If you want to learn about a city, in all its secret machinations and dark underbellies, there’s no better way than to shop for housing.
From the outside, the row house was indistinguishable from the others in Sunset Park: limestone front, three stories, on a block gently sloping down to the elevated expressway and New York Harbor beyond. When it was first built, in the 1890s, the neighborhood was home to dockworkers, mostly Scandinavian, who flocked to the Brooklyn shorefront for the plentiful jobs.
The descendants of those immigrants were mostly long gone, some in the wake of the Gowanus Expressway built by Robert Moses in the 1940s, which split the neighborhood in two; some as Norwegians and Finns and Poles began to think of themselves merely as Americans, and filtered out into the broad expanse of the country. The Scandinavians had been replaced by a new wave of immigrants, from Mexico and the Dominican Republic and China, so that by the turn of Sunset Park’s second century, the predominant aromas wafting out of storefronts were tortas and har gow.
The old row houses remained largely untouched, though, as did the namesake sunsets, thanks to the steeply inclined glacial moraine whose western edge the neighborhood is perched upon. (To the north, the same Ice Age remnant gave rise to another even more well-known neighborhood name: Park Slope.) From the top of the eponymous park, the views were stunning, the Statue of Liberty a speck looking out over the expanse of harbor dotted with freighters and ferries. It was, in real estate lingo, undervalued.
As more and more immigrants, documented and otherwise, arrived to seek their fortune in the kitchens of New York’s restaurant boom, city landlords were faced with a decision. Some chose to pack in as many humans as possible into tiny basement rooms that smelled of cockroaches and old hot plates. Meanwhile, they kept an eye on local sale prices, knowing that the time would come to offer to empty out the illegal basement apartments to make the building available to people desperate to afford a house of their own without resorting to Manhattan (or even Park Slope) prices.
The year was 1999, and the landlord of this particular building, which he had placed up for sale amidst the real estate frenzy that was even then beginning to overtake Brooklyn, took a kinder, gentler tack. The three-story row house was divided into more than a dozen apartments, each with freshly installed doors leading off a tiny hallway. “The rent roll is a gold mine!” he proclaimed happily to a group of prospective buyers, indifferent to whether they were looking to profit from the city’s housing crunch, or just looking for a place to live.
Finally, he led his buyers and their now somewhat dazed realtor — dragging her young child in tow, working a second shift after her day job at a nearby hospital — down a flight of stairs into the basement, then down another flight even deeper into the earth’s bowels. This was the cellar, a windowless sub-basement level a good 15 feet below the earth’s surface. It was filled with new construction, dividing the airless space into a tiny warren of rooms, entombed in the glacial till.
“Look at these walls!” he announced, pounding on one to show that it would not fall over. “That’s good craftsmanship!”
A few minutes later, his suitors emerged back into the air, blinking, not knowing whether to jump on it as an opportunity or to flee.
When the Kentile Floors factory erected a neon sign on its rooftop to advertise its tiling business one day in the early 1950s, it didn’t evince much emotion from the surrounding residents of Gowanus, the unassuming neighborhood surrounding the even less assuming Gowanus Canal. Neon was no longer even a novelty in those days, and plenty of other local businesses were erecting rooftop signs to advertise themselves to the world — particularly to transit riders riding by on the newly built Culver Viaduct, which carried passengers over the canal on a bridge that, at 87.5 feet tall, was the highest point in the not-always-underground subway system.
Three decades after the factory closed in the 1980s, the owners of the building that still bore the sign announced that it was going to be removed in order to shore up the roof beneath it. This time, the emotions were very different: dismay, along with outrage. Certainly, the sign itself felt more charming by then — the passing of years had left a generation of Brooklyn residents attached to it as a historical marker of the borough’s past, just as residents of Boston’s Fenway neighborhood successfully lobbied that city to maintain and keep lit a venerable Citgo sign near Fenway Park that could easily have been considered an eyesore until, suddenly, it wasn’t anymore. Riding the F train to and from my son’s school, I noticed passengers edging toward the windows as we passed the then-scaffolded sign, taking notice of something that they’d always taken for granted.
