The Q at Parkside

(for those for whom the Parkside Q is their hometrain)

News and Nonsense from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Lefferts and environs, or more specifically a neighborhood once known as Melrose Park. Sometimes called Lefferts Gardens. Or Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. Or PLG. Or North Flatbush. Or Caledonia (west of Ocean). Or West Pigtown. Across From Park Slope. Under Crown Heights. Near Drummer's Grove. The Side of the Park With the McDonalds. Jackie Robinson Town. Home of Lefferts Manor. West Wingate. Near Kings County Hospital. Or if you're coming from the airport in taxi, maybe just Flatbush is best.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What's REALLY Going On, In Our Little Bit of Brooklyn, NYC, USA: Part I

An opinionated man, on caffeine, having just read two books on a single subject - now there's a dangerous combination. Throw in the fact that theQ has also logged dozens of hours this year at community meetings and interviews and civic blah-blah-blahs, and you've got a recipe for some big honking pronouncements. As's the State of the 'Hood from one blogger's perspective. Get your comment fingers ready!

So much of what gets said and thunk about our neighborhood centers on real estate, economic development, race and gentrification - that I felt it was time I collected my own thoughts, lest I become just another mindless jokester and civic-booster, forgetting my original reason to blog,  which was basically to make "sense" of my home of these many years (and presumably for many years to come). My experience with ACTUAL people on my block and environs lies in stark contrast to the usual "us against them" nonsense perpetuated by people who seem to have nothing better to write about Flatbush than conflict and outrage. Most people are just living their life, within their means, and are much too busy living, loving, birthing and dying to care much for these esoteric arguments anyway. But I'm a fan of dialectic, and frankly sometimes people say stuff that really heats up my bullshit meter, so maybe that meter is as good a place to start as any.

First, I don't buy that our area - NE Flatbush Q at Parkside PLG Caledonian Prospect Park E - is a neighborhood "in transition." Saying that a NYC neighborhood is going through change is like saying that butter melts on a's only a matter of how fast due to how hot the heat. The book "The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn," by Park Slope native Suleiman Osman, shows just how long is this story of change - certainly the modern "brownstoning" or "back to the City" movement in Brooklyn goes back to the early years of the Baby Boom (early '50s) as Brooklyn Heights saw a resurgence in its home values and an uptick in private single-family ownership, notably, even then, by head-strong white professionals. Such de-densifying of real estate is always a big cause of concern to housing advocates, though for many years it was slightly offset by the building of City housing and private, reasonably priced new buildings.

I could use my own house-story as example, with variation of course, of something playing out dozens of times each year on our side of the park. When my wife and I bought our place nearly a decade ago, 6-10 people were living here in various degrees of squalor. There was no heat, a backed-up sewer flooded the basement, electricity was being pulled "pro bono" off the street, and mounds of trash filled the backyard. No one living here was particularly fond of the house...they were probably fond only of the $100/wk rent. At the time of purchase, ours was basically a run-of-the-mill shithole boarding house - unsafe, unsavory and as a result, relatively cheap to buy, even for the era. Cheap is always relative of course - it cost WAY more than we'd ever imagined spending in one fell swoop, but we could make it work with "creative" financing (you could do that back then), a familial loan, and our middle-classy salaries. The transaction was so dull that were race or class not involved, the story of a couple buying a house formerly illegally diced into multiple fire-trap apartments by a greedy and dishonest slumlord would not provoke any interest or concern. In fact, our next door neighbors on either side were pretty relieved, and we were ecstatic to have found an actual townhouse that we could afford. A whole house. In the greatest city in the country. Wow. Dream? You bet. So in the actual on-the-ground world of man-needs-house, man-searches-for-house, man-buys-house...not much is going on. EXCEPT, and this is a big except...this man is a white man, moving into a neighborhood predominantly not-white, and he doesn't seem to think that's any big deal. In fact, he quite likes not being part of the oppressive sickly-precious majority for once, and so yes, in a certain sense, he DID choose to live in a non-white neighborhood, certainly over areas full of people afraid of true diversity. Maybe he's a little smug, but mostly he likes living close to the park, the train, having exciting neighbors from all over the place, and cheap shopping a-plenty, plus having a basement man-cave to play the loud rock 'n' roll music in, replete with drum kit.

