This month’s issue of City Limits magazine explores the Brooklyn mystique—the international reputation that has long defined New York’s most populous borough to the wider world. Here’s a look at some of our other reporting on Brooklyn in the past year:
Even in the 1980s and 1990s, neighborhood leaders say, when other parts of the city were racked by graffiti and crime, Bay Ridge remained relatively stable, with a strong, safe community that saw little turnover and little unrest. Its location along the N and the R subway lines, as well as its proximity to the Belt Parkway and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, established it as a shopping hub for residents from not just the area but all over southwest Brooklyn.
The stability of Bay Ridge had an unintended consequence: It became attractive to national retail stores at a time when much of New York City was still largely off-limits. For decades, the only chain store on 86th Street was Woolworth’s; now the core strip between Fourth and Fifth avenues is an outdoor mini-mall, with familiar retail outlets including the Gap, Benetton, the Children’s Place, Aerosoles, Foot Locker, Payless Shoe Source, Nine West, Zales, Duane Reade and McDonald’s. Bank branches and cell phone stores fill in the smaller commercial spaces: Bank of America, Capital One, Citibank, HSBC, Chase, Amalgamated, AT&T, T-Mobile.
In theory, all sides agree, a year-round Coney Island could have numerous benefits. When city officials presented their initial plans for the rezoning, they talked of the year-round jobs that would be created for Coney Island’s largely impoverished West End, and showed off dazzling computer renderings showing new roller coasters swooping amidst glass skyscrapers.
Yet after seven years of legal wrangling, hundreds of millions of dollars in city expense, and the eviction of many of Coney Island’s historic amusement operators, the promise of a year-round Coney Island remains clouded with uncertainty.
On September 30, 2009, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, running hard for re-election, committed his administration to developing two new Children’s Zones in New York City’s outer boroughs—specifically, in the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn. Bloomberg’s 2009 proposal came as the Obama administration was ramping up its Promise Neighborhoods program, also built on the Harlem Children’s Zone template.
That federal program awarded development grants earlier this month. Two New York City organizations were among the nation’s 21 Promise Neighborhood winners—central Harlem’s Abyssinian Development Corporation, which geographically overlaps with Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, and the Lutheran Family Health Centers, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
But to date there is no sign of the two independent, local programs the mayor promised.
Nine months after the Haitian earthquake brought a wave of refugees to New York, the city’s Haitian-American communities are struggling with a different kind of crisis. Increasing numbers of those who arrived in the aftermath of the quake and were taken in by relatives and strangers find their welcome has worn thin.
For the better part of ten years, the three empty towers of Prospect Plaza have loomed above Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Most of their windows are shattered. Wind and rain whistle through the hallways, feral cats have taken over one of the buildings and pigeons roost in the others. More than 300 units of public housing in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and not a soul in them.
For nearly six decades, Vivian Scarpati has lived within blocks of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. In the 1970s, she married a man who lived on her street. Her husband’s family had lived a block east of the Canal—for four generations.
The Gowanus had long been a heavily polluted industrial area. The Canal was created in the 1860s to bring raw material to rapidly developing residential Brooklyn. Within years, toxic waste was in the water and on its banks. As early as the 1880s, local residents protested the contamination, sewage overflows and foul odors. A massive 1976 fire at the Patchogue Oil Terminal destroyed underground fuel tanks and resulted in more than 2.5 million gallons of oil spilling into the Canal—at the time, one of the largest oil spills in the nation’s history.
Anger rattled his voice when he came to the microphone to tell a tale that has become all too familiar in his Brooklyn neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant. The police have been harassing him, he told the crowd, because he is a young, black male. In his hand, he held a baseball cap. His hair was cropped close to his head. He wore a long, white t-shirt and oversized jeans. He’s done nothing wrong, he said, but police have issued him 50 tickets he can’t afford to pay, accusing him of loitering, engaging in disorderly conduct and other minor crimes. “I’ve got fifty tickets in my house and I ain’t got fifty dollars,” he said.
Sara Monestime has learned more about real estate, politics and New York City’s byzantine housing code than she ever bargained for. Sitting recently in the kitchen of her Brooklyn condo as her two-year-old daughter napped, she talked in the jargon of “zoning lot mergers” and “variances” and mentioned obscure bureaucrats she knows by first name. Monestime has made the country’s most complicated development code “her life,” as one friend put it. Knowing the nomenclature and the players hasn’t rescued her, though, from a legal limbo and potential financial ruin.
Every time asthma educator James Mantle gives a prevention presentation at P.S. 287 in Fort Greene, he sees the pollutants that spark attacks right outside his window. The Manhattan Expressway is just “a stone’s throw” from the school, he says, and one of the environmental factors leading North Brooklyn to be “a hotbed of asthma.”
In 2006, New York City adopted a plan to create more rail- and water- based waste transfer stations and reduce reliance on garbage trucks that tended to rumble through neighborhoods—many concentrated in North Brooklyn—where exhaust fumes contribute to high levels of asthma. But the Solid Waste Management Plan or SWMP, hailed as a success when passed by the Council, has failed to fully deliver, say environmental and anti-asthma advocates in North Brooklyn.