BoCoCa isn’t a neighbourhood — it’s a state of mind. This umbrella term for three adjacent neighborhoods near downtown Brooklyn — Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens — is perhaps the final stage of the process that turned “South Brooklyn,” so named when the area was still farmland, into one of the most expensive and highly-regarded areas in all of New York City.
It didn’t happen overnight. Way before “gentrification” found its way into Brooklynite vernacular, it was travelling south through Manhattan, transforming SoHo and Greenwich Village in its wake. When it arrived in South Brooklyn in the 1960s, it went by a different name: “brownstoning.”
Click here to see photos of how gentrification has changed Cobble Hill >>
The Brownstoning of South Brooklyn
Brownstone houses are classic Brooklyn. They are as ubiquitous in NYC as dirty-water hot dog vendors and rats on the subway tracks, though much more beautiful, with majestic stoops and thick banisters impressive enough to usher in a new era of Brooklyn living.
It began as as a trickle in the 1940s: white collar professionals crossing the river in search of cheaper rents and settling in Brooklyn Heights (which is now Brooklyn’s de facto Gold Coast), later the home of the borough’s financial district. As they moved into and began renovating their new homes, a “do-it-yourself” attitude and pride in their new community developed. Paint was stripped, gardens were planted, floorboards were laid and the area’s popularity grew.
By the 1960s, the area just south of Brooklyn Heights (known as South Brooklyn to that point) began to fill up with spillover from the Heights, and new names were given to revitalized areas. “Cobble Hill” was one, “Boerum Hill” another, and “Red Hook” included the slab of land that is now “Carroll Gardens” (Red Hook can still be found on the other side of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway). Each neighbourhood began to take on its own identity, while they remained close enough to one another to foster a larger sense of togetherness.
Photo: Eric Goldschein
At first, the gradual change was seen as a cultural boon. Block associations and street festivals started in earnest. Big Italian families with five, six, seven kids lived next door to artists and single lawyers. And the nearby housing projects with “low-income renters” (mainly minorities) were, if anything, a perk: they provided another layer of authenticity in the minds of new residents, living near the ghetto.A rising tide lifts all boats, and as property values went up, new restaurants moved in to serve the new money residents. Smith Street (today known as Cobble Hill’s “restaurant row”) had its sinking sidewalk redone to foster revitalization (and to keep people from falling).
But at this point, changes to the area started to become controversial. Vincent Mazzone, the long-time owner of Mazzone’s True Value Hardware on Court Street, explained: “I don’t want to say people were pushed out. People weren’t being pushed out by the new community. But there were people who looked at what they had paid for their property, and what they could now get for their properties, and they said ‘Let me take the money and run.’ And then you had the next generation, who now couldn’t afford to buy in the community that they would like to stay in.”
Official documentation of this push back against revitalization can be found in August 1980’s “The Displacement Report,” a pamphlet produced by Accion Latina and the Tenants Action Committee, condemning the influx of new residents as the reason for the displacement of low-income renters, who were now increasingly forced to leave the neighbourhood. This is a trend that continues even today. The pamphlet, aimed at the Boerum Hill Association that had once spearheaded the brownstoning and historic preservation campaigns, leveled the term “gentrification” at the BHA and that has been the buzzword ever since.
Thus begins two different storylines about the Cobble Hill-Carroll Gardens-Boerum Hill area, with two familiar variables: race and class. For the poorer residents — mainly minorities and immigrants — the changes in the area are akin to a reverse “White Flight” effect, with white middle-class residents taking back the urban neighborhoods after previously fleeing to the suburbs. On the other hand, those who have been able to remain in the area are forging a new sense of community. Both stories culminate in the creation of BoCoCa.
Out with the Old, In with the New
Photo: Flickr/tiny pig
The sense of community is bolstered by several factors: a thriving nightlife, a family friendly atmosphere and rising property values.Since the 1980s, Smith Street in particular has become the area’s “restaurant row,” with tons of new eateries and bars to satisfy the young professionals and small families that now populate the area. Bar crawls take residents from Irish pubs to tiki huts serving fishbowls full of liquor, making the area a prime destination for locals and even out-of-area drinkers, who can take a quick train ride to the area with ease. And unlike other Brooklyn neighborhoods, Cobble Hill’s proximity to Brooklyn Heights and the area’s financial district makes it a great destination for work lunches and evening drinks, which has helped enhance the area’s reputation as a restaurant haven.
