Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Brooklyn Wars

This past fall, the journalist, author, and Village Voice editor Neil deMause published The Brooklyn Wars, the story of 21st-century hyper-gentrification in the borough of kings. I asked him a few questions about what the wars are all about.

What are the Brooklyn Wars? Who are the competing armies and what are they fighting for?

The last 20 to 30 years of this borough — the rise of the “New Brooklyn” and all that — has been portrayed as either a good or a bad thing, depending on your perspective, but either way usually as a sort of unavoidable evolution. When you look more closely, though, it’s actually been the result of a series of pitched battles over what the borough would look like, who it would serve, and who would get to live here.

The sides in these battles have been complex and shifting: You have developers, and politicians seeking “redevelopment” in various forms, and residents of all types who either promote or resist change, sometimes both at the same time. (One of the odd things about living in a city like New York in times like these is that it’s totally possible to be simultaneously a gentrifier and gentrified, both a threat to old-timers and threatened by the next wave of newcomers.) And the weapons wielded are varied as well: Brooklyn wouldn’t look the same today if the city wasn’t rezoning everything in sight, but it also would be far different if the housing market weren't governed as it is by a weird amalgam of bare-knuckles market speculation, tax-incentive plans like 421-a, and the tattered remnants of mid-20th-century rent regulations and public housing programs — or, for that matter, if the New York Times real estate section were a normal journalistic enterprise instead of operating as a kind of fifth column for the development industry.

The Brooklyn wars, then, look like residents and shopkeepers and city planners and moneyed investors all tussling over whether areas like the Fulton Mall or the Sunset Park waterfront will keep serving the people they have in recent decades, or whether they'll be remade to fit, and draw, a more upscale clientele; and they look like the shifting allegiances among residents, amusement park operators, developers, and city officials in Coney Island that helped craft that neighborhood's grand bargain that's still playing out. And they look like every single person who has needed to make a decision: Where will I live, and what will the impact be of that decision? Like all wars, they’re hard to sum up easily, which is why I needed to write a whole book to wrap my brain around it.

Artists Evictions in Gowanus

Why do you think, of the four outer boroughs, Brooklyn became so popular for hyper-gentrification in the 2000s?

The thing about gentrifiers is that everyone wants to be first to be second — being an "urban pioneer" is only satisfying if you're sure that the trail ahead has been laid, and that more wagons will be following you over the horizon. Unlike the other outer boroughs, Brooklyn always retained a certain amount of upper-middle-class housing, particularly in brownstone Brooklyn, which provided a foothold for middle-class types who started fleeing Manhattan after it gentrified rapidly in the '70s and '80s. As a former city in its own right, it also had the densest transit network, which made for easier commutes to lower Manhattan. And it had nice parks and pretty housing and all the rest of the stuff that goes with having been a destination for well-off homeowners in the 19th century.

As I describe in the book, when I was looking to return to New York after college but expressed to a friend that I no longer felt at home in Manhattan, she immediately suggested Park Slope, though she warned me it might be getting “a bit too yuppified.” That was in 1988.

Brooklyn also ended up being the perfect place to play out what I call in the book the ecological succession patterns of gentrification: First the artists seeking out cheap housing where they can make a racket (or stretch out canvases), then the people who want to live near artists, then the people who heard that the neighborhood was "hot," until eventually you work your way down to the hedge fund managers. There's no particular reason it couldn't have happened in the Bronx, except that it didn't, and once that momentum was established in Brooklyn there was no stopping it — especially not once the developers, rezoners, and Times real estate reporters got involved.

We can’t talk about gentrification, perhaps especially in Brooklyn, without talking about race, as you do throughout your book. But some will say, “White people were there first.” How do you respond to that?

Well, the Canarsee Indians were here first. But, sure, Brooklyn was largely white when most of it was first built, so some people might justify the retaking of the borough as, hey, we're just back from a long vacation, right?

It shouldn't be about who got first dibs on the place, though, or even about squatting rights now. The history of Brooklyn neighborhoods is inextricably intertwined with race: You had the bank redlining in the 1930s and realtor-led block-busting in subsequent decades that helped make Bed-Stuy the center of one of the nation's biggest African-American communities and Bushwick the poster child for abandonment by landlords and city services. Then today, you have the marketing tactics that portray residents of color simultaneously as local flavor and as native tribes to be subdued and displaced by more qualified trailblazers — witness the "Colony 1209” that advertised itself to “like-minded settlers” on “Brooklyn’s new frontier,” or the Sunset Park real estate panel that boasted of “dynamic new residents” who “now demand a borough where they can work, shop, eat, and sleep.” (Guess old residents weren’t big on the eating and sleeping?)

