I moved to Prospect Heights in 1991. I was drawn to the historic character of its residential buildings, its proximity to Prospect Park, and its easy access to public transit. It didn’t hurt that houses were less expensive than in other nearby brownstone neighborhoods, and the backyards were bigger. As we settled in, my wife and I joined the block association, which had met continuously since the early 1960s, and whose membership reflected the neighborhood’s diversity of ages, ethnicities, and walks of life.
For most of the next twenty years, I continued to feel like a newcomer to the neighborhood. Some things changed with time, of course, but I measured my tenure in terms of the 19th century rowhouses, the seniors and families who were long-time residents on our block, and the businesses I regularly patronized, all of whom seemed a lot more established in the neighborhood than me. Being the new guy on the block gave me a reassuring sense of stability and peace.
Then one day not long ago, like a character from a Franz Kafka story, I felt that at some point I might have turned into a dinosaur. I couldn't tell exactly when it had happened. I was pretty sure it wasn’t when the Garden Café closed. It was possible it happened after four of our immediate neighbors sold their houses within a year. But I guessed it certainly must have already happened by the night I came home from a State Liquor Authority hearing on the Barclays Center application, and walking down my block, I passed a 20-something guy wearing a Brooklyn Nets t-shirt.
There are those who describe the high-rise condo developments that sprang from the Downtown Brooklyn Plan as “gentrification,” and some use the same word to characterize the (eventual) residential development at Atlantic Yards. I am not one of them. I know that gentrification is what I was doing twenty years ago when I moved to Brooklyn, although I didn’t understand it as such at the time. Gentrification in this part of Brooklyn used to be called “brownstoning,” and its history is expertly detailed by Sulieman Osman in his book, The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn. Its arc began in Brooklyn Heights in the late 1950s, and in the following years stretched through Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, Park Slope, and Fort Greene. Brooklyn’s brownstoners valued architectural character, low density, ethnic and economic diversity, and sweat equity. They strove to realize a vision of “romantic urbanism” alternative to the monotony of high-density city living.
The leading edge of Brooklyn gentrification reached Prospect Heights a decade or so before I did, but it moved slowly enough that I count myself among the last wave of brownstoners in our neighborhood. My wife and I remodeled our house over the course of eleven years, doing work when we could afford it, sometimes by ourselves. Along the way, I became involved in civic groups and community organizations in Prospect Heights and Crown Heights. In retrospect, I realize we were in some way contributing to a rise in prices for homes in the neighborhood, thereby setting the stage for the departure of some of the neighbors whom we cherished (as well as eventual large-scale luxury residential development), but at that time, the prospect would have seemed very remote indeed.
When Atlantic Yards was announced, there was speculation among some of my neighbors that the development would torpedo property values in Prospect Heights. Eight years later, my friends in real estate see it very much otherwise. One described the market as “never hotter.” Another explained, “The people we’re showing these multi-million dollar houses in your neighborhood, they think the arena is great.” There are also other signs of support for the changes taking place here. Last month, I read a blog extolling the virtues of Barclays Center, whose writer moved to Boerum Hill two years ago. Among the benefits she cites are an increase in the number of restaurants; more taxis; and an easier time convincing Manhattan friends to travel to Brooklyn. We may or may not appreciate the writer’s point of view, but we can safely assume she is no romantic urbanist.
It’s likely, however, that her perspective is projectable to others who will move in to Fort Greene, Boerum Hill, Park Slope, Prospect Heights and their environs over the next decade. Instead of being drawn to recreate on a brownstone palimpsest a reimagined urban life of the 19th century, we can expect new residents increasingly to be attracted by a vision put forth by large private developers of an aspirational urban environment very much of the 21st century. This vision emphasizes residential density, night life and national retailers in a way that would be recognizable to residents of SoHo, Chelsea or the Upper West Side. It preferences consumption over preservation. Its prophecy becomes self-fulfilling as new arrivals create the market for the luxury housing, goods and services to fill properties cleared by developers following rezonings (Downtown Brooklyn Plan, Fourth Avenue) and takings (Atlantic Yards).
As a replacement for “gentrification,” I have therefore taken to describing that current colonizing trend as “capitulation”: the abandonment of stated or implied values of scale, architectural character, diversity, grassroots participation, and what Osman calls “authenticity,” in favor of a denser new landscape designed to be conducive to consumerism, entertainment, media and private profit. The result may make for an enjoyable place to live (for those that can afford it), but if so it will be mostly because corporate sponsors decide it should be that way, not as a consequence of individual commitment or community involvement.
Commentators who reduce the question of the impact of Atlantic Yards to our communities by shrugging, “The arena is here, get used to it,” thus fail to appreciate the social, political and collective psychological change coming with our new population. Revitalization of brownstone neighborhoods in Brooklyn through grassroots engagement has been a sixty-year process that has formed a local culture of progressivism and sustainability infinitely more tangible in this part of the borough than a supposed longing for a national sports franchise. That’s why the fallacy (continued to be floated by certain elected officials and developers) that opposition to Atlantic Yards is somehow limited to a small group of recently-arrived NIMBYs should be obviously absurd. It’s not just that the project’s approval process represented a subversion of democratic government objectionable to brownstone Brooklynites. It’s that Atlantic Yards’ end game is to replace a value system that has been integral to the development of their neighborhoods for decades. And ultimately, that replacement will be accomplished not by the physical arena, but by those who are drawn to its aura. Perhaps that’s why a Forest City executive, discussing public perception of Barclays Center with me, observed, “The trend is on our side.”
As the wave of transformation begins to swell, civic organizations, Community Boards and City agencies are putting oars in the water to stay on top of it. The Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council (PHNDC) drove the designation of the Prospect Heights Historic District in 2009, protecting nearly 850 buildings; the Park Slope Civic Council (PSCC) is currently campaigning for the expansion of the Park Slope Historic District north toward the arena, with the goal of protecting an additional 800 buildings. Following a sharp increase in the number of liquor license applications, particularly from the western end of its district, Community Board 8 recently moved the review of such requests from its Economic Development Committee to a newly-created committee dedicated to that purpose. A coalition of civic associations (including PSCC, PHNDC and the Boerum Hill Association), transportation advocates and elected officials is calling on the NYC DOT to prepare a new, comprehensive transportation plan to address traffic, pedestrian and cycling conditions in the area of Brooklyn between the East River, Flushing Avenue, Nostrand Avenue, Empire Boulevard, and 9th Street—most of brownstone Brooklyn. And pay attention on October 23 (tomorrow), when the NYC Board of Standards and Appeals will hear a request from the new owners of the former Bergen Tile building at 215 Flatbush Avenue for a variance to build with greater floor area and building height—and less open space—than would be required under existing zoning; the case will likely be a litmus test for the City's response to future requests from owners of the low-rise buildings adjacent to Barclays Center.
It's now critically important for residents of all perspectives to engage with the block associations, civic organizations, precinct councils and Community Boards that today are wrestling with transition in our neighborhoods. Ask candidates for elected offices what they plan to do to retain middle-income families in their districts, support local businesses, preserve neighborhood character, and address challenges to City services (like security, education and transportation) that arise from increased population density. Attend meetings of your block association, or if you don't have a block association, form one. Participate in your police precinct's Community Council (the 78th Precinct Community Council meets next on October 30). Join a committee of your Community Board.
And raise your voice against the type of “government among friends” proposals that give private developers a disproportionate (and unaccountable) influence over Brooklyn’s future. Maybe the near-term trend is with them, but history is with us, and we can choose not to become extinct.