What those who complained about the demise of the Kentile sign were bemoaning, though, had less to do with the sign’s aesthetic merits and more to do with its symbolism in the perceived loss of a place they were having more and more trouble considering home. “The iconic Kentile Floors sign is a part of Brooklyn’s history, like the Hollywood sign is to California,” state assemblymember Felix Ortiz declared at a rally to plead for a stay of execution from the sign’s owners. Local city councilmember Brad Lander issued a statement beseeching owner Ely Cohen to at least allow the sign’s letters to be removed whole (something that Cohen eventually relented to), then pivoting to assail what he saw as a larger, more nefarious trend: “Let me be clear: Those who are paying big price tags for industrial buildings in Gowanus and demolishing historic structures on the assumption that they will be able to build market-rate condo buildings like those on Fourth Avenue are making a big mistake.”
Fourth Avenue was itself a symbolic marker of a sort. Long a nondescript major transit artery — six lanes of traffic, plus the D, N, and R trains belowground — flanked by small brick tenements and the occasional gas station and marking the division between Gowanus and upscale Park Slope, it was in the midst of a transformation, thanks to a city rezoning in 2003 that allowed 12-story residential high rises. Lander, then head of the neighborhood’s Fifth Avenue Committee, a local nonprofit community group, had joined other local residents in lobbying to limit the height of new buildings and to have the city require that affordable apartments be provided if developers wanted to build higher than the limits imposed under the old rules, but they were ignored. Now, Fourth Avenue was rapidly transforming into a forest of pricey condo towers — something whose aesthetic appeal varied depending on whether you were considering the view from them or of them.
Artist George Del Barrio, who planned to eulogize the Kentile sign by projecting a short film called Manifest Destiny — mostly consisting of a montage of images of cats, followed by another of fireworks — onto the scaffolding erected in order to take the sign down, told the website Gothamist that “Kentile is a great reference point for where we’re going. There’s no escaping the change in life. The trick is trying to learn to surf it.”
Eventually, the sign came down, as the similar one nearby for Eagle Clothes had the year before. Thanks to the intervention of Lander, the Kentile sign was carefully packed up and placed in storage, perhaps one day again to be put on public display, albeit far from the overhead vista that had given it importance. With nothing to see, the F train riders retreated from the windows, and went back to their daily routines.
The storefront on Franklin Avenue was newly occupied, so newly that it wasn’t quite clear what merchandise the store was selling. There were some books, some vinyl records, some thrift-store vintage clothes, a small bar in the back. In the front window, a tiny stage hosted the reason the store was packed on this mild June evening with an overflow crowd sitting cross-legged on the floor: a series of bands, mostly young, mostly playing the neo-old-time music — fiddles and mandolins and Louvinesque harmonies — that had become almost as much a signifier of New Brooklyn as hipster beards and craft beers, both of which were also on heavy display.
Outside on the street, a 20-something man was attracted by the activity, and peered in curiously. He was not new to the neighborhood, something that could be discerned not just by his distinguishing characteristics — African-American, white t-shirt, baseball cap worn backwards — but by the look on his face as he stared up at a man and a woman locked in a fiddle duet: What. The. Fuck.
He approached the door, baffled. The cheerful young woman there informed him that it was a night of music, $5 cover. The man backed away — no, that’s okay, it’s cool — and disappeared swiftly into the night.
They had arrived.
East River State Park is what you might call a postmodern park, in that it barely has any trees, and not much grass. What it does offer are vast concrete slabs and segments of old train tracks running underfoot.
These are the remnants of the Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal, a once-bustling station where freight was transferred between ships and rail cars. (Its founder, Henry Havemeyer, ended up with a nearby Williamsburg street named after him.) After more than a century of operation, for many years of which it was home to the last working steam locomotives in New York City, the rail terminal shut down in 1983 and sat derelict, a playground for urban explorers and indie-rock music video directors. Finally, in 2007, with the Williamsburg waterfront being reclaimed for new condo towers, the state parks department, which had bought the land, sent out a press release announcing that the freight terminal was now a park, and opened the gates.
