Monday, July 07, 2008

Ditmas Park Tales: Coffeehouse Spy

My Brooklyn neighborhood, in which I have spent a good deal of my life, boasts stretches of treeless depressed areas that are truly awful. I've tried to see the good in them -- some sense of quaintness -- but I really can't. It cannot be psychologically healthy for any person to live among some of those surroundings. And these lifeless patches of spare residential buildings, a myriad of disjointed storefronts, and sidewalks that seem to permanently host the aroma of ancient garbage, are surrounded by the most beautiful Victorian-styled houses and verdant walkways that you can possibly imagine. I live in a schizoid neighborhood, one in which I have, up until about six months ago, lived on the "wrong" side of.

A fancy restaurant opened up across the street from my block. The storefront used to be a candy store I remember frequenting in my youth, buying Marino ices and bubblegum cards. Then that candy store was either set on fire or simply abandoned outright, I cannot recall which. I just remember it as a shell, on the edge of where the Victorian houses began, a border between two worlds that people would visit at night to dump their garbage illegally in front of.

But, now it's a fancy restaurant. Suddenly, my neighborhood, according to some magazines and websites, is "hip." Though some reviews of the restaurant in question describe the trip along the same lines of a stealth mission inside some sort of war zone, barely hiding their disgust at having to "brave" the visit (even if it's for some damn fine steak).

If my neighborhood continues to travel down the road of hipness, the rents will eventually go up. How do these gentrification things go, exactly? Quickly? Incrementally?

What happens to the literally hundreds of little children who cover those dry streets on a summer afternoon, and the ones who play in the hallways of my building because the parents think it's dangerous for them to play outside? Kids who ride their bikes and play ball in the narrow tiled hallway of my building? (My parents did the same thing with me.)

There has to be some healing done in that neighborhood. It can't just be that the developers go in, create the hipster bars and boutiques, the native residents get pushed to the borders, and *poof!* we get another Williamsburg.

Oh sure, every once in a while the neighborhood development association hosts a little fair for the children, and they play folk music and make little balloon animals for them and paint their faces. And they hang flyers and banners about developing the neighborhood, about bringing in new business.

Development is all well and good. The question is, with all the new money coming in, is there going to be any positive impact on the poorer people in that community?

I'll be honest, I feel like people, young and old, are being left behind in this scenario. A fraction of them will eventually have the money to leave on their own steam, but a bunch are going to be left behind.

See, I hang out with the newer residents of my neighborhood, I dine where they dine, I sip expensive coffee where they sip, I type at my Macbook in their coffeehouses -- but I'm really a spy, a double-agent. I'm a native, you see. And not from the verdant walkways --but from the dry sidewalks and patchwork storefronts. I've quietly watched this neighborhood on and off for 30+ years. I'm in the middle of a transformation, just as this area is. I could, in the name of "evolution," leave a bunch of things behind, make a clean break.

I could. But, there will be ghosts.

The questions: why am I still there? why did I live this this odd existence on the borders, between cultures? what ties me to that place? what do I have to do to leave? can I leave one day and have that world, over time, fall out of my memory -- as has happened with the rest of my family, who see the area as a collection of trivia? isn't it the right thing to do? to develop and leave?

There is something about the stories from that area -- observed and my own -- that compel me, that replay in my mind, that are listed in my brain like the chapters of Edith Hamilton's Mythology.

When you're a little child, you don't realize you are growing up in a depressed area. You don't really see the graffiti, or if you do, you think it is simply the natural texture of your environment.

Related links:
Memoirs Of An Occasional Superheroine Part Four
Bad Comic Shop
Tales Of The Bad Comic Shop: King Of The Silver Age


  1. I don't think you'll get another Williamsburg; Williamsburg is so successful as a douche-trap partly because of its geophysical location, right next to Manhattan. It is LES sprawl, more or less. Also, I DO NOT get Williamsburg's gentrification. As a resident of uber-gentrified Park Slope, everytime I'm in Williamsburg I'm astonished at how filthy & ugly it is. Man, give me my yuppie moms & nerdy dads on garden-paved sidewalks over broken 40s & industrial smashup any day.

    The residential parts of Midwood are really nice. Just throwing that out there.

