Brooklyn's Got Change. Now It Needs Progress.

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If there’s one thing we can say for sure about Brooklyn, it’s that the last couple of decades have resulted in huge changes for the borough. Or at least that’s how it feels, right?

True, we were a bit mystified last spring when the 2010 Census told us that the Bronx grew twice as fast as Brooklyn over the past decade, with Brooklyn’s population inching upward at less than 2 percent.

The Bloomberg administration also shared our disbelief in the low counts and, given the concern over not getting a fair share of federal aid, filed a formal appeal in August 2011.

It was a prickly reminder of how important data is—the sheer counting and recording of our community’s stats—and the frustrating yet brilliant foresight our founding fathers had in building this tracking into our Constitution.

So: Had it truly been a decade of change for Brooklyn? Or were we all just too enamored with reading about the “new” Brooklyn?

A few weeks ago, our research partners at the Center for the Study of Brooklyn at Brooklyn College released a whopping 600 pages of Brooklyn-specific data on emerging trends over the last 20 years, in nine areas ranging from population to education, the economy, health and the environment.

The Brooklyn Community Foundation commissioned these reports because, as Brooklyn became center-stage for new development and commerce in the city, we wanted to quantify the changes we were seeing and make informed predictions about our communities’ futures.

The data is also broken out by our 18 community districts, to track trends not just boroughwide, but also by neighborhood. After all, it doesn’t take a native Brooklynite to be the one tell you how much Williamsburg has changed since the first time they strolled down Bedford Avenue—be it in 1972, 1992 or 2002.

And, yes, the reports do show impressive growth and change. The boroughwide report presents figures for both 1990 and 2000 as compared to today. So while we may have only grown from 2.45 million to 2.55 million since 2000, over the last 20 years, Brooklyn has gained more than 260,000 new residents—slightly less than the total current population of Newark.

The overall numbers are interesting, but ultimately, it’s the stories behind the numbers that give us the full picture. And in no place is this truer than in North Brooklyn.

Although in the past decade the population in Community District 1—encompassing Williamsburg and Greenpoint—grew by a greater percentage (7.95 percent) and a larger number of additional residents (12,745) than any other community district in Brooklyn, the Latino and Polish populations fell by an almost equal percentage.

The median household income shot up from $26,325 in 2000 to $41,646. Approximately 17 percent of households make more than $100,000. Median rents have increased a staggering 35 percent—twice the rate for Brooklyn as a whole. And while poverty in CD 1 has dropped 6 percent over the decade to 28 percent, it’s safe to assume that many of those residents didn’t increase their incomes—they left.

The story behind these numbers has everything to do with city decisions to rezone formerly manufacturing land and upzone it to create residential development opportunities along the waterfront with its spectacular views of Manhattan. A fast new East River Ferry service followed and a cool new residential enclave became a reality.

Williamsburg and Greenpoint had already been growing and changing, but at a more gradual, organic pace over the years. Artists, writers and musicians had been migrating across the bridge for more than 20 years. But the rezoning in 2005 put that change process on steroids and the result has been thousands of new residents, hundreds of new stores and restaurants, and a new waterfront skyline of high rise development.

Many visitors are charmed and amazed by the “new” Bedford Avenue and the “old” Manhattan Avenue. The Southside of Williamsburg now has both bicycle shops and bodegas. Peter Luger’s is surrounded by a new restaurant row under the Williamsburg Bridge. The Northside of Williamsburg still has the Brooklyn Brewery, but it is also dotted with hip stores like Oak, Beacon’s Closet and Peachfrog.

So behind the numbers we find stories of gain and loss, comings and goings, greediness and goodness, and a big challenge to Brooklyn not to lose its soul to a new type of fragmentation along class and economic lines.

Are there civic values that underlie our understanding of what it means to be a Brooklynite?

Brooklyn has always been a special place, both a very big and a very small hometown of 2.5 million people (or thereabouts) that has managed to be neither alienating nor artificial.

As our borough grows, and as we consider what is behind the numbers, we need to embrace those civic values which broaden participation, foster collaboration and heal community divisions. And it’s important that we do it now, rather than look back with regret.

At the Brooklyn Community Foundation, we are investors in public good, catalysts for positive change and connectors of people to causes they care about. We believe we have it in ourselves to look change in the eye, but not lose our character and soul.

So join us – and let’s do good right here, right now!