Gentrifier? Who, me? No Way! I've lived all over this town, I'm not a richy-rich, and hell, I've always had to move because the rents started to rise around me and...wait. Wait a second. I was DISPLACED!!! That's IT!! Now I get it...I too have been gentrified, and no, it didn't always feel very good. Plus, I was probably part of the chain that led to the really big money moving in to my ex-hoods - Williamsburg, Prospect Heights, Gowanus, South Slope. Oh, it's so sinister! And yet, completely obvious and practically dictated by a free market. In fast-moving big-money cities like New York, it's buy or get out, so I'd heard, and then one day we finally had the down payment and the nerve, and we took the plunge. I don't recall hearing a complaint or protest at the time of the closing...though maybe that's because we live on a bus route. It's really noisy on Clarkson sometimes.

And speaking of displacement, I've recently been having conversations with renters who are feeling the heat as values rise...and the kicker here is that some of these priced-outers are people of the very sorts most closely identified with gentrification. It's a process, in other words, and it pretty much all comes back to people living where they can afford to live. Sometimes people suggest that this was not always so...but there's no evidence that it was ever any different. For a little while, it seemed that the political winds were blowing socialist, and NY really started to think progressively about how to keep people in neighborhoods even after rents shot up. But then the City and State went broke, and lots of the promises fell short, leaving rent controlled apartments in the hands of a lucky few, sometimes to millionaires. I know that huge swaths of our neighborhood are still rent stabilized, but even some of those buildings are either going coop or pulling out entirely, or unit by unit shooting up in rent as people get pushed out, brought in, then those new folks pushed's all pretty obscene really. Same as it ever was. When didn't a landlord with the upper hand take advantage? Almost never, of course.

Everything comes down to price after all.

Most people "gentrify" a neighborhood not as "pioneers" (offensive word, that) or urban idealists, but as realists. They do the math. They make lists of desirable and undesirable characteristics. They make lists of their fears and prejudices. They make lists and lists and lists. And their reasons for moving vary too - but the most-cited that I hear are "needed more space" and "got priced out." In other words, unless you're so well-off you can literally choose your house-size and neighborhood, you must do what so many of us do - you must compromise. Hopefully you end up somewhere cool, but few New Yorkers searching for a home are so lucky as to end up exactly where they wanted in exactly the kind of domicile they hoped for. But most, thankfully, learn to love and respect wherever they end up. That's why many neighborhoods become ever-more desirable, I suppose. People put down roots, become involved, and actively care for and about their neighbors. Word gets out, through mainstream outlets, and voila: Brooklyn Heights! Park Slope! Williamsburg! Ft. Greene! Old story, but when it comes right down to it, the previous generation saw the creation of dangerous and deeply impoverished urban ghettos, and that had an awful lot to do with the fact that the old guard simply up-and-moved, PDQ, often due to ignorance and racism of course, leaving behind a civic vacuum and lack of investment. Throw in redlining by banks and a few drug epidemics, and you could probably literally here the sound of civility getting sucked out of whole swaths of the City. All obvious enough, I suppose, but some people are blithely ignorant of our borough's history. Myself included, though I'm working on it.
The most recent part of Kings County history poses an unforeseen wrinkle: whiter and wealthier people moving back to the neighborhoods once left for blighted. (A lot of areas, like over in the Manor, never really suffered as much as outsiders believed, but the damage to central Brooklyn's reputation reached the status of conventional wisdom by, say, 1980). If you want to blame one factor above all for the flight back to the ghetto, I'd say it was the failure of the suburbs to live up to their promise. Whole generations of suburban kids grew up with a bad taste of cut sod in their noses. Add a dash of counter-cultural zeitgeist, and the whole brownstoning phenomenon makes perfect sense. As a good be-bopper, beatnick or hippie, you had two choices: head for the hills, or head for the hood. A surprising number chose the latter, and the process picked up steam, gradually at first, but eventually the tea water boiled. Herbal tea, certainly.

Inside the gentrifier there is often an idealistic streak, but for the purposes of this essay (not a blog post! an ESSAY!!) I would say it boils down to this: "the best I can afford." That's right. That's often the real, hideous truth. People in PLG, or Caton Park, or on Cortelyou, or Bed-Stuy or East New York or right here on good ol' Clarkson Avenue - they buy or rent the best they can afford. And they've ALWAYS done that. And ALWAYS will. The one thing that could possibly stand in the way of that axiom is legislated price controls - like rent stabilization, or subsidies or public housing or vouchers. Otherwise, houses and apartments are like any other currency - floating with the whims of the market. And by the way, I, like many others, checked out the whole stabilized/subsidy thing and found that I really didn't qualify and had no "leads" on a rent control pad. Such fickle policy is what happens when entitlements don't get dealt fairly, but don't get me least SOME people benefit from progressive policies, and I suppose that's something. (Though plenty of smart people think that letting the market float fully would actually create more affordable houses and prices. I'm a skeptic on that one, but who really knows? We may find out soon enough if Republicans and Landlords get their way in Albany.)

