In Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, Aspects of Gentrification


Brooklyn, once a universal punchline, is now the measure of all things gently hip -- an unironic ethos compounded of yoga mats, hoodies, high-end baby strollers, and craft beer. A large and amorphous patch of Los Angeles, because of its sympathy with these markers, is now seen as "Brooklyn adjacent," mostly by the New York Times.

"The buzz from all this is audible 3,000 miles east, to the point that New Yorkers' incessant Williamsburg comparisons to Silver Lake, Highland Park, Venice Beach -- or wherever -- have become a wearying cliché to locals ...," wrote the Times' Alex Williams. He added, "Los Angeles is enjoying a renaissance with a burgeoning art, fashion, and food scene that has become irresistible to the culturally attuned."

I recently heard that tune. It has its seductive elements. I don't hear the beat of L.A. in it.

I just spent a week in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn, in an apartment above the Brooklyn Farmacy, a soda shop with the fixtures of a turn-of-the-century drug store on Henry Street. (Mother to tiny daughter, passing the Farmacy on their way to day care, "And what do we do here?" The answer was immediate, "We eat brunch.")

And as much as they share some aspects of an aspirant life, the brunch eaters of Brooklyn are not identical to the breakfast eaters of Echo Park. The aspects of their gentrified neighborhoods are different too.

Stoops of Carroll Gardens
Stoops of Carroll Gardens| Photo by the author | Creative Commons License 

Down the block from the Brooklyn Farmacy is Mazzola Bakery, an institution before gentrification when Henry Street was mostly Italian American. Across Henry Street is Bar Bruno, whose Latino owner serves hybrid Mexican cooking in something of a shrine to the Belfast footballer George Best.

This piece of Henry Street has, since 2009, had the courtesy title of "Citizens of Pozzallo Way," on behalf of the nearly century old Society of the Citizens of Pozzallo, Italy. Downtown Los Angeles had its own coherent neighborhood identities, modeled on those of Brooklyn, for Russians and Serbs, Italians and the French, eastern European Jews, and smaller enclaves of Greeks and Poles. Time and suburbanization have blurred them; others survive as "little" this or that.

Brooklyn in May, like Los Angeles in other seasons, is pearl gray light, but there it falls into narrow streets edged closely by four and five story buildings so that, as the day ages, the shadows that gather everywhere deepen. It might have been late afternoon in L.A. from morning to sunset.

Carroll Gardens Walk
Carroll Gardens Walk, | Photo by the author | Creative Commons License

It's another cliché to speak of particular neighborhoods in Brooklyn, like Carroll Gardens, as small towns. Within the grid of the wider and busier streets, that cliché is true, despite the continuous white noise of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and the ubiquity of green and yellow taxis.

We're told that New York operates at a frantic pace, that an unrelenting momentum is what the city is all about. But in Carroll Gardens, the pace is, at most, a brisk walk, more the pace of a schoolchild at 7:30 a.m., backpacked like a Sherpa, in the company of a distracted mother or a suited father clutching a container of pretty good coffee (which is obtainable at every conceivable retailer, including, I think, the Henry Street laundromat).

NYPD/NYFD, by klxadm

When the strollers of the infants and the scooters of pre-schoolers have passed, the old people of Henry Street come out, grandsons and granddaughters perhaps of Pozzallo. They come up from the semi-subterranean apartments that lie just below the steps of the brownstone buildings and down those tall stoops from above.

(From a former resident at the foot of one of these stoops to two elderly women of Henry Street: "The wife wanted to move, so we go to Staten Island. Then she ups and dies. And who do I know in Staten Island? I don't know nobody." The two women silently commiserate. They know that upping and dying is a curse and the engine of gentrification.)

Gentrification has turned out some of the legacy businesses along Henry Street. There can't have been many Brazilian martial arts studios in the days before the citizens of Pozzallo moved to Staten Island. The bar that honors George Best and serves huevos rancheros probably had other things on its menu. But gentrification seems to have had a light hand on Henry Street, although I know there has been a price to pay in the lives of the elderly and the working poor.

If nothing else, whole communities have been disrupted and not yet fully replaced by new communities now framed on terms other than national origin and faith.

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Brooklyn looks like a borough of scaffolding set up against apartment buildings that are older than almost anything in Los Angeles. Gentrification in the parts of Los Angeles most often compared to Brooklyn looks different.

In particular, downtown's boom in the late 1990s began without as much displacement of downtown's residents; there were so few. In many ways, downtown Los Angeles redeveloped like a conventional suburban tract, except the fields to be turned into homes where the empty acres on the upper floors of unoccupied office buildings.

Brooklyn Farmacy

Today, that kind of change is increasingly the model of development at the farther edges of New York's gentrifying neighborhoods.

In Los Angeles, the displacement of low-income renters is accelerating with the depletion of the stock of reusable office buildings in downtown's core.

Henry Street's partial transition from mom-and-pop retailers to boutiques and up-scale restaurants had little impact on one issue that infuriates the neighborhoods that border gentrifying commercial strips in Los Angeles -- parking. Los Angeles developed walkable neighborhoods for working-class residents in the first half the 20th century with only minimal on-street parking for small businesses. Those neighborhoods, now desirable for gentrifiers, are suddenly overcome by the demands on their limited parking.

Space -- for parking, for living -- is the raw material of gentrification. There's lots of space in Los Angeles, but not as much as memory imagines. Built-out Los Angeles is learning to reuse its available space, densifying in some areas, retaining its character as a city of individual homes in others, and forcing elements of a largely Latino working class to relocate.

Brooklyn went through the gentrifying process first, with differences that are converging today with the more recent experience of Los Angeles.

Ash Can School
Ash Can School | Photo by the author | Creative Commons License

A week on gentrified Henry Street, with its comforts and its missing citizens of Pozzallo, was an image of a neighborhood that even Angeleños might envy. Who doesn't want good bread a three-minute walk away or exceptionally good ice cream just downstairs? Gentrification in Los Angeles might deliver the same goods (along with the same evils). But it will not look the same, nor have exactly the same trajectory of redevelopment, despite the superficialities linking Brooklyn and L. A. that the New York Times always hunts down and billboards in its stories about Los Angeles.

Besides, if you want an L.A. analog to Brooklyn in dimensions much wider than the availability of craft cocktails and the tropes of hipsterism, a place with some funk and a minimum of attitude, it's Long Beach.

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