Getting people to use a park that was mostly concrete was a tough sell in its early years. To encourage more people to visit, the East River State Park managers invited the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg, a pair of trendy crafts- and food-vendor markets, to set up shop there on spring and summer weekends. It was not without controversy: Smorgasburg was so wildly popular, especially with tourists and Manhattanites who jumped across the river on the nearby L train, that existing local residents complained that the resulting crowds left them with no room to enjoy the waterfront views that had so recently opened up.
Eventually, a compromise was reached: Smorgasburg on Saturdays, quiet time on Sundays. On one such Saturday in 2014, it was easy to find the park: Just follow the endless stream of people pouring out of the Bedford Avenue L station and making their way toward the river. Once there, they merged into an even larger crowd jostling for position to queue up for artisanal truffle butter. “Do you want a cucumber lemonade?” an impatient mom asked a small boy. A woman on line for fresh coconut water, still in the coconut, questioned the man with a machete at the ready to hack off the top: “Six dollars?” “Do you know Brooklyn well?” another vendor asked, reacting with some surprise when he found that his customer had, in fact, lived there for decades.
The next day was a different story: Cool and cloudy, and with no Smorgasburg to draw visitors, the park was occupied by only a small scattering of isolated groups. One 30-something couple, a small dog in tow, peered out through a recently erected chain link fence that separated the park from the East River and the Manhattan skyline beyond. “We’re looking for a place to take wedding photos,” the man, thick-bodied with a shaved head and a strong Brooklyn accent, explained. This, they thought, would be a perfect location, with the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop. But then the fence arrived, and Smorgasburg took over every Saturday through September. It probably wasn’t going to work out.
There was always Brooklyn Bridge Park, his fiancée admitted, but “everybody does DUMBO. We were hoping for something more post-industrial.” She thought for a minute. “Maybe we can try Red Hook.”
One of the defining characteristics of Michael Bloomberg’s 12 years as New York City mayor, along with his hatred of smoking and his high regard for his fellow millionaires (“We love the rich people,” he famously said in explaining his opposition to raising top income tax rates), was his friendliness to bike riders. In 2007, Bloomberg appointed as transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who promptly set out to create 366 miles of new bike lanes and turn major intersections into pedestrian plazas, earning Bloomberg the affection of some New Yorkers who might otherwise have not warmed to his policies.
Bloomberg also presided over the launching of CitiBike, an ambitious bicycle-sharing program modeled on those previously established in cities like Paris and Montreal. For a fee — $95 for a year’s membership, $9.95 for a day’s jaunt — anyone could hop on board one of the blue bikes emblazoned with its sponsoring bank’s logo, and zip off to anywhere else in the city, provided that it was another part of the city equipped with docking stations where you could check your bike back in and avoid the $12-per-half-hour fines for overstaying your rental.
Though CitiBike was sold in part as a way to get New Yorkers out of their cars and onto pedals, its design was constrained by contradictory economics: The places that were most likely to see the kind of bike usage that would generate enough rentals to make the system work — not to mention enough consumer eyeballs to float Citibank’s marketing boat — were in the neighborhoods that had the most people on bikes and the fewest in cars to begin with. Phase one of the program covered much of Manhattan, plus a small strip heading east from downtown Brooklyn. The farthest outpost: a rack of bikes on the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Macon Street, a block away from the busy shopping hub of Nostrand and Fulton Street.
This was western Bedford-Stuyvesant, an area that had seen rapid changes in recent years, as largely white professionals, drawn by the handsome 19th-century brownstones and proximity to already-gentrifying neighborhoods like Clinton Hill, poured in en masse, bringing wineries and other upscale shops in their wake. The parade of locals that passed by the CitiBike stand one day about two months after the program’s debut (no one stopped, though a few said they had used the bikes, or intended to) was a rainbow of Brooklynites of all ages, races, and residential longevity.
