It was around 1858, historians say, when a woman named Mary Powers stood on the corner of Hanson Place and St. Felix Street, in a freshly built neighborhood in Brooklyn, and had a vision. Gazing at the rows of new houses that had sprung up near the former site of the Jackson family’s 30-acre farm, she pronounced that the spot would one day be the crossroads of a mighty city. She donated money to build a church.
Nearly 70 years later, the trustees of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank—then the fourth largest in America—looked at the same crossroads and had a vision of their own. They had outgrown their headquarters on Brooklyn’s Broadway and envisioned a grand new building in a spot that they too believed would become the hub of the borough’s business life. In 1928, they laid the foundation, on Hanson Place, for a 512-foot neo-Romanesque tower, to be crowned with one of the largest four-faced clocks in the world and the bank’s signature gilded dome. (To this day, a Methodist Church stands nearby.)
The tower’s cavernous first-floor banking hall was ornamented with icons of commerce: a grocer, a carpenter and an electrician on the room’s entrance gates; a printer, a textile worker and a jeweler on the elevator doors. The hall’s ceiling soared, vaulted in conscious imitation of a church—”a cathedral,” as the building’s architect put it, “dedicated to the furtherance of thrift and prosperity of the community it serves.” At the far end of the hall, opposite the swinging doors, stood a glittering mosaic depiction of Brooklyn, the tower at its center. Glowing rays of sunlight shone down from above. Manhattan was a faded sliver in the background.
For decades, the tower rose boldly above its neighbors, its clock visible for miles. It was Brooklyn’s tallest building, one dedicated to the pursuits that its builders intended. The main hall was a bank: first, Williamsburgh Savings and then, in the 1980s, a branch of Republic National Bank and, after that, HSBC Bank USA. On the upper floors were offices for the types of professions depicted on the banking hall’s trim: construction contractors, insurance agents and, most of all, dentists. The latter’s examination chairs, patients said, had some of the best views in New York.
Until 2005, that is, when they had to leave. In the spring of that year, HSBC sold the building to a team of investors including the Dermot Company and the retired basketball star Magic Johnson, who planned to convert it to condos. The banking hall went dark, and after a renovation, the building’s upper floors were soon being prowled by Realtors, a species not depicted in the building’s brass etchings or stone carvings. By 2008, the former Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower, renamed One Hanson Place, was open to new residents. Some units fetch seven-figure prices. Brooklyn’s tallest building is now a monument to the borough’s highest-profile business: real estate.
The evolution of Brooklyn into a place where a former dentist’s office can become a million-dollar apartment was a gradual one, enabled by crowding in Manhattan, rising white-collar salaries and the citywide drop in crime. Just as important, though, was a widespread shift in perception, one that made the borough—perennially second best—into a destination unto itself. For some buyers, the mosaic in the banking hall became a version of reality: Brooklyn as a favored world of its own.
But if all those changes make loving Brooklyn possible, is it the mythical Brooklyn—home of the Dodgers and the docks—that the newcomers love, or is it the changed one? And by arriving in a place, how much would they change it themselves? The view from the tower is broad and wide, stretching to the edges of Brooklyn and beyond. It takes in abandoned piers that are the borough’s past and the apartment towers that are its present—including one, a rental building called the Brooklyner, that has surpassed the bank building as Brooklyn’s tallest structure. What is not visible, from any height or price point, is Brooklyn’s future.
Helen Lee grew up in Poughkeepsie and moved to New York City in 1994 as a freshman at New York University. In the years after that, she says, she enjoyed the flexibility of being young, unattached and a renter. She moved yearly, she says, living for a time at virtually every street with a subway stop between Canal and 96th.
Her arrival in Brooklyn in 2005 was a flop. In a year and a half spent living in a co-op complex in the gentrifying neighborhood of Clinton Hill, she says, she found the appeal of cheaper rents was outweighed by the lack of convenient transit service—the nearest subway line was the G train, which runs between Brooklyn and Queens but never enters Manhattan.
Moreover, Lee says she was annoyed by her neighbors— by people smoking in the elevators or not picking up after their dogs. And as a new face in the area, she began to believe that the feeling was mutual.
“I just wouldn’t feel welcome,” she recalls, “and I would overhear conversations about how the local doughnut shop that had been there for 30 years was being converted to a restaurant that nobody there could afford. It was very disheartening, because I couldn’t do anything about it, but I knew that a lot of these businesses were being formed to benefit me.”
Though she says she had lived in uncomfortable areas before—including the Lower East Side during the heroin-plagued 1990s—she decided that Brooklyn was not for her. In January 2006, she moved back to Manhattan, to an apartment on East 57th Street. Just months later, though, she heard about One Hanson Place from an old Clinton Hill neighbor who was a broker, and Brooklyn began to seem viable again.