But it wouldn’t be a gentrified Brooklyn neighbourhood without hordes of young mothers pushing baby strollers down busy sidewalks. According to Mr. Mazzone, Carroll Park has become one of the most utilized parks, thanks to an influx of children back into the neighbourhood.
Unlike the sprawling families of yore, the families that take up residence in the area’s brownstones today are small, with perhaps one or two kids. The decrease in family size has come at the cost of the businesses that build their foundations on the old demographic. Local business owners have noticed it, especially when it costs them their livelihood.
“This neighbourhood had a lot of Italians, and they had big families and they spent more money. Now we gotta lot of young people, they don’t have big families. They have one, two kids, that’s all,” said Joseph of Marietta’s Dry Goods on Court Street.
“I like it better this way. They got nice people here, these new people. But we had more business, more shoppers. It could be that today you got computers and that took away a lot of business. I don’t know…” he said, looking around his shop filled with boxes of underwear and socks.
When I asked Joseph, who has helped run Marietta’s since it opened in 1940, if he thought his store would last another five years, he said “I doubt it. I don’t think I’ll be around in five years. We got nobody in the family that wants it. We got grandchildren but they don’t want the business. What the hell they need the store for?”
The Effects of Wealth
Finally, a great sense of urban wealth has pervaded the area, helping make Brooklyn the second most expensive urban area in the country (Manhattan is number one). In fact, Cobble Hill is the wealthiest neighbourhood in Brooklyn, with a mean household income of $128,123. People are still searching for the authenticity of Brooklyn, and the BoCoCa area combines that tradition of authenticity with a great location, easy access to transportation, culture, food and, of course, brownstones. And whether or not long-time residents were being priced out, or were pricing out their brethren by selling their brownstones, is in a sense irrelevant: with all these factors working together, change was going to come to the neighbourhood somehow.
What is mildly disturbing is how — in the rush to find authentic Brooklyn and to become a part of such a cool, up-and-coming (and expensive) neighbourhood — the area might be losing its character and uniqueness by the day. An examination of the changes in the area from 2000 to 2010 is particularly telling:
Ignoring the obvious love that white people have for the Williamsburg area as of late, we can see that the BoCoCa area (if you’re unfamiliar with Brooklyn, it’s mainly just across the water from lower Manhattan) has been gaining white people in droves over the last 10 years. On the other hand:
The Hispanic population has been ushered out into Queens and Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, far from the Boerum Hill area they once called home.
While the gentrification of the 60s through the 80s created a new urban middle class, the gentrification of the 90s and 2000s has created a Brooklyn upper crust. And that crust is overwhelmingly white and wealthy. Even among the newer residents, there is a fear of that crust ruining the whole pie (I will now cease to use this tired metaphor). Alessandro, a nine-year Carroll Gardens resident who opened his own restaurant, Palo Cortado, in October 2010, said he chose Brooklyn specifically because “Manhattan is impersonal. I was looking more for a neighbourhood feel, I wanted to meet people, talk to people. Here there is more freedom, and people are more open and adventurous. That’s how I envisioned it, at least.”
But reality hasn’t always matched up with that vision. Said Alessandro, “the new money makes things soulless, or it’s heading in that direction. It’s getting colder here. I feel I’m almost being pushed out. There’s still a group of people that can embrace the change and respect the old. You can bring in your money and your values as long as you can mingle with the old, but not everyone can do that.”
South Brooklyn Comes Full Circle
At this point, the changes in the BoCoCa area have become the same tired story New Yorkers know too well: one of bitter locals, indifferent newcomers, swanky restaurants and struggling mum-and-pop shops. And in the middle of it all, a ridiculously wealthy neighbourhood that still attracts new businesses and tourists, undeterred.
With such a complicated history, it’s amazing that in some ways “South Brooklyn” is coming full circle. It started off as a slab of farmland, barely recognised, until people seeking a place with character moved in. And so it was for a time — distinct neighborhoods formed, each with its own personality and demographics.
And now, as the neighborhoods fuse again to become another non-descript entity (this time called BoCoCa), it joins the ranks of other New York neighborhoods with alternately-capitalised names, like TriBeca, SoHo, and even MiMa (for Hell’s Kitchen). It’s a great place to raise kids, have a drink, and go shopping. But for many people, it’s just symbol of the increasingly homogenized world: over-populated, over-saturated, and just another relic of a time gone by.
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