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The What You Are Afraid Of

The site’s comment section, however, has been tracking a different kind of storm. Brownstoner’s posts tend to read like the reportage of a particularly smart and opinionated community paper. The comment section, by contrast, has become a rolling transcript of the borough’s new anxieties, shameful prejudices, and secret fears. For a long time, those anxieties centered on being left out or pushed out—hopeful buyers or displaced renters thwarted by prices rising out of control. Butler was pleased to find that the site drew not only people who could afford to buy $3 million mansions but also the people who could no longer afford to stay in the neighborhoods where those $3 million mansions were being bought up. His commenters argued and griped about issues that no one was addressing anywhere else, at least not directly, at least not honestly, at least not with each other. Issues like, How much higher can these prices go? Or, is that neighborhood really safe? Or, where did all these strollers come from? Or, get out, we were here first.

And lately these anxieties have been shifting course. If the fears once centered on the Brooklyn renaissance’s going too far, too fast, now the worry is that the renaissance won’t go far enough; that it will suddenly recede like a fickle tide that strands a fleet of errant ships. And the people who bought in to the fringes of the New Brooklyn will wind up trapped—in a bad neighborhood, a stifling mortgage, a failing block.

But one commenter has been gleefully forecasting just such a collapse. In July 2007, in a comment thread under an item about a painted doorway on a landmarked block in Clinton Hill (this is a fairly typical Brownstoner story: Homeowner on landmarked block paints his doorway in violation of local regulations; outrage ensues), a commenter calling himself The What left a simple message. Referring to Butler, who goes by Mr. Brownstoner on the site, The What wrote: “Mr. B, go kill yourself.”

The lack of affordable housing in New York affects everyone. You, renting loser, have a lot to learn about how things work. When you are upside down on your jumbo loan a few years from now, you can talk to me about throwing money away. People in million-dollar condos will be surprised when their $8-an-hour doorman will not protect them from the unwashed masses. Renters in this city are fucked. I wish I would have bought years ago. These wonderful new “Brooklynites” can’t possibly imagine why people would be angry enough to fight back. You are just renters who can’t handle that Brooklyn is changing and you were left behind. Fuck off—I own. Being house-poor sucks. You are an idiot and have no idea what you’re talking about. My only options are to hope and dream that you disgusting hipsters, yuppies, and gentrifiers leave New York. I’m tired of this. You don’t deserve to live in this city. You are dumb and lazy, and now you are paying the price.

Brownstoner is not, of course, the only Website with spirited, occasionally combative, and reflexively profane commenters. (That’s every Website.) But if you read through the comments regularly—if, say, you spend a few weeks in your apartment in Brooklyn reading through hundreds of pages of back comments—you will notice an undertow of anger. You might start to suspect that all your neighbors are harboring something angry and unsaid. You might start to feel like everyone in your borough is outside your window, in the street, screaming at each other.

And then there is The What.

The What often posts several times a day. He ends each comment with a quote apparently borrowed from Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now: “Someday this war’s gonna end.” If you were to cast the site’s commenters in a kind of school-pageant play, you’d costume The What in ashes and sackcloth, hand him a sign reading THE END IS NIGH (or, more accurately, SOMEDAY THIS WAR’S GONNA END), then send him to the street corner to rant. The What’s favorite—and possibly only—subject of interest is the coming Brooklyn Apocalypse. He calls it the Mutant Real Estate Bubble. From the beginning, he has contended vehemently, and repetitiously, and often profanely, that there’s a massive correction coming to the real-estate market that will swallow the borough’s fresh-faced transplants and their artfully renovated brownstones as surely as if a chasm had opened up in the earth. Which, of course, means an end to the whole happy vision of recent Brooklyn: the flowering neighborhoods, the skyrocketing prices, the dissipating crime. To The What, Mr. Brownstoner and his readers are snoozing blissfully, lost in this intoxicating dream. And The What is the alarm clock.

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