When house prices recently reached over $1.5 million on Midwood Street in Lefferts Manor, some mused that the idle rich had finally arrived in our neck of Flatbush. (Isn't it funny that people complain about both the idle rich AND the idle poor?) Sort of, without the "idle." There's still a great likelihood that our newest neighbors also made their lists of wants and needs and "settled" on a neighborhood that had a mixture of pluses and minuses. It's hard for some to imagine, but if you DO happen to have $1.5 million in cash or financing, that might not be because your income is massive - you may simply have been super fortunate to have bought years ago in an up-and-coming neighborhood elsewhere, and now you're simply trading "up in size" but not necessarily laying out oodles of annual cash, via income. It's not unusual for someone to be land-rich but cash-poor. If you really want to know whether your neighbor is "rich" by the way, a more interesting number than how much a house cost is how large was the mortgage. That's a better indicator of a family's income, but then, it's really none of my or your goddam business anyway! I still have my doubts that seriously wealthy people - one-percenter or even five-percenter types of any ethnicity - would choose to live on this side of the park, even now, but hey, some people are quirky that way.

Now I'm blabbering. I'm not cut out for this essay nonsense. But I'm not finished. yet Next post, after some public service announcements, I think I'll dig into the whole issue of what it means when a neighborhood changes it's racial mix. I still suspect it's a red herring though, masking the more marked change in the "class" makeup. Much to my pleasant surprise, many newcomers here are youngish couples or families, and many of them would get called "mixed race" by the census. Anecdotally, many brown/pink couples seem more comfortable in our hood than in whiter areas like Windsor Terrace, even when they could have afforded that side of the park. Actually, the terrace is scarily white for Brooklyn, likely the result of its never being hospitable to black folks EVER. Even when I moved near there in 1989 you rarely saw a dark hued person. I guess that may be some evidence for the class-trumps-race aspect of gentrification, because that neighborhood has gone through wholesale change in "culture" while retaining its solidly white demographic. Curiouser and curiouser!

Oh, and the other book? Great stuff from Lance Freeman called "There Goes the 'Hood," that concentrates more on what longtime residents think and say about gentrification. I love the stuff he reveals about black gentry and their role in the process. On the community board, I get to hang out and kibbitz with real gentry, not just the new kind, the old timers that held this community together through every manner of plague. And that, my friends, is something that I will sorely miss if the heat on the skillet shoots up too high, too fast.


babs said...

Just a couple of precisions: 1. Rent control no longer exits. The program ended in 1978. Any remaining rent controlled apartments are occupied by the same leaseholders (or family members who lived with them at the time of their death) since then. When a rent controlled apartment is vacated, it converts to rent stabilization. 2. A building cannot "pull out" of rent stabilization (unlike other programs like Mitchell Lama, of which we don't have any in this neighborhood as far as I know). Instead, rent on individual apartments is increased any time there is a vacancy, and also to cover major capital improvements, all with the ultimate goal of getting that individual apartment off of rent stabilization - the ceiling here was just raised to $2500 from $2000, so there is some protection for tenants still being enacted in Albany. 3. A rent stabilized building can convert to co-operative or condominium status, but unless 85% or more of tenants buy their apartments, it will be a non-eviction plan, meaning that rent-stabilized tenants retain their right to occupy their apartments under the same terms as always.

In terms of your "best I can afford" argument, it's important to remember that "best" is a subjective term and doesn't always equal a purely financial consideration. Many people in this neighborhood could afford to live elsewhere, but have chosen PLG for other reasons - the location, the architecture, the people, as well as the $$.

And real estate transactions, including mortgage filings, are matters of public record and are available for consultation on-line through various public and private databases, so, like it or not, they are everybody's business. Even co-op prices, which used to be secret, are now able to be discovered due to the imposition of real property transfer tax on the seller, enabling one to back into the sales price. Really unlike the old days (pre-2005), when the rich would simply pay all-cash for their co-ops and no-one would ever know how much they paid.

babs said...

Sorry, lead paint ended in 1978; rent controll does not apply to apartments that became vacant after July, 1971.

Bob Marvin said...

You realy got it right Tim; great essay!

Ariella said...

Good stuff, Mr. Clarkson

Also I recently met a man who had a rent controlled studio apartment in the East Village for $63/month

Eagle-Eye Mr. M.S. said...

can't wait for Part II!

Gary of PLG said...

