The Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn has almost always been in the throes of gentrification. People commuted to Manhattan by ferry in the mid-19th century after farms were sold off for development. Brooklyn’s first city park, Fort Greene Park, was set aside in 1847, redesigned by Calvert and Vaux in 1864, and championed by local Walt Whitman as a place for the area’s poor to enjoy themselves. More recently, after the despairing 70’s — after the nearby Navy Yard closed and the local elevated train was dismantled – writers and designers such as my husband and I moved there in the 90’s, for low rents in brownstone Brooklyn. Rents and property prices soared over the past ten years. French restaurants moved in, filling the shells of old Chinese takeout places; a Pathmark and a little overpriced gourmet grocery with good cheese started competing with C-Town.
Pushing out C-Town, a terrible market that offers rancid food to people with few other options, can’t be all bad. Last month, Adam Sternbergh made the case in New York magazine that the evils of gentrification — that it pushes up property values, mainly, and thus pushes out low-income renters and owners who have taxes raised on them based on new assessments — are largely a myth. Sternbergh looked at the research of Lance Freeman, a professor of urban planning at Columbia, and found that in gentrifying Harlem and Clinton Hill, bordering Fort Greene, poor residents were not actually moving out.
“Often lost amid our caricatures of benighted hipsters invading a blighted neighborhood is the fact that without gentrification, you’ve simply got a blighted neighborhood,” wrote Sternbergh. In fact, anti-gentrification may amount to no more than (potentially self-loathing) revulsion to the trappings of hipsterdom. Without the influx of new residents, all you have is an emptying neighborhood with poor services.
Hipster-hate and anti-gentrification bohemian liberal snobbery, in this case, can also be little better than veiled racism, argued Ta-Nehisi Coates in a passionate post on his Atlantic blog. Please don’t bemoan the effects on the poor, agentless black and brown people, says Coates, many of whom decide on their own to move to places with lawns.
His commentators, though, point out that there can still be problems with city codes colluding with developer interests. What about Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a few miles north of Fort Greene, where developers have been able to take ample advantage of a relatively recent rezoning for residential? Then again, who has really been pushed out? As industrial use changes to “luxury” housing, the main losers are artists, who no longer could freely work out of cheap, unheated lofts, once city enforcement agencies started to pay attention to the area. What about rural gentrification, via McMansions? Is this still gentrification, or does it not fit our image of yoga-mat-toting, legging-and-boots-wearing, twenty-somethings taking to the streets en masse, languidly strolling between their classes on film theory and their internships at V magazine?
And yet: Bring it on, I say. Gentrifiers all, please join us up the hill in Jersey City, where my husband and I moved when, yes, Fort Greene became too expensive, at least for our visions of ourselves in an elegant Victorian-era home, with pocket doors, brass knobs, and the whir of ceiling fans high above. Our neighborhood, too, deserves the opportunity to experience overpriced organic vegetables, neurotic historic-district organizers, and the hum of a dozen espresso machines. Maybe even old-timers and itinerant renters want to walk to yoga studios.
Carly Berwick writes about education and culture for Next City, as well as The New York Times, ARTnews, and other publications.