In fact, she and her boyfriend, Kai Hecker, liked the building so much that they bid on a one-bedroom apartment there sight unseen. They went into contract that summer, as the seventh buyers in the new condo tower. In 2008, when their apartment was ready, they moved in.
Lee, who is 34 and works in advertising at Google, and Hecker, a 44-year-old Web designer at Forbes magazine whom she married in September 2009, are, government data indicate, the face of a more prosperous Brooklyn. Between the 2000 Census and the Census Bureau’s most recent update (with numbers collected from 2005 to 2009), the number of households in the borough with a combined income of at least $150,000 more than doubled, while Brooklyn’s overall population increased only slightly. The percentage of such households doubled too, from 3.29 percent of the total population to 7.17 percent.
Lee says Hecker is a more natural fit for Brooklyn; he has lived in the borough since 1994, including in a Red Hook apartment from which he commuted 45 minutes by bike. Still, she says, their new apartment suits both their needs.
“This building is probably why we get along,” she jokes. “It’s like Brooklyn Lite, because it’s so incredibly centrally located. It’s one of the best commutes I’ve ever had in my 16, 17 years in New York.” Besides, the grittier Brooklyn that Lee remembers from her days in Clinton Hill has receded farther into the borough. In the blocks between her old neighborhood and her new building is the now fully gentrified neighborhood of Fort Greene, its streets lined with boutiques and restaurants. And on weekends throughout the winter, the banking hall—now an event space that hosts weddings and private parties—is home to the Brooklyn Flea, a curated flea market selling antique furniture, vintage clothes, art and fresh food. Sometimes, Lee says, she heads downstairs in her pajamas for coffee and a pastry.
She enjoys the building so much, she says, that she would hate to leave—though she will probably have to. In January, when Lee spoke to City Limits, she was pregnant with her first child and was looking for a larger apartment, having listed her current unit for sale for $515,000. It’s less than she and Hecker paid. They bought at the top of the real estate market.
But a bigger worry is over where to move. Nearby Carroll Gardens, she says, is inconvenient to transportation. Park Slope is too homogeneous. The leading candidate—barring the possibility of a two-bedroom unit in their price range becoming available in One Hanson—is one of the new high-rises on Flatbush Avenue.
Notably, though, all of the possibilities are in Brooklyn. Improbably, the borough has become home, Lee says, though she believes only pockets of it are family-friendly. She hopes the public schools will improve as new people continue to move in—a process that she says seems likely.
“People from Manhattan, young couples and young families, are looking at Brooklyn very actively,” she says “people who would never have considered living in Brooklyn.”
Lee says the borough is not all that has changed. She describes herself as more tolerant and open-minded, and more aware of the other boroughs, than she was in her Manhattan days. “It’s made me more of a New Yorker. I really value living in a multicultural neighborhood,” she says. “That 45-minute commute to the city, you get a really good cross section of the people that are coming in from the greater depths of Brooklyn.”
Besides the fact that two-bedroom units in Manhattan are out of the couple’s price range, she adds, “I think at this point, I’ve fallen in love with Brooklyn. Which is very interesting.”
Had Lee made her way to the banking hall for breakfast in the waning weeks of 2010, she might have come across Michael Berick, a vendor at the Brooklyn Flea’s holiday market. The merchants around him, lined up along the old teller windows, were selling antique land-use maps, baby onesies and terrariums. Downstairs, an artist sold T-shirts with renderings of the sign from the old Kentile Floors factory. (The company, which was located a block from the Gowanus Canal, went bankrupt in 1992.) Nearby was a booth with 19th-century clocks, some that had been produced by Ansonia at its factory in Park Slope, in a building that is now co-op apartments.
Berick was running a booth for Maptote, the company he and his wife, Rachel Rheingold, founded in 2006. Maptote sells bags, bandannas and baby clothes emblazoned with maps of cities around the world, but Brooklyn, Berick says, is the most popular. Customers, he says, just respond to something about the Brooklyn name.
The irony, Berick says, is that making things in Brooklyn is not easy to do. Aside from its onesies (which are produced in Los Angeles but printed in Brooklyn) and its note cards (in Ohio), the company does manufacture its products in the borough. But over time, Berick says, it seems that the prices at factories in Midwood or Sunset Park have gone up, or the shops are shutting down. Manufacturers in China, meanwhile, can integrate every step in the production process for cheaper.