The common theme here is that, regardless of whether the more affluent residents were fleeing or returning, it was people of color, and people without money more generally, who got the short end of the stick. Neighborhoods are changing all the time, whether it's Bensonhurst shifting from Italian to Asian or whatever, but that's not necessarily gentrification, which requires one group being displaced by another unwillingly. Gentrification isn't about change; it's about power.

Double Dutch in Bed-Stuy

People like to say that Brooklyn has hyper-gentrified due entirely to “market forces.” What do you think they’re saying when they say that—and what are they not saying?

It's self-evident that the population of Brooklyn is changing as certain areas become more desirable, and as new people arrive to bid up the price of housing. Of course, the other way of describing the same process is that when neighborhoods improve, the right to enjoy them goes to whoever has the deepest pockets. That, to me, is what we should be concerned about — that we're building a city where, essentially, only the wealthy can have nice things.

And anyway, the “market" is constructed in the first place by a melange of policy decisions. What would the city look like if the state hadn't spent decades providing tax breaks to private developers under the 421-a program, and had instead spent the money saved on some sort of public housing? What about if vacancy decontrol had never been passed in the 1990s, and landlords hadn't been provided a huge incentive to boot out tenants in order to reap windfall profits? What if we still had a 70% top income tax rate in the U.S, like we did before Reagan, and the super-wealthy were a rarity instead of the world we have now, where New York City has as many millionaires now as the entire nation did 30 years ago?

People act like "the market" is a natural thing like gravity, but it's a construct determined by whoever's making the rules it operates under. That doesn't make it inherently good or bad — but it does mean that the rules can reasonably be changed without it being some sort of abomination against nature.

You write about the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and how wealth has been flooding into Brooklyn. What do you think is lost—or gained--when big money moves in to a neighborhood?

What's lost is affordable housing and stores and churches and everything else that serves the existing population. That's a huge thing not just for residents, but for shopkeepers as well — a recent Hunter College study found that more than half of Latino-owned stores in Williamsburg closed up shop in the first decade of the 21st century.

What's gained is some renovated apartments, since under our current housing system there's very little incentive to provide upkeep and upgrades unless somebody is willing to pay more in rent for it. Plus a hell of a lot of Asian fusion cuisine, which isn't entirely a bad thing — everybody should have a right to pad thai — but also ends up being a poor substitute for what’s lost, even in the eyes of some of the newcomers. (I still complain about missing the terrific, cheap Mexican diner in Park Slope that ended up closing as a result of the neighborhood change that I was an unwitting part of.) One of the ironies of gentrification is it often ends up killing off the very thing that made the place attractive to gentrifiers in the first place.

I could probably go on about European colonists in America and passenger pigeons, but make your own extended metaphor here.

Italian Easter bread in Carroll Gardens

What do you see as the future of Brooklyn?

Right now the future certainly looks a lot like the recent past — the wave front of gentrification that's sweeping rapidly eastward across Bushwick and Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights and Flatbush shows little sign of slowing. And a Trump administration is only likely to accelerate the process, both through tax policies that promise to massively increase income inequality, and by decimating any programs that might fund public housing or empower immigrants or provide any other bulwarks against the raw power of cash.

That said, there's certainly more talk now about ways to resist the wholesale remaking of New York than there's been before in my lifetime, and an awful lot of activists who are doing everything in their power to put forward other visions of a sustainable city, like UPROSE in Sunset Park or the Queens groups like Woodside on the Move that are fighting back against that borough becoming the new Brooklyn. Systemic change is always hard and tiring and bloody, but every once in a while it actually succeeds, and usually in the least expected of ways — don’t forget that New York’s rent control laws were passed in response to temporary wartime housing shortages after World War II. The most that we can do is learn the lessons of the recent past, speak out, and push the powers that be, then see what happens.

  • Get your copy of The Brooklyn Wars.
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  • Save the date: Neil deMause and Tom Angotti, editor of Zoned Out!, will be giving a presentation on Brooklyn redevelopment at the Brooklyn Public Library Central Branch at Grand Army Plaza at 7pm on Monday, February 27.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

L.E.S. Is More

Unsurprisingly, the real-estate developers are excited about a Trump presidency. This press release came in over the transom for an event tomorrow at the Sunshine Cinema of all places. It's full of awfulness:

"L.E.S. is MORE" is a vibrant discussion between real estate and financial titans on the changing landscape of the Lower East Side post-election. Additional info can be found below:

Who РModerator: Leonard Steinberg, President of Compass / Panelists: Benjamin Shaoul, Charles Bendit, Arthur Stern, Andres Hoff, Jos̩ Antonio Grabowsky and Nikolai Fedak
Where – Landmark Sunshine Cinema, located at 143 E Houston St
When – Wednesday, January 18 from 9:30 am - 1:00 pm (Breakfast and lunch will be served).

