A class-jumper like me can’t go home again. You can bet that Saturday Night Fever’s Tony Manero did not move back to Brooklyn during the dot-com boom because of the “amazing deals” to be had on townhouses in Sunset Park. One of my dearest friends, Joe, grew up in Flushing but came into “the city” regularly as a kid to visit his godfather, who lived on Sullivan Street. Even though he was only 45 minutes away by train, he was hypnotized by the people and the tall buildings. He moved to Avenue B in 1993 and has clung as tightly to his Manhattan dream as any New Yorker I’ve ever met. No amount of indebtedness, rising rents, or threat of eviction will deter him. In fact, when his parents finally moved to Florida twelve years ago, they offered to leave him the house he grew up in. He turned them down. Who passes up a free house in New York City? That’s how much he does not want to go back to the outer borough from whence he sprang.
His story highlights what is unprovable, but probably true: Most of the people who are moving to Brooklyn these days are couples with kids who treat Brooklyn as the new, hip suburbia, or artists and rich kids without the class issues that my friend Joe and I are saddled with. Now that rent control is effectively over, it makes me wonder who will be left in Manhattan once the Brooklyn exodus is complete. My prediction? Old-money families, Eurotrash, newly minted millionaire bankers, and stubborn, overleveraged, delusional, middle-class strivers like me clinging just a little too tightly to their fast-lane fantasies and 212 area codes.
The Brooklyn I first encountered in seventies sitcoms and films, and the one I experienced firsthand in the late eighties, has, of course, changed dramatically in recent years. For one thing, there are, as the Times recently reported, 130 new buildings planned in Williamsburg and Greenpoint alone. Townhouses in once-depressing neighborhoods are selling for millions of dollars. There are glowing Brooklyn-restaurant reviews in publications that used to review nothing outside Manhattan. Then there’s that discombobulating feeling I get when I hear a Manhattanite talk of a crazy night he had in some Brooklyn club I’ve never heard of.
Who will be left once the exodus to Brooklyn is complete? Old money, Eurotrash, and stubborn, delusional, middle-class strivers like me.
Forced to seriously consider Brooklyn for the first time, I enlisted the aid of one of my best friends, whom I shall call Miss Outer Borough. You know the type: moved to Brooklyn before it was cool; parks her old diesel Mercedes on the street; knows where all the great ethnic restaurants are in Queens; pays under $1,000 a month for a nice walk-up in Williamsburg; prefers Brooklyn because of its “lower density.” She enrolled me in an informal Learn to Love Brooklyn course of her own design. First, I visited her in Williamsburg, where we had lunch. Cute, I thought. An extension of the East Village. But why not just live in the East Village? It’s not that much more expensive. Next we went to Park Slope, where I had never been before. As I recall, I said something retarded like, “Wow, this is, like, a real place! And so civilized! I can’t believe there’s a Two Boots!” But, sheesh, so far away. Next up, Brooklyn Heights, which has the unique problem of looking more like Manhattan than Manhattan. Like it’s trying too hard. And, to take the fun-house hall-of-mirrors aspect one notch further, you can see the entirety of Manhattan across the river, a fact I found both oddly comforting and deeply disturbing. Why can’t we just be over there, in actual Manhattan?
But it was Dumbo that made me think I might actually enjoy living in Brooklyn. Those eerily empty cobblestone streets and the distant roar of the subways overhead and the access to the water spoke to something primal in me. And it seemed that I wouldn’t really be displacing anyone, other than the ghosts of cardboard-factory workers. This was around the time that David Walentas, the so-called Father of Dumbo, was developing the Clocktower building into condos. This could be fun, I thought, and the prices seemed reasonable. Pfffft. That lasted about an hour. My one tiny sliver of a Brooklyn dream shriveled up and died last summer when I spent a day wandering around Dumbo with the singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, who was performing at St. Ann’s Warehouse. Sure, the buildings were there, along with the cobblestones and the water. But everywhere we turned, there were the new markers of pseudo-nostalgia and tasteful affluence. I could practically hear the collective hum of the brand-new $4,000 refrigerators in every apartment, their humidified crispers stocked with mushrooms harvested by Italian monks. As if that weren’t enough, Walentas recognized Mann as we strolled down to the river and thrust himself on us to talk—what else?—real estate!
Even for Miss Outer Borough, the New Brooklyn is harder to love, not least because the dot-com boom turned her beloved Williamsburg into a monoculture. “It was so unprogrammed, so naturally surreal,” she says. “Now there’s nothing that will ever surprise you, because some entity, somewhere, took one Oberlin or Bard grad with a certain collection of books and music and a very exact, ironic, high-low culture taste and cloned that person with infinitesimally small variations, so that Williamsburg now has the narrowest demographic range in the universe, including tribes of people who are all related on the Pitcairn Islands. It’s not that I don’t like the culturati hipsters, but the last time I was in an environment where people only wanted to be with people exactly like themselves was in a fucking mall in Minnesota, which is why I left there twenty years ago.”
But Miss Outer Borough’s real beef is not with the pod people. It’s with the developers who are bringing some of the worst things about Manhattan across the East River. Thanks to one of the largest rezoning projects in New York’s history, dozens of 35- to 45-story towers—Battery Park City, essentially—will likely rise along the Brooklyn waterfront just a few blocks from the heart of Williamsburg. And that’s nothing compared with the rezoning of downtown Brooklyn to make way for the basketball arena, an eminent-domain destruction of a neighborhood that harks back to Robert Moses. As Miss Outer Borough said to me recently, “You thought you hated Brooklyn because it seduced everybody with its wily, charming ways. But you’re going to hate it for a whole different reason, because the forces that ruined Manhattan for young creative people—the rapacious developers—are coming to destroy Brooklyn too!”