In the past fifteen or so years, Brooklyn has emerged as the grassroots cultural and creative capital of not only the New York region but arguably the entire country. Brooklyn entrepreneurs, musicians, artists, writers, and all-around boosters have crafted an attention-grabbing and marketable image of the new Brooklyn: gritty, outrageous, quirky, and weird. Simply put, Brooklyn has become cool.
The desirability of the borough has transformed the socio-economic, demographic, and cultural weave of certain neighborhoods. The word “gentrification” is whispered with a mixture of fear, anger, and resignation. Old ways of life are fading away, and some have disappeared altogether. That’s one part of the story.
Kay Hymowitz analyzes the changing Brooklyn in her new book The New Brooklyn: What It Takes to Bring Back a City (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). In part, Hymowitz attempts to dispel the worst anxieties associated with the new Brooklyn and to dispel the powerful spell of nostalgia blinding residents to the ugly elements of “the good old days.” She sees the true story of contemporary Brooklyn as far more complicated, diverse, and uneven than the simple narrative of gentrification and displacement promoted by the majority of commentators and the creative class.
While reading Hymowitz’s book, I recognized that the remaking and remapping of Brooklyn resembled that of Jersey City in many ways: new immigration, rapid development, an emerging affluent class, and stubborn pockets of poverty. However, the story of Brooklyn differs from Jersey City in several key areas.
New York City and Brooklyn politicians and government officials anticipated the shifts in the urban landscape and carefully laid the groundwork for the borough’s new economy and identity. Not only did the city government seize opportunities, it knew when to step out of the way. Such a strategy has reaped rewards. For example, Kickstarter and Etsy, two standouts of the digital industry, were founded and remain in Brooklyn today. Why can’t Jersey City point to such successes?
The new food movement (farm-to-table, farmers markets, urban agriculture, etc.) is changing the definition of food and our relationship to it. Brooklyn has positioned itself as a center of this phenomenon, notably with the Brooklyn Grange, Smorgasburg, and a plethora of artisanal food producers. Jersey City sits in the Garden State. Why hasn’t Jersey City cultivated this growing economic sector?
Throughout Jersey City, non-profits and neighborhood groups organize and manage farmers markets. These markets help revitalize moribund parks and serve as training grounds for small business owners. They reveal formerly hidden customer bases to investors and entrepreneurs. Localities across the country have experienced similarly positive outcomes from investing in farmers markets.
So, what does the Jersey City government do? It slams the vendors and the markets with fees and orders health inspectors to hound the merchants. As a further insult, the city attempts to steal credit for the farmers markets’ successes: the government regularly sends out press releases suggesting that it operates the markets. Nice and classy.
Brooklyn and Jersey City are competing for residents, jobs, and investment. Right now, Brooklyn is effortlessly knocking Jersey City to the ground. However, the rising costs to live and work in Brooklyn present Jersey City with an opportunity. What will be the next logical destination for current and potential Brooklynites? The South Bronx? Staten Island? The Catskills? Jersey City? In order to get on that list, Jersey City needs to reform its culture and fast. If not, the dreamer of the next big thing might sit on the train two stops longer and ride to Newark.
If the evolving nature of Brooklyn, Jersey City, and American cities interests you, crack open Kay Hymowitz’s The New Brooklyn. If you live in Jersey City and hope to reside here for the foreseeable future, challenge yourself to take a lesson or two from Hymowitz’s chronicle. Then, consider how you might improve the culture of our shared city.