  2. In answer to your open ended question: Gentrificaiton and development really only succedes if it's respectful to the existing neighborhood. A neighborhood is not built on hip resterauants and a few boutiques; it's built on affordable housing with industry attached to it. Somewhere that young college grads will live because it's cheap and close to their first jobs. They won't necessarily care about the schools or even crime as much because they don't have families to worry about.

    Case in point: I grew up around and currently work in Asbury Park, NJ. I don't want to go into the history of the town, but it's safe to say that it's seen better days and the "revitalization of Asbury Park" has been going on for about 40 years. The town's big idea of revitilization is to put more and more bars and resteraunts on the one street toursits may come, and have some new apartments that are near the ocean at insane prices (let me say, I used to live in Washington DC and had an apartment 5 blocks from the White House for less then what I'd pay here for the same size).Essentially it's a busniess model that consists of "The New York money will come down and save us", even though anyone who can afford to live around here wouldn't live around here. And all the while they tax the people who are here every day, doing actual work to improve the towns image. There's no respect for the residents of this town, and that's why putting up a new resteraunt will ultimatly fail.

  3. "When you're a little child, you don't realize you are growing up in a depressed area."

    I have this really romanticized image of my childhood neighborhood, but on the rare occasions when I'm back home and drive down my old street, I get depressed by the reality smashing a garbage can over the fantasy's head.

  4. Well, Valerie, ask yourself one question: "Would I buy a house here?" Is the area safe enough? Will the value of your property go up? Are there good schools nearby? Subway? Parks? Affordable stores? Light industry which creates pollution?

    You can keep your roots if you feel a need. Otherwise, you can embrace the American Dream and move to a neighborhood or building which is better than the one you grew up in.

    My old neighborhood was middle middle-class. Working class mostly, walk to school, play in the street, rake leaves, mow the lawn, shovel the sidewalk. Would I move back? No. Because I've left Omaha behind me. I'm happy in Wakefield, even though the closest park, Van Cortlandt, is about a mile away.

    My advice? Buy one of those Victorian houses on the right side of the street. Usually well built, and they have some style.

  5. My neighborhood was pretty decent growing up. I mean, once you cross under the Gowanus into Sunset Park you realize just HOW decent it really is (it's like the freakin' suburbs compared to that) but overall it's falling victim to a fact that's taking over NYC.

    Basically, NYC is for the rich now. They're slowly ebbing out the poor and lower middle classes in favor of bringing in the money. And gradually, it's been expanding over into the outer boroughs. All these damn condos going up everywhere (thankfully, they FINALLY instituted a zoning law!). A lotta the businesses around me have been closing down due to Manhattan-like rents of landlords trying to bring in the bigger tenants. We lost a neighborhood institution, Griswold's Pub, so they could put a bank there. A of at least TEN that's opened up around here in the last year. I mean, over on 86th street AND 75th street, we have 3 banks within not even a block of each other!

  6. Crap...I hit enter by mistake.

    Anyways, PART 2! :P

    I'll sum up by saying the neighborhoods are changing, and a lot of them somewhat for the better, but not entirely. This city is gradually becoming for the country club crowd. So much so it'll probably get to the point we'll need to challenge the elite to a golf game so we can stay. Hopefully, that damn gopher doesn't mess things up...

  7. Anonymous1:07 PM

    Sounds like you've got stories that can be translated into an Eisner-style graphic novel... touchy, poignant, and a longing for something "pure"...

  8. I feel like somebody (me?) should make a documentary or write a book, or at least a long magazine article about how all this "gentrification" affects us Brooklyn natives. In some ways, it's nice being able to do things (ok, eat and shop mostly) in neighborhoods I was forbidden to even set foot in as a kid. The downside, and it's a big one, is that all this loveliness is based on the people who lived there before just kind of evaporating. And that not only sucks, it's wrong.

    I know New York is a city that's always changing, and that areas go "up" and "down" over the decades. But it's very weird to be old enough now to see my hometown become something that in many ways I don't recognize.

