Clearly, the answer to that question depends not only on where you are in Brooklyn, but when you are asking it and whom you are asking. I’ve lived in Brooklyn for thirteen years, meaning I have at least five more to go until I can say I “grew up” here. And, while I’m still decades away from establishing the kind of family history many have in Brooklyn, I have been here long enough to see some pretty significant changes. In 1995, when I first moved to Brooklyn, it was far enough away from Manhattan that there was no guarantee a taxi driver would agree to take you there. You had to, in those instances, be both prepared and assertive, making sure that the minute you got into the cab you put on your “I know the law sir” tone of voice when you announced you were going “to Brooklyn,” all the while hinting in a gentler undertone that, in any case, it was just over the bridge.
Now, of course, it is not only a given that a taxi driver will take you to Brooklyn, you can actually flag down a yellow cab on the street! Five years ago, when we were still in the dim, if not totally dark “car service” age, this was unthinkable, as was the idea of getting in a yellow taxi in Manhattan and not having to provide directions over the bridge. I’m afraid I’m still a bit nostalgic about those car service days: awkward moments stretching out far too long waiting for your dinner guests to leave; the look of impatience with the fact of the real distance they had traveled from Manhattan to see you appearing clearly on their faces after an evening of insisting how Brooklyn really isn’t all that much farther than downtown! Plus, the ability to ride with drivers who had grown up in the neighborhood and were witnessing its transformation; one driver referred to my neighborhood as “LesboTown,” and then proceeded to ask how one small area could support such a surprisingly high density of freelance graphic designers. I tried not to take offense at either slight, but his point was clear: I was a newcomer and I didn’t really belong in Brooklyn. My accent—or absence thereof—was always a dead giveaway. So it is both sad and perhaps inevitable that I am now the one playing the role of car service driver, asking where all of this “new money” is coming from. But so it goes. I don’t work in the financial services industry. Nowadays, this elicits the question from many people I meet, “Well, then what are you doing here?” I’m not sure. I love where I live, or, perhaps more correctly, I love how where I live used to be.
At this liminal stage in the borough’s “transformation” it is also worthwhile to consider the number of “authentic” Brooklyn establishments that survived the borough’s economically “distressed” periods but failed in its time of “prosperity.” Gage and Tollner comes to mind; the still existing sign post on Fulton Mall pointing to it is a poignant reminder of the state of change we are in. There are many lesser known establishments that I mourn the loss of: Lentos, a pizzeria on Union Street that had great booths and very good pizza; the vintage clothing shop on 7th Ave.; the sewing shop between 2nd and 3rd Streets. Capitalism not only has no respect for history, it simply cannot concern itself with the past. Opening new markets and building obsolescence into the products it manufactures is not a quirky part of the system; it is the basis for its survival. A complete absence of nostalgia is only to be expected.
A sign on the subway advertising a new high rise on Livingston Street reads, “Work in Manhattan/Walk home to Brooklyn.” The copy around all of the new developments makes it clear that what some used to think of as a given (i.e., that Brooklyn is different from Manhattan because it is physically separate from it) has been reinterpreted and reimagined in the hands of marketing executives to preserve the borough’s unique attributes while eliminating its noisome distance.
The names of the new developments are careful not to root the building in any particular location and are instead redolent of some nether-space, set, ultimately, in the realm of the dweller’s mind: The Novo, The Forte, or, my favorite, The Simone, which advertises, “Manhattan-style luxury condominiums in the heart of Windsor Terrace. Manhattan is just twenty minutes away!”
While all of the new developments are quick to mention how easily and rapidly one can get out of Brooklyn, the Oro, a development on Flatbush Extension, actually goes so far in its imaginary geography that it fails to mention that the building is even in Brooklyn. “Thinking About Buying a Condo in New York?” the ads read. A visit to the Oro Web site actually names (and maps) the neighborhood you will be living in as Wall Street—never mind the fact that there’s a couple of neighborhoods and a river in between. Though the many amenities at the Oro—each kitchen is equipped with a microwave as well as a brushed glass backsplash!—will clearly differentiate it from every other condo development in New York City, it is hard to know at this point whether to be sorrier for the building’s existence or the people who have bought into it. Do they realize that they may have spent in excess of half-a-million dollars to live in a building located on a site that was formerly a car wash?
As is often the case, after I’ve immersed myself in the language of the altered reality we are all now living in, I’ve come to understand that it is actually I, not the marketers, who suffers from a sense of delusion. You see, in my mind, Brooklyn is a real place with a fixed location in space and time. But, it turns out, this is exactly where I am mistaken. Rather, like many principles in the physical world that we once took for granted and interpreted as certainties, or matters of fact, this one, too, is not nearly as stable as we may have thought. While one measurement of the distance between Brooklyn and Manhattan can be fixed in absolute terms—for instance, the span of the Brooklyn Bridge is 5,989 feet (just over one mile)—in relative terms, the equation is always changing; it is a function not only of the borough’s real distance as it is measured by the speed of light, but its relative distance, as measured by the speed of light divided by property values. Thus, though there was a time when property values were based in reality and—at least for rentals—were at or below $1 per square foot, at this point in time, we are so far from that world that the weird maps on the Oro Web site may indeed be correct. With rentals in the range of $30-$50 per square foot, depending on where you live in Brooklyn, you may already be in Manhattan.