Report from the Front

The Brooklyn neighborhood of Gowanus wasn’t much on my radar when I first began the research that will culminate in “The Brooklyn Wars,” mostly because Gowanus wasn’t much on anyone’s radar: Named for a toxic green canal, inhabited mostly by old warehouses and industrial sites, it was the last place anyone expected to see battles over community preservation in the face of development pressures.

And yet, a few days ago Brooklynites woke up to this:

That’s the Kentile Floors sign, which has been standing atop a Gowanus rooftop for half a century, its now-darkened neon a familiar sight to riders on the nearby F line where trains rise out of the earth to cross the neighborhood’s eponymous canal. (As a result, the station there is 87.5 feet above ground, the most egregious misnomer of a “subway” in the entire world.) The sign has been shrouded in scaffolding, it eventually turned out, because its owner, Ely Cohen, has applied for and received a demolition permit from the city, presumably in anticipation that an in-the-works rezoning of the neighborhood will allow him to sell out to high-priced housing developers — assuming there’s no historic signage getting in the way.

Facebook and Twitter are already filling with anguished cries, and councilmember Brad Lander has launched an emergency petition campaign to preserve the sign, even if it has to be moved elsewhere. (You can sign on here.) And while the fate of a neon sign, even a much-loved one, may not in the end be the most important issue in a borough battling over such things as access to affordable housing and decent schools, the Kentile skirmish does bring together many of the themes that I plan to investigate in this book: precipitous development pressures, behind-closed-doors decision making, and ultimately, the question of who gets to decide what future Brooklyn will look like — those who own the property, those with the money to buy it, or those who have lived there all along.

More Kentile updates as events warrant. Meanwhile, big thanks to the funders over the past couple of days who have pushed this project past the one-third mark; if I end up with any extra, maybe I’ll see if I can buy a few square yards of Gowanus rooftop.