Standing outside a corner diner serving “American and Latin cuisine,” Muhammad Shaviet remained unimpressed. “I’m not a bike rider. I’m a public transportation man.”
He was, as it so happened, watching a bike, which turned out to belong to his friend Khaliq Bey. “I use my bike,” Bey said, launching into a criticism of CitiBike for everything from the location of the bike racks to the $1000 fee for losing a bike. “It’s a bad idea from the jump, from the get-go.”
CitiBike wasn’t meant for this neighborhood, said Shaviet: “I think people would rather buy a bike than rent from the city,” especially at $9.95 a day. “The price and the way they got this is for people making 44, 45 thousand dollars a year,” says Bey.
For the first time in a long time, though, $45,000 a year didn’t sound that outrageous for Bed-Stuy. The conversation quickly turned to how the neighborhood was changing, and the strange ways of the newcomers. “Normally you come to a neighborhood, you try to get know the community,” said Bey. Not this crew, echoed Shaviet: “They don’t want to mix, they don’t want to mingle.”
The white newcomers, said Bey, signaled this in not-too-subtle ways. While they didn’t exhibit the stereotypical habit of crossing to the other side of the street when they saw a black man approaching, he had noticed them edging over to the opposite side of the sidewalk as they passed. “It’s like I come from a planet far away.”
“The planet Zulu,” added Shaviet.
The two friends puzzled over this. It seemed not just a matter of fear — both were middle-aged black men, not especially threatening unless you had an aversion to being lectured about bicycle ownership — but an odd combination of discomfort and obliviousness, along with being out of their element. “At two, three in the morning, you catch a Caucasian coming down, they’re whistling Dixie, they’re not concerned.” It was not a privilege he could ever enjoy, he noted, when visiting a friend in overwhelmingly white Howard Beach, Queens.
The two friends seemed less angry than exasperated by the newcomers, and baffled at their ways. “It’s abnormal for human beings to live like that,” says Shaviet. “We all pump blood.”
I was in my final year of college, at a small liberal arts school in a New England town that featured two Waldbaum’s supermarkets, the widest Main Street in New England, and not much else to speak of beyond occasional student protests that would make the local papers. June Jordan, the renowned poet and essayist, had just completed a lecture to a crowd of rapt undergraduates — it was the kind of school where students were rapt by poet/essayists who’d come of age during the civil rights movement — and I was about to interview her for the student newspaper.
There was much to talk about, including Jesse Jackson’s then-surging presidential campaign, for which Jordan had served as an adviser. First, though, she had some questions for me: So you’re graduating? Where are you off to next?
I’m not sure, I replied. Until college, I had lived my entire life in New York City, growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in a landscape familiar to anyone who’d seen early Woody Allen movies. That neighborhood was changing fast, though — rental buildings and single-room occupancy hotels turning to co-ops, new “sliver” apartment towers taking the place of brownstones, restaurants that all seemed to specialize in quiche — and besides, I’d enjoyed the sense of community I’d experienced in college, even if I wasn’t crazy about living in a town where all the stores closed by 9 pm.
You should look at Brooklyn, Jordan suggested. She lived there, having grown up the child of a nurse and a postal worker in Bed-Stuy, and it was more diverse than Manhattan, less hurried, better for remembering you lived in a community, not just a place to come home to after you scrambled to make money by day on Wall Street.
She left campus, and a few weeks later, after a final flurry of protests against the university’s investments in companies doing business in South Africa, I graduated. I had hardly ever visited Brooklyn, having grown up as one of those Manhattanites who treated the East River as the threshold of another country. I asked one of my fellow newspaper staffers, a New Yorker with a keen eye for urban communities, if she knew any good places to live in Brooklyn.
“You might try Park Slope,” she said. “But I don’t know. It’s getting kind of yuppified.”
The year was 1988.