We bought our house in LM 2005, my uncle died in 2007 - he was the last family member living in the family home on Nostrand Avenue. So with that passing and our move here, our family (white and Jewish) has continuously occupied a small bit of the 'hood since the 1930's when my grandparents moved their family here from Bed Stuy.

We traded a 2 bdrm/2 bth on the upper West Side (next door to where my great-uncle and aunt lived since they married in France at the end of his service in WW1) for our house here - pretty much even Steven. We chose this nabe after looking in many areas of Brooklyn because, as Tim says it was the best we could afford. In this case the family tie was part of the equation along with all the other more obvious benefits of living here.

We love it here and never regret our decision.

Anonymous said...

My husband had the opportunity to buy cheap the 2BR coop apt in Park Slope he rented after college. It was on a good street but near a drug corner with dealing in and around a skanky dusty bodega that had cock fighting in the basement, on 5th ave. Once the city closed that bodega and that corner was busted and cleaned up in 2004 and great new businesses immediately started arriving in droves on that section of 5th Ave (yes the corner had to be cleaned up first, for those who think fab amenities arrive first and THEN the dealers go away) the values increased and we sold the apt for an amount that allowed us to buy our small house in the Manor. We could have afforded an only slightly bigger condo in Park Slope for the same price. But we really more space because of our work. So we too came here to buy the best we could get for our budget.

BTW, Tim, your hunch about Windsor Terrace is correct -- a friend's uncle is a retired cop and he told her it had always been a cop and fireman neighborhood where blacks didn't rent or buy. Or even walk through.

Alexis said...

"I still have my doubts that seriously wealthy people - one-percenter or even five-percenter types of any ethnicity - would choose to live on this side of the park"

I'm not going near most of your post but as to where the 1% is--"Based on 2009 tax year filing data, the Internal Revenue Service says an adjusted gross income, or AGI, of $343,927 or more will put you in the top 1 percent of taxpayers" and that is really a minimum level of income anyone would need to sustain a $1.5 million dollar purchase with a 30 year, unexotic mortgage so yeah, the 1% has definitely moved to PLG, earning well over 10x the average per capita income.

Clarkson FlatBed said...

True, true, Alexis. You caught me on my tendency for exaggeration. Of course, top 1% of NYC is quite different than of the USA. I used NYC for my guesstimation (closer to 600K), but rich is rich, so thanks for calling me on it. I would still like to make a big distinction between earning top 1% and owning top 1%. You might think the distinction is splitting hairs, til you realize that the richest Americans don't necessarily EARN much at all, and much of their "income" disappears by the time they file.

And into the post if you find fault. If I didn't want to hear your opinion, I wouldn't share in such a public space. And when you do, please share YOUR thinking when you moved to the area. If it deviates from what I've described, I would love to hear it. My point is, generally, that buyers and renters use the same logic they always did, and thus describing a Brooklyn neighborhood as "in transition" is entirely relative to one's vantage point. Ask someone living here for 30 years just how long the word transition has been applied - after awhile it becomes meaningless. If rents and house prices double every 10 years, the graph looks pretty constant. I though Milford Prewitt's assertions pretty persuasive at the PLGNA meeting - that class or education, rather than race, should be the defining question here, but that's practically a bigger bogeyman in discussions. Plus, making assumptions about someone's wealth is tricky business, and unless you're their accountant, pretty pointless.

Lastly, then I really must try to sleep under the cloud of choking smoke (!), I'm particularly struck by the fact that, even during this major recession, the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of our country is taking place, pretty much under the radar - from Boomers to X's and Y's and millenials, and the effects towards our country's tendency towards Oligarchy will be enormous...regardless of one's adjusted gross income.

Gary of PLG said...

Alexis, while you are of course correct that it would take a substantial income to support such a large mortgage, most people buying so expensive a house would be trading up from a sold property that pays a large part of the purchase price. I am not saying that there are no wealthy people in PLG, just that the people who bought expensive houses might not be.

As Babs said, mortgages are public information so if you know the address you can find out how much mortgage was taken.

babs said...

Gotta say that the people who are buying $1.5 million houses are by no stretch of the imagination middle class (except, perhaps, in NYC - is an annual income of $350K really all it takes to be in the 1%? That must account for about 25% of people in NYC). Even with a substantial down payment, banks still have a debt:income threshold of about 28% (meaning that if you make $100K/yr. they don't want to see you with more than $28K in debt before the mortgage.) So say you're fine with that because you have no student loans as your parents just wrote a check every semester, or you're older and have paid them off, and your kids go to public school. You've got a big chunk of cash from sale of that co-op you bought for cheap all those years ago and you are able to put 50% down on the house, leaving you with a $750K mortgage, equalling monthly payments of just over $3,