Topics of discussion will include:

-Trump threw out the playbook in politics, fittingly NYC's real estate players are doing the same
-How the LES is ripe for living and ripe for investment
-Green smoothies and Katz's pastrami sandwiches: the collision of old and new in the LES
-Renown developers on bridging the old and new in the Lower East Side
-Lower East Side: Where food porn meets real estate porn
-Why buying an apartment before the building is built is the Answer

Leo Design


Back in 2010, after 15 years on Bleecker Street, Leo Design gifts closed shop. Their goodbye sign at the time said, "We're being turned out." This was in the middle of the luxury blitz that decimated the western end of Bleecker, turning the quiet and eclectic local street into a homogenized suburban shopping mall for the very rich.

Leo Design moved to Hudson Street. And now it's closing again.

Their goodbye sign this time around is longer--and more heartbreaking. The core of the letter gets right to the core of the problem in the new New York. Owner Kimo Jung writes:

"Long-time neighbors in The Village will remember when we opened 22 years ago. What a different place this was! Mom & Pop shops were the rule, not the exception. One-of-a-kind shops lined the streets—and shoppers could find odd and wonderful delights unavailable in any suburban shopping mall. The Internet was something new and Simon & Garfunkel sang that 'thirty dollars pays your rent on Bleecker Street.'

What happened? Well, the neighborhood changed—some change for the better, some change for the worse. I miss the Village’s alternative, Bohemian character. And I miss the people who used to be able to afford to live in Greenwich Village—especially the young artists.

Don’t get me wrong: I have had (and continue to have) wonderfully supportive customers. I’m brimming with tears of gratitude as I write this sentence. But as my rent (and every other expense) increases, it’s hard to rely on the same devoted core of supporters to keep spending more and more.

Take a look around: there are very few small shops left. I guess it’s always been just a matter of time."

January 31 will be the last day--and they're having a 25% off sale. Leo Design will keep operating online, according to Jung's note, until a new space somewhere appears.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Fong Inn Too


Fong Inn Too is the oldest family-run tofu shop in New York City and, quite possibly, in the United States. Founded on Mott Street in Chinatown in 1933, it closes forever tomorrow--Sunday, January 15.

Paul Eng

Third-generation co-owner Paul Eng showed me around the place. Upstairs, a massive noodle-making machine churns out white sheets of rice noodle, sometimes speckled with shrimp and scallion. Downstairs, a kitchen runs several hours a day with steaming woks and vats of tofu and rice cake batter, including a fragrantly fermenting heirloom blend of living legacy stock that dates back decades.

Eng's family came to New York from Guangzhou in the Guangdong province of China (by way of Cuba), like many of Chinatown's earliest immigrants. His grandfather, Geu Yee Eng, started the business, catering mainly to the neighborhood's restaurants. His father, Wun Hong, and later his mother, Kim Young, took over after World War II and kept it going, branching out from tofu to many other items, including soybean custard, rice noodle, and rice cake.

Brown rice cake waiting to be cut

The rice cake is the shop's specialty. It has nothing to do with the puffed rice cakes you eat when you're on a diet. This cake is fermented, gelatinous, sweet, and sticky like a honeycomb. It comes in traditional white as well as brown, a molasses creation of Geu Yee Eng, and it is an important food item for the community.

A few times each year, the people of Chinatown line up down the block for rice cake to bring to the cemeteries, leaving it as an offering to their departed relatives.

"It's a madhouse," says Paul. "They come early to beat the traffic and fight each other for the rice cake." No one else makes it--Fong Inn Too supplies it to all the neighborhood bakeries. "Once we're gone, it's gone." Customers have been asking Paul where they will get their rice cake for the next cemetery visit. "I tell them I don't know."

Cutting the white rice cake

The Engs have sold their building and Fong Inn Too goes with it. Business has been hard, though Paul's brothers, Monty and David, have done their best. Their father passed away earlier this year. Their eldest brother, Kivin, "the heart of the place," also passed. Their mother tried to keep it going, but "her legs gave out," and she had to stop. The closing, Paul says, has been hardest on her. "This place is like a child to her."

Paul is the youngest of his siblings and, while he worked in the store as a kid, he doesn't know the business anymore. Like many grandchildren of immigrants, his life is elsewhere. As for the fourth generation, there's no one available to take over.

Paul Eng

"I'm in mourning," Paul told me--for the shop, for family, and for his childhood home. Maybe also for the Chinatown he used to know. "The neighborhood has changed a lot. When I was a kid this was all hustle bustle. Now it's so quiet. No one lives here anymore."

"No one" means no Chinese people. "Gentrification," says Paul, is "starting to trickle in. This old section of Chinatown is kind of orphaned off. It doesn't know where it's going to be." He wonders if it will become like the Chinatown of Los Angeles, with no Chinese people, just tourists and souvenir shops for tourists, a theme park of what a neighborhood used to be.

You have only this weekend to visit Fong Inn Too (46 Mott St.) and buy their delicacies. After tomorrow, they'll make no more.

The family will stay around to celebrate one last Chinese New Year on January 28 and February 4. They'll sponsor a few big dragon dances and then say goodbye.

The noodle machine in action--this photo by Paul Eng

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Neptune Diner

A reader from Queens recently wrote in, "There have been reports of the Neptune Diner’s imminent demise over the last few years. However, community gossip is much stronger and multiple people have said the lot on which the Neptune sits was sold and the diner will be closed."

So I went to Astoria for breakfast at the Neptune. It's right at the bottom of the stairs at Astoria Boulevard Station. You can't miss it with its white stone walls and red adobe-style roof, its arched windows and lighted carriage lamps.

The food was good. As the paper placemat informs you, the Daily News has named Neptune the Best Diner in Queens.

The place was busy, too, bustling with a Queensian mix of New Yorkers--working class and middle class, many races and ethnicities. The city.

I don't know how long the Neptune has been in existence. Long enough for David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve to dine there during the filming of The Hunger, and no doubt longer.

Photo by Jean-Claude Deutsch, via Findery

But back to those closing rumors. I asked a man who looked like he knew the score.

"I heard you might be closing," I said. "Is it true?"

"That's the Twitter," he replied, waving away the rumor with his hand. "You know the Twitter?"


"You know Donald Trump on the Twitter? He's gonna build a wall? Ha!"


"It's like that."

Make of that what you will. There is currently no public record of the building being sold. Maybe they're thinking about it, maybe they're not. But when these rumors crop up, they're usually made of something. So go to Neptune, have a good meal, and enjoy the place. Because you just never know.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Le Train Bleu


I'd never been to Le Train Bleu, the quasi-hidden restaurant atop Bloomingdale's, so when the Times reported it was closing at the end of 2016, after 37 years, I went.

Le Train Bleu, as James Barron explained, was "the nickname for a famous French train that carried passengers coming from London and Paris to the Riviera. The engines were blue. The restaurant, in Bloomingdale’s flagship store, mimicked the train’s dark-green interiors, with velvet on the walls, along with mahogany paneling and a Victorian-style ceiling."

Bloomingdale’s will be renovating the sixth floor, and that means no more Le Train Bleu.

You got there by elevator or escalator, winding your way through the housewares department, and climbing a set of carpeted stairs to an odd little corridor. The dining room looked like a dining car, long and narrow, framed with tables.

I sat by the window, with a view of some plastic shrubbery and a bunch of brutal luxury apartment buildings. The view inside was better.

Almost everyone around me was white-haired and definitely local. It is a rare pleasure these days to be surrounded by real New Yorkers in New York. Turns out, they'd been hiding at Le Train Bleu, dressed in tweeds, stylish coats, and--in one case--a pair of purple sequined earmuffs, kept on throughout the entire meal.

Women reapplied their lipstick in snappy compact mirrors. Snippets of conversation came in and out of range.

"She's a little coo-coo," said one woman to her dining partner. "She was always strange. I always, from the very beginning, thought she was strange."

"I read it in The National Review," said a dapper gentleman to his wife. "He is absolutely the new Hitler."

Many of the diners seemed to be Bloomingdale's employees. They all knew each other. They knew the waitresses and gave their condolences and advice, especially to the two seniors, a pair of women who looked strikingly alike in their weary faces and dyed-red hair. Women who, after what has probably been decades, will now be out of work.

"Have you gone to HR? You must. Go to HR and I'm sure they'll have another position for you. I'm sure of it!"

I sat and waited for the dining room to rumble and jolt, for the whole thing to take off down some invisible train track, up and out over the city. Gone.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Greek Corner Coffee Shop Diner


Late last week, I headed to the Greek Corner Coffee Shop Diner, as I often do, looking forward to a cup of coffee at the pistachio green counter. Instead, I found it gone. I was heartbroken.

A goodbye sign in the window said they'd closed on December 31--"After exactly 36 years, 5 months, and 15 days." They'd been on the corner of 7th Avenue and 28th Street since 1980.

Back in March, I shared the rumor that the place was going to close, but I could not confirm it. I was told: The building has been sold. The building might be sold. There are holdouts who won't budge. The building won't be sold. Everything will be okay. Who knows?

There's no notice of a recent sale in the online building records, but it could be imminent. Was the coffee shop pushed out or did they just decide it's time to go? In their goodbye sign they say they're opening a new place in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, called Blue Door Souvlakia. It looks nice, but nothing like the coffee shop.

I'm going to miss the Greek Corner. It was one of my oases. And another authentic New York coffee shop that has gone.

March 2016