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New Improved Brooklyn

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A colorful vision of currently gritty Jay Street.  

“The Fort Greene district lies at the crossroads of all these different forces—how do you make something interesting that’s not dictatorial?” Renfro says. “How do you make something that deals with the scale of the city while not being banal? How do you reinforce it but also make it more interesting? We made images which tried to evoke a spirit, an experience of the place, as opposed to a look.”

Open spaces, like the one Norten describes, were a part of that spirit, as was an attempt to remove as few buildings as possible. “It is certainly a contrast to the Atlantic Yards development, which is exactly the kind of thing we tried not to do—a wiping clean of the blocks, and a top-down megastructure placed in it,” Renfro says.

In this vision, the architecture and development ornaments and accessorizes what’s already there, rather than replaces it. In place of the Gehry spirit, a Brooklyn spirit. It’s a vision that makes a lot of sense—livable, comfortable Brooklyn, with the aesthetic overlay that’s grown up in the last twenty years, combined with a sensitivity—hard-won, it’s true—to the people that were living there first. That’s something that’s not happening in Jersey City.

It may have started as a defense mechanism, the idea that anyone would prefer to live in Brooklyn—no one likes to admit being priced out of the promised land. Brooklyn ten years ago was acceptable, but hardly prime, real estate. Park Slope tended to Birkenstocks, non-trendy babies, and Ultimate Frisbee. But in the past five years, that outer-borough embarrassment has disappeared. Many of the fields that make New York New York—art, theater, design, architecture—are centered, residentially if not from nine to five, in Brooklyn.

It shouldn’t take towers along the waterfront to recenter our mental maps of New York on the East River, not at Central Park. Brooklyn is already different, inextricably linked, but equal. It shouldn’t be back-office territory, but front-office space for smaller businesses. Those potential Williamsburg towers really are on the Fifth Avenue of the future. Enrique Norten’s library, Frank Gehry’s theater and arena are equivalent to Herzog & de Meuron’s South Bank Tate Modern—jewels in the setting that is Brooklyn, rather than alien presences.

The trick, then, for Brooklyn’s neighbors is to negotiate with the city, with the developers, with the architects, from a position of strength. Know neighborhood character, and admit its weaknesses. Point the Manhattan developers to real instances of blight. Look to the development that has been and is now already occurring, without benefit of tax breaks and zoning incentives.

The fear of Manhattanization is not, in this case, knee-jerk nimby-ism, but the sense that many chose to Brooklynize instead—to move here from other places, to stay here for multiple generations. What is attracting all this top-down money is work that has already been done by people happy to say, when asked at a party, No, I don’t live in New York. I live in Brooklyn.


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