Part of the appeal of overseas facilities, Berick says, is cost-effectiveness. Besides, he adds, the local alternatives are scarce. “It’s just a dying breed of manufacturers in the city, and the country for that matter,” Berick says, “whether it’s mills that you’re getting your fabric from or factories where they’re cutting the fabric.” Brooklyn, then, may be more effective as a trademark than as a home base. That, of course, doesn’t stop some companies that manufacture abroad from claiming Brooklyn as home—a trend that rankles advocates of local manufacturing.
“I think it’s the equivalent of greenwashing,” says Paul Parkhill, director of planning and development at the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center. “It’s sort of Brooklyn-washing.”
Still, Berick says he can sympathize with companies, like Brooklyn Industries and Brooklyn Brewery, that have produced products outside the borough. The more complex the item, he says, the more expensive it would be to make locally—which can push some products out of potential customers’ price range. “I’m happy that we make our stuff here,” Berick says. “I used to kind of begrudge people who didn’t, but now I understand why. It’s a difficult thing.”
Undeniably, though, Brooklyn’s appeal as a concept is strong. When J. Crew commissioned a special line of the Maptote bags for sale in some of its stores, in fact, it asked for the phrase “Made in Brooklyn” to be part of the design. Berick says the label is a simple matter of location, not cool hunting—but the use of the borough’s name has had an impact on sales. “It probably does better than ‘Manhattan,’ ‘New York City’ and ‘Queens’ put together, because I guess people have a lot of pride,” he says. “Whether it’s new people that want to assert themselves, I guess it has a lot of cachet now.”
Chris Benfante, the senior associate at the Corcoran Group who is selling Helen Lee’s apartment, says about half of the building’s residents are new to Brooklyn, the other half relocating from somewhere else in the borough. Many, he says, are attracted to the tower’s history and its ties to the Brooklyn of old—it is a product of the same era as Ebbets Field and Coney Island’s Cyclone.
Benfante, who grew up in Flatbush, has less romantic memories too. “My mom used to drag me there when it was filled with dentists and orthodontists and stuff,” he says. “Called it the House of Pain.”
Still, when the tower’s condos hit the market, Benfante bought one for himself. Several other real estate agents, he says, are his neighbors there. The building’s appeal, he says, is that while its exterior is steeped in the borough’s history, it is renovated inside, with central air conditioning having replaced the window units that used to cool the tower’s offices. Such touches, he says, should help attract people who work at the Atlantic Yards development planned just across Flatbush Avenue, with its basketball arena and office towers.
“It’s like old Brooklyn meets new Brooklyn,” Benfante says, “and people like that.”
James Cooper and Alessandra Lariu, both creative directors at Manhattan advertising agencies, are another couple who bought an apartment at One Hanson without seeing the building. Cooper, who walked around the area twice while visiting from his native London, says Fort Greene reminded him of that city’s cosmopolitan Notting Hill neighborhood. He and Lariu bought their two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment three years ago, he says, after having seen only the plans.
Now they are selling the apartment—it was listed in January for $1.05 million, also through Benfante—but Cooper says they do not plan to go far. Aside from visiting friends in Park Slope and Williamsburg, he says, they have not had time to explore the borough much. But they are looking for a brownstone nearby, one with a backyard. The Brooklyn-centric vision of Mary Powers, still shifting shape and coming into focus, has claimed two more adherents.
“It was never like, ‘Oh, we’ll move to Brooklyn because we can’t afford to move to Manhattan,’ ” Cooper says. “Even if I had like $15 million to buy a townhouse in Manhattan, I wouldn’t do it.”
“Brooklyn has a certain vibe to it that’s very hard to articulate,” Benfante says. “It’s more neighborhoody. When you’re working in an office tower in the financial district or something like that and you’re coming home to another high-rise, you’re not really changing your environment the way that you are when you come to Brooklyn.” One Hanson is, of course, itself a high-rise. But people moving to the borough appreciate the contrast, Benfante says, adding, “It’s got everything that Manhattan has. Only, it’s got a different feel to it. It’s more urbane but less urban these days.”
That contrast grows subtler by the year, eroded by the rows of glassy Downtown Brooklyn towers like the Brooklyner, or the condo buildings on Fourth Avenue that replaced warehouses and tenements, or the thousands of new housing units that stand to make the Atlantic Yards site one of the densest in the city. Newcomers are falling in love with a changed borough, but they are also changing it themselves, physically, in ways that seem permanent. What is at stake may be what made Brooklyn attractive in the first place.
The appeal of Brooklyn, Benfante says, often comes down to a vibe. He thought of the street life, the greetings between neighbors, the small-scale storefronts, and he settled on a metaphor.
“I would call it,” he says, “a ’boutique Manhattan’.”