Sunday, February 15, 2009

This Just In: Brooklyn Rules
Given my recurring agita this winter about where we live (most recently noted here), I found this article deeply heartening:

[M]y suggestion [is] that Brooklyn is America’s quintessential city, ahead of even Manhattan. First, Brooklyn reflects a much more holistic melding of complimentary land uses, with residential, commercial, institutional, recreational, and retail and entertainment in close proximity of each other in many of its neighborhoods.

Manhattan, on the other hand, is much more Balkanized, with its various land uses much more clustered together, to the point of edging out other, potentially complimentary uses. That is not to say that there are no residential neighborhoods in Manhattan per se: However, Manhattan, like many of San Francisco’s nicer neighborhoods, is a great place to live only if money is not an obstacle. Finally, Manhattan has a much-more transitory culture, whereas Brooklyn has become a preferred place for “New Yorkers” of modest to moderate means to settle down and raise a family.

Like a model city, Brooklyn manages to accommodate its density extremely well. First of all, like San Francisco, Brooklyn is a city of neighborhoods. Bedford Stuyvesant, Bensonhurst, Coney Island, Flatbush, Park Slope and Williamsburg are some of the more notable among Brooklyn’s 32 neighborhoods. It is remarkable, given Brooklyn’s density, that much of its housing stock is comprised of three and four-story brownstones, along with mid-rise apartment and coop buildings. For example, Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, with a combined neighborhood population of almost 105,000 (slightly more residents than South Bend, Indiana and just under the population of Clearwater, Florida), have a wonderful scale both to their residential streets and their main commercial thoroughfare, 5th Avenue. They achieve a very walkable and synergistic mix of homes and businesses, as well as public and institutional uses.

I'm just starting to learn about land use, zoning, and (to a lesser extent) "urban form," ostensibly for a project I'm working on but more truly because it's friggin' fascinating. So this article might mean something different to me in six months than it does today. But if quality of life is like pornography--in that you know it when you see it--the part I bolded is the key, along with the "more holistic melding of complementary land uses" noted in the first graf.

And while I haven't seen numbers on this, I would be very surprised if the more extreme measures of inequality in New York City--we have the largest gap in income between the highest and lowest earning quintiles in the U.S.--are far less pronounced in Brooklyn, and the other outer boroughs, than in Manhattan. Not that income inequality is a huge problem in and of itself, but when coupled with relatively low rates of mobility--meaning that if you're born poor, you're gonna stay poor--it is a huge problem. This is a tougher point to get a quantitative hold on, though: the one study I remember seeing a few years ago looked at the whole country. (The news there was pretty grim.) My guess is that Brooklyn offers considerably more mobility than does Manhattan.

None of which is to say that the problems of affordability and preservation of community that the Center wrote about a few weeks ago aren't real and urgent. The most common refrain heard about critics of development in Brooklyn is that we must resist "Manhattanization": in brief, that Balkanization of neighborhoods and irresistible upward pressure on prices that characterizes the place across the East River. I think almost all New Yorkers would agree, however, that one Manhattan is exactly the right number.


The Navigator said...

I don't know enough about Queens or, especially, Brooklyn to know this, but I'm curious: why would Brooklyn offer a better meld of those elements than Queens? Queens is so vast that it's hard to generalize about, of course. It may be that Brooklyn doesn't have anything as suburban as, say, Flushing. But I think I've told you about the Spalding Grey event in Prospect Park I went to in summer '97 in which he interviewed four people, including a white working class woman who seethed with bitterness at the yuppies who were gentrifying her neighborhood. I'm not, by any means, uncritically taking her side - neighborhoods change, yuppies have to live somewhere, these things just happen - but it was an interesting view of a side of the borough I hadn't thought about before. (And it goes without saying that one woman in one neighborhood doens't prove much about an entire borough of a million plus.)

David said...

There's probably an argument to be made that Brooklyn is in a sort of Golden Moment right now. Neighborhoods have gentrified--Park Slope first, then Carroll Gardens, Fort Greene etc--but not to the point that they're unaffordable to all but the super-rich. Neighborhoods retain their character. The job mix is still fairly robust, much more so than Manhattan and probably more so than Queens, though I could imagine that changing over time.

One thing about Queens--which I also don't know all that well, as I haven't spent very much time there other than going to Mets games and occasional trips for work--is that it's not as well served by transit as is Brooklyn. We don't have a car, and while it's annoying at times, there's no major harm to it. I can't imagine living in Queens and not having a car, other than maybe some atypical parts of Long Island City or Astoria.

Chris said...

To be fair, plenty of poor people still live on the isle of Manhattan. If you can call it living.