    Wolverine is talking about Bay Ridge, where I have lived for a long time, even though I grew up at the ass-end of Flatbush Ave. (The end that's FAR from Manhattan, for all you yupster scumbags! Just kidding, but not really.) Thank God we live just far enough out to deter the hipster throngs, but wolverine is right, what's up with all the BANKS? And If you ever told me I'd see luxury condo towers right off the Manhattan Bridge, I'd have laughed in your face.

    It's amazing and heartbreaking to see how Brooklyn is changing. I guess my only question is, what do we do when we can't even afford the "bad" neighborhoods anymore?

  9. As a quasi-native of the general vicinity (we moved from a decidedly lower-middle-class Jersey shore town to Westminster between Glenwood & H right before I started high school, then to Cortelyou & Ocean Parkway right after I graduated), I identify with a lot of what you say here. I've watched the area go through all sorts of changes with mixed emotions, too. After 15 years away spent in BK and Manhattan, last year I moved from the UWS to a "prime" location in "Ditmas Park West" - i.e. down the block from Vox Pop and The Farm. I frequent some of the same places you probably do, and I've kind of been feeling like a square peg, not quite sure of where I fit in in all of this. But, after reading your post and the comments, I'm starting to grok an answer to that question..."we are not alone." Thanks for that!

  10. With apologies to Oliver Stone and Gordon Gekko…
    “Gentrification…” is good.

    I know many feel new buildings should provide a percentage of the apartments as “affordable” housing but in my opinion there are too many ways to get around that and the prices are only lower in relation to the highest priced apartment in that building, not truly affordable.
    So I would argue that gentrification here helps develop other less desirable neighborhoods.
    I moved here five years ago from the village and the price of my apartment was astonishing compared to other parts of New York including Queens and Brooklyn. Now we are at or near market rate but still quite low compared to Manhattan or the more developed parts of Brooklyn.
    What that does for those who are still looking is make them search further south or across CIA in areas that were or still are marginal. Slowly the pattern helps all the neighborhoods take a step up. Those people who bought here many years ago are rewarded for their foresight and those who own in less desirable neighborhoods will slowly see new people move in and need services like groceries and restaurants. New businesses that couldn’t exist before will find they can make a go of it.
    I lived in the Village back when it was the “Village”, small Mom and Pop stores and affordable cafĂ©’s, well that’s gone but the new Village moved to East Village then down to the lower East Side. Friends who were willing walk past Tompkins Sq. Park at night in 80’s are now living in a very desirable neighborhood. Same here.
    BTW – As I was being evicted from my regulated garden apartment in the Village I was traumatized, I now see it as the best thing that could have happened to me. I’m a home owner in a great neighborhood.
    The artists, musicians etc. who bought these Victorian houses 10-15 years ago are seeing the neighborhood come alive. Those “pioneers” deserve their reward and we “newcomers” benefit from their courage.
    The article about Jim Mamary and Allan Harding is another great example. Smith Street was not a destination to say the least when they started there. And who would have thought about putting a Bistro, of all things, in a bodega on Newkirk?
    IMO - Pomme de Terre will bring major social changes to that area. By example the neighbors can see the possibilities.
    The question is what happens to renters. If they are unregulated their rents will go up and they will have to either buy or move. But they will help the neighborhoods they move to by making grocery stores viable as well as other businesses.
    I see gentrification to be the same as Darwanism.
    Brutal? Yes in some cases but an opportunity to some that are willing to take a chance on owning their own place to live.
    The one thing I think the government could and should do is help with affordable loans. The subprime beast of the unfettered capitol markets is exactly the opposite of what good government should allow and we will pay for it for a long time.

    Why shouldn’t ALL of NYC eventually be a “nice” place to live?

    Sorry to run on but it is a complex and tough issue.

  11. Speaking of gentrification you might want to read Double Edge to Brooklyn’s Success
    in the NYTimes.
    It tells how Brooklyn Brewery, Amy’s Cookies and Bagels by Bell are hard pressed to find space to expand in Brooklyn because real estate is expensive and being eaten up by residential conversions. Because of gentrification thier businesses are doing better and they need to expand and hire more people (i.e. gentrification is "good") but at the same time the success has made it harder to find space.
    It would be a drag if “Brooklyn Brewery” had to make their (our?) beer in Long Island.

    *Highlighted words are HOT links.