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The What You Are Afraid Of

A mischievous online bogeyman is haunting the dreams of New Brooklyn.


Illustrations by Zohar Lazar  

Is Clinton Hill an okay place to move? It’s vibrant, diverse, and feels very safe. Clinton Hill is full of black people who have a chip on their shoulder and some white people who think themselves cool for living among them. It is a gorgeous little stretch of buildings. If you like the ghetto, you will love that area. I’m comfortable in Clinton Hill but my wife isn’t and she wants out. Go back to Kansas, asswipe. Crown Heights is one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in Brooklyn. If you are white, look for another area, unless you want to get attacked. Since moving into the neighborhood two years ago, I have already seen it change dramatically. Just so you know, “edgy” and “unsafe” means “black.” The new residents look at you as if you are a piece of ghetto trash. Every town in Brooklyn will be gentrified sooner or later. This is an awesome area. It’s disgusting and ugly. This is my neighborhood, motherfuckers, I was born and raised here. Jeez, you people are hateful. Please leave Brooklyn, you do not belong here, newcomer. The war is over. You lost. Get out.


Jonathan Butler, the founder and publisher of Brownstoner.com, is used to these kind of comments. When he started the site four years ago—back when he was still working a day job at a hedge-fund start-up and posting items furtively from his desk at work—he thought of his blog as an outlet for his interest in brownstones and his excitement about Brooklyn, as well as a way to start a conversation with his newfound neighbors. He didn’t imagine, at least not back then, that the conversation, which now takes place all day, every day in the comments left on his blog (like the ones above), would become quite so spirited, with his commenters functioning like a cross between a Greek chorus, a clamorous town-hall meeting, and a howling mob.

Butler, who’s 38 and wears a scruffy beard, seems to hum with excess energy, as though he’s both perpetually excited and anxious to find a way to put that excitement to immediate use. He grew up in Manhattan, on the Upper East Side, went to Princeton, and got an M.B.A. at NYU. He spent most of his adult life hopscotching between various apartments downtown before he and his wife, with their young child, did what many young families in the city were doing—they turned their eyes to Brooklyn. After renting in Williamsburg, they bought a brownstone for under a million dollars in Clinton Hill in 2004. It was a good house at a good price, with fourteen-foot ceilings and nine nonfunctioning fireplaces. His family waited for a year while the house was being renovated, during which time Butler thought about starting a blog. While he was house hunting, he’d been obsessively surfing a grocery list of Websites: Some, like Curbed, were fixated on the pan-city real-estate boom while others, like Apartment Therapy, collected tips on renovations and home design. At first he imagined his blog as a simple diary of his own renovation, but soon his vision expanded, so that the site would eventually function as part real-estate-scuttlebutt clearinghouse, part local bulletin board. He made a list of possible names and settled on the slightly patrician-sounding, slightly illicit-sounding Brownstoner. He bought the domain name and went live with the blog in late 2004.

Butler’s adopted borough has proved to be especially fertile soil for blogs, as many of its recent transplants have, like Butler, been eager to chronicle their experience in dispatches sent out to the world, like homesteaders mailing letters back from a new frontier. Among these sites, though, Brownstoner holds a distinct and exalted position, thanks largely to Butler’s acumen in staking out the happy middle ground between citywide Websites like Curbed and Gothamist and the dozens of Brooklyn microblogs and message boards where people gather to rant and rail and cheer and commiserate about the foibles and frustrations of their neighborhoods. Brownstoner covers the whole borough (although the objections here of residents of Bay Ridge, Canarsie, and other outlying regions are duly noted), but it covers the whole borough as though it were one big block, where everyone has gathered to gossip on their stoops.

As such, Butler’s become not only a fairly well-known blogger (the site draws 150,000 visitors a month, and he was introduced to the world in a 2007 Observer article headlined BROWNSTONER: IT’S ME!), but also a kind of virtual developer, someone who doesn’t literally rebuild neighborhoods but who has the power to shape the way those neighborhoods are perceived. By uncovering derelict architectural gems in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, or trumpeting the opening of an inviting new bar in Crown Heights, Butler has introduced Brooklyn’s far-flung neighborhoods to people who would otherwise never consider visiting them, let alone buying a house and settling there. On Brownstoner, the bridesmaid borough is now the bride. The site celebrates what’s sometimes called New Brooklyn: a vision of the borough as a diverse and lively enclave of flowering neighborhoods, all jammed with engaged homeowners, reborn blocks, and gorgeous and stately and (by Manhattan standards) bargain-priced real estate, waiting to be polished up under a tasteful eye. Brownstoner didn’t create the Brooklyn renaissance, of course, any more than a weatherman creates a storm. But, like a watchful forecaster, the site has tracked the course of the weather pattern—in this case, the vortex created by rising real-estate prices that sucked in a fresh batch of hopeful residents, drawn by the promise of more space and tree-lined blocks and safer streets and majestic brownstones and ample sunlight and the borough’s sudden, self-perpetuating cachet.


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