How Brooklyn Lost Itself

AP Photo/David Boe

For New Yorker Robert Sullivan, the act of giving directions functions as a barometer of a city’s health, because at the heart of all urban environments, both ones that thrive and ones that fail, is something very basic: human interactions.

At Places JournalSullivan looks at the way his post-industrial Brooklyn has become a lucrative real estate commodity and brand after its post-millennium revival, and he shows how the fabric of urban life has not necessarily strengthed along with the property values. He uses this idea of directions to direct readers’ attention to ways that the booming, “revitalized” Brooklyn has used post-industrial space and history for the benefit of business and real estate interests, and made public space a private commodity. Touring new and old Brooklyn, he shows how revitalized post-industrial spaces, like Brooklyn Bridge Park, depend, as he puts it, “upon the conception of the old city as being not only dead but also valueless: a wasteland.” This narrative erases people of color in many Brooklyn neighborhoods. It erases the contributions of blue collar workers. It downplays the city’s industrial past and historic vibrancy, suggesting that industry is the enemy of urbanity, and that true vibrant urban life began after industry died. This isn’t just happening in Brooklyn. It’s a problem for many urban neighborhoods, and “the more I give directions,” he says, “the more I worry that we are somehow terribly lost.”

To describe the park, and how in fact it does feel, it is necessary to borrow the terminology of the real estate industry and to refer to it as an amenity. Brooklyn Bridge Park is an amenity underwritten by the costly residences that overlook the recreational spaces, by the Pierhouse penthouse that cost more than $10 million and by the $1,000 per-night Liberty Suite with the “curated seating area” at the 1 Hotel. But when you spend time in the park, you begin to feel that the public has come up short in the partnership; that in return for the underwriting, the park has become an extension of the condos and the hotel. Which is completely understandable: the owners of multimillion-dollar condos might well want to feel that the expansive green spaces visible from their floor-to-ceiling windows somehow belong to them. But for the public, the community, the concept feels flawed. It’s as if the purpose of the park were to sell the condos, which would be like creating the Grand Canyon only after you have developed the lodge with the scenic views.

But what feels most disturbing to me is that in Brooklyn Bridge Park, history too has become an amenity. Here I would direct you to the signage, which is itself intended to direct you towards the history of the site — towards the narrative of decline and death, reclamation and revival. The park is filled with markers along the walkways and in front of buildings, markers that underscore the before and after of the narrative. If you read them casually, you might think they are genuine historic markers. But if you read them more closely, you recognize that they operate not as communal notes on local history but rather as points of brand awareness. And, crucially, the brand is not so much the park but rather the transformation of the old industrial wasteland into the new recreational amenity.

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