acres, without displacing any tenants or demolishing any buildings. (Brownsville is home to one of the largest concentrations of high-rises managed by the New York City Housing Authority.) Through-streets would replace underutilized plazas and parking lots, and new space would be carved out for retail and urban agriculture.
“We think activating [underutilized] spaces…will decrease the feeling of isolation and create safer spaces,” said Gerald Thomas, the Brownsville Partnership’s managing director. Thomas also wants to see the area’s abandoned and city-owned land put to better use, perhaps for mixed-income and affordable senior housing.
While physical planning that preserves and grows the affordable housing stock is one part of the solution, job creation is another. “Providing opportunities for more housing is not necessarily going to get residents jobs or connect them any better,” said Barry Dinerstein, deputy director of DCP’s Housing, Economic and Infrastructure Planning division.
Dinerstein noted that the city’s Department of Small Business Services has made strides placing people in entry-level retail jobs, though the turnover of these employees is often high. “If you’re living in Brownsville, it’s very hard to figure out how to get a job in Manhattan, even if it’s working at McDonalds.” He also thinks that creating more commercial services, which respond to local needs, might yield some work within Brownsville’s boundaries.
Murphy believes another sector promises a possible fix. “I think manufacturing is the place where there’s more meaningful work than a lot of service sectors, including retail,” he said, “and I’m saying this as a guy who directs a BID.” Murphy points to Sunset Park, where he was raised and still lives, as a model. “Relative to the rest of the city and other Rust Belt cities, there’s a healthy robust industrial center there, and folks make decent money.” He thinks something similar in East Brooklyn would do wonders for the median income, which MAS reports is around $9,000 a year for Brownsville.
But there is one chain that Murphy has launched an unlikely campaign for: Applebee’s. “There’s something about sitting down in a restaurant, having a salad before your meal, having the waiter kindly serve you, and having a conversation over a table in a nice atmosphere. I don’t have any quantitative analysis to back this up, but there’s an important distinction between that mode of consumption and getting a Styrofoam cylinder of take-out and eating alone on a park bench or off your kitchen counter.”
Brownsville is home to one of the largest concentrations of high-rises managed by the New York City Housing Authority. Photo via Wikimedia commons
Murphy’s Applebee’s crusade is no doubt informed by the area’s public health concerns, which are closely linked to the stats on poverty. MAS indicates that adults there are 29 percent more likely to be obese than in other parts of Brooklyn. Diabetes is also more prevalent, affecting 12 percent of the adult population versus 9 percent citywide.
This is to say nothing of the threats posed from violence: In October 2011, around the time MAS kicked off its involvement, a young mother was killed by sniper fire outside a local school. Renee D. Muir, director of development and community relations at the Brownsville Multi-Service Family Health Center (BMS), knows that poverty is to blame.
“A sense of hopelessness or perception of a lack of options is often what fuels the ‘taker mentality,’ in which individuals victimize others to meet their own needs,” she said. “This takes many forms in terms of criminal activities…drug sales, gang violence, assaults, shootings, the works.” There are profound educational deficits in the neighborhood, she said.
Given the gravity of the neighborhood’s problems, it might feel naïve to celebrate the small stuff: A public plaza that the Department of Transportation is in the process of constructing on Pitkin Avenue; the bike lanes that the Brownsville Partnership is working with the DOT to install; or a weekly farmer’s market staffed by local kids. But this “urban acupuncture,” as Rowe called it, is vital. Not only is it a way of instigating and creating immediate improvements in the absence of a long-term redevelopment strategy, said Mann, it has a nourishing effect for locals. Beyond increasing access to healthy foods, Muir said a farmer’s market signals to residents that “good things are happening,” recalling a new homeowner ecstatic over a BMS-run stand situated on her corner.
To make some of the bigger change happen, the Brownsville Partnership is building a network of private allies, already over 15 in number, and ranging from Brooklyn Legal Services to the Mark Morris Dance Group. On the public end, Thomas is calling for a task force, spearheaded by City Hall and composed of the economic development/infrastructure agencies, as well as the social service agencies.
A success story for Brownsville is unlikely to look like it does in the borough’s tony sections, such as DUMBO — where, as the Times recently observed, defunct factories communicate lost jobs rather than chic accommodations to the city’s working class. And while Dinerstein can’t picture Brownsville as the next up-and-coming Brooklyn address à la Bushwick, he will say that, 20 years ago, no one could have imagined how hot that stop along the L train would become.
“I’m going to stop referring to Brownsville as ‘out here,’” said Murphy. “We’re just ‘here.’ We’re very close to Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, just off Eastern Parkway.” If the neighborhood feels worlds away, he added, it comes down to attitude and perception.