Thursday, February 28, 2008

Brooklyn is expanding.

A few weeks ago, I went out to dinner with a friend of mine who lives in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn. Before dinner, he invited me up to his apartment for a beer. As we chatted in his living room, he brought me over to the window and showed me the new building that was built over the last year behind his house.

“See that over there,” he asked. “That five story building replaced a lot that just sat there in waiting for the better part of the 20th Century. "On Sunday mornings he used to pull the blinds all the way up so the sun would flood his apartment with warm natural light as he enjoyed his coffee and the Sunday New York Times.

Not any longer, he said. Now, the sunlight bounces off the side of the building, making his apartment significantly dimmer.

To have a new building where there used to be nothing, or next to nothing, is an increasingly common experience in Brooklyn. In all corners of the borough – from the bungalows of Brighton Beach to the train tracks at the Atlantic Yards – new developments are inching higher into the sky.

As someone whose family has been rooted in Brooklyn for over half a century, the scale and pace of development here is a relatively new thing. Whether you are in favor of development or are fiercely against it, what has been taking place for the past ten years (at least) rivals any of the borough’s great booms of the past.

Brooklyn’s historical architecture embodies its marvelous aspirations. Brooklynites are proud of landmarks such as Grand Army Plaza, the magnificent Brooklyn Museum, and the Parisian-style boulevard of Eastern Parkway. They exemplify the borough’s history as its own independent city that dreamed of a world class future.

At the same time, Brooklynites for the most part live in or around low-rise, low-density housing that gives their neighborhoods the feeling of being a small town in the heart of one of the world’s greatest cities.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that this duality has existed for about 100 years.

The reactions to new changes throughout the borough embody this longstanding historical tension - of a city with one foot planted in the past while the other tries to step towards its future.

On the one hand, we fear the loss of the quality of life we’ve known for decades. On the other hand, we hang our hopes on new developments that will carry us into the future.

In the case of my friend’s neighborhood, he told me that when the new building went up, the neighborhood became hysterical. People who had lived on his street for decades stood on each other’s stoops and shared their fears about parking spaces. With five new units on the nearby block, how much farther would they have to travel for a place to park their cars after a long day’s work?

This was a real concern. But the same neighborhood did not demonstrate the same kind of visceral reaction when a much larger real estate development, the Atlantic Yards, was announced. Perhaps it was because the quality of life wasn’t at risk of being inundated by new car traffic, or that its sunny streets weren't in jeopardy of falling under the shadows of the new towers.

Instead, he said, people were excited by new possibilities, like the prospect of Brooklyn having a new professional sports team or a famous architect introducing a new building style to the borough.

I don’t remark on this because I have an opinion one way or another about the Atlantic Yards development. I would be happy if it did not happen. But I say it because I think that there is something remarkably similar between these two reactions.

They both represent something about Brooklyn that perseveres throughout its changes, and that is the desire among Brooklynites to commune with one another. Whether you call it kvetching, bitching, hyping, or laughing, a style of architecture – neither a brownstone nor a skyscraper – will ever change the fact that Brooklynites cannot stop talking to each other about what is going on around them. The changes Brooklyn is going through now are experiences shared among people from many different backgrounds and they lay the foundation for the borough’s next generation, which will have to find its own ways of coping and coexisting.

As we left my friend’s apartment for the restaurant, he mentioned one of his favorite scenes from the Woody Allen movie “Annie Hall.”

“Remember that flashback to the doctor’s office where the boy has stopped doing his homework because he thinks the world is expanding and so doing homework is pointless? ‘The universe is not expanding!’ his mom says, ‘Brooklyn is not expanding!’”

Brooklyn is expanding, I thought, and it’s that very expansion that will hold it together.

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