Dear Gilbert Gottfried and Editors of the Wall Street Journal,
I’d like to take a minute to reply to your Wall Street Journal article “Brooklyn Before the Hipsters” on July 4th, 2013 – Independence Day. No doubt the editors at the Wall Street Journal smacked on that headline to a story that does not otherwise mention hipsters. I would have titled it, “Brooklyn Before the Developers,” and I hate to break it to you, Gilbert, but they’re using you.
Indeed New York City was a pretty big wreck of a place in the 1970s as you describe your and your sister Arlene’s experience growing up here. There is no disputing that fact – for decades Brooklyn and all the boroughs were left to their own devices to descend into the squalor and neglect that was rampant across the city’s “undesirable areas” – as you call them – during America’s post-urban renewal years. The banks were hard at work then, building the suburbs you couldn’t afford to move to.
In recounting this time, long ago, you juxtapose two moments – then and now – that are not comparable, and the result is a stultifying paralysis of choice: either you like the scary old New York or you like the gleaming, shiny new one. The obvious answer for many people is the shiny new one, and so any negative consequences of the safe streets and new buildings – stop and frisk policies, mass warehousing of homeless people in shelters that are also developer welfare programs – are brushed aside. Our city is a mix of both old and new, good and bad, and it always has been. While the future is here, it is also unevenly distributed. Especially true in the outer boroughs: as much as things have improved they also remain the same, but that does not have to be so.
Through “the old days where you could get total crap at affordable prices,” many creative people like yourself, and artists from here and all over, came to live and work in Brooklyn, catapulting their careers from here. Notably, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe being the two most famous androgynous proto-hipsters as described in Patti’s memoir Just Kids. Hipsters, if that’s what you call it, have been here all along.
I personally didn’t make it onto the New York scene until the early 80s, when I was born. My parents raised me in a cramped apartment in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood – a place where even a young girl can get beat up by cops – and my cousins grew up in Brighton Beach, next to your native Coney Island, and that’s where I spent my Christmases. Even through the 90s, during my high school years, Brooklyn was filled with “undesirable areas” and regular people, artists – like my family – who lived and worked there. This was a middle class – and a classy – town.
This was also true of Alphabet City, which you also mention, and I would offer that the gentrification of the lettered avenues you name served as a prototype for what was to come for Brooklyn, and for Manhattan overall. It was in the late 90s, things started to change. It wasn’t that an ocean of hipsters was necessarily waiting to descend upon this place as your editors insinuate, though they did. Rather, the speculators and developers and bankers that now read articles like yours in the Wall Street Journal and chuckle started to notice that the bohemian artist population could be exploited and co-opted for a new generation of kids who were looking for something different, just as their hippie-cum-Warholian parents had before them. I’m glad all these kids came here, but a “changing neighborhood” doesn’t happen upon their will, they just go wherever they can.
Big business interests are behind the influx of new people that stock the glass and steel levels that rise towards the sky along our shores – aka Brooklyn’s most desirable areas. This is all courtesy of the rezoning and policing efforts through the last twelve years of the Bloomberg administration.
Yet, Mr. Gottfried, your article, with this headline, implies that it is the hipsters who have brought on such changes. It’s telling that the real business interests behind all these changes, aka the Wall Street Journal, are ironically using your voice, your supremely obnoxious, money making voice, to forward the psychology of ‘now is better than before, buy into it.’
Hipsters have changed Brooklyn for generations. These days they labor for New York’s businesses at unpaid internships, made lattes for crappy bankers, and have worked to build up small businesses, started food coops and rooftop gardens, made art and envisioned new ways of sustainable urban life, and I invite you to not mock that and instead learn about something you don’t know by reading some of the links in this article. Hipsters you’ll see, as your editors imply with their headline, are not responsible for areas where “you can sell the apartment for $10 million and advertise ‘adventurous neighborhood,’” the bankers did that.
The rapid gentrification of Crown Heights is a great example of how speculators and realtors snapped up the inventory, flipped it and drove up prices to over $1 million a brownstone where they where $400,000 in 2008. The New York Times even ran a piece that said if you love the Upper West Side, you’ll love Prospect Heights. Hipsters didn’t do that, big business and their media, which put that headline on your article and ran it, did. None of it erased the dire poverty and street violence that still exists here, except for from the news reports.
You wrote, “Today, the only way to see what New York had been are fleeting glimpses in movies like “Taxi Driver,” “Midnight Cowboy” and “Death Wish.””
Really? Have you been here in the last decade? Because where I lived in Crown Heights in 2009, three years before the real estate explosion, three kids got shot on my block and one of them died. I once got off of a bus and walked into a crime scene where a deliveryman was shot in the shoulder, suffering in his restaurant’s doorway. Not to mention how much more dangerous it has gotten for people being shot by the same police you joked used to be scared of neighborhoods. They are still scared of neighborhoods, but now they shoot first and ask questions later.
In one of Brooklyn’s most desirable areas, like North Brooklyn’s Greenpoint and Williamsburg where these new big business towers will rise in service of the hipster start up ventures that they fund, 55% of children live under the poverty level. My guess is their childhood homes are modern day equivalents to the ones you describe – “a little place above my father and uncle’s hardware store in Coney Island.” But now that hardware store exists next to the gleaming million-dollar tower, without irony. The future has arrived, for some people.
The apartments you mention that were $75 per month are now $7,500 a month, and all they did was install hardwood floors and put a cop on the corner where Borough President Marty Markowitz paid a street artist to make it look “cool” not “ghetto.” Even crappy apartments are so expensive now that it takes five hipsters at a time to pay the rent, because it’s the jobs that are “total crap now” and people are telling the kids not to move here. No longer is the challenge of “making it here to make it anywhere” going to get them what they want. Now they skip New York to make it anywhere but New York because the game is rigged in favor of the rich readers of the Wall Street Journal.
So, I would recommend, Mr. Gottfried, that you come and visit Brooklyn and see what life is like here now, not just in the toniest neighborhoods of Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope and Fort Greene, but in East New York, Brownsville and especially my neighborhood, Bushwick – where the developers who LOLed at your article are threatening the burgeoning artist population here with extinction.
At that point, I will despair upon reading the Wall Street Journal exclusive, “Brooklyn After the Hipsters” – from my new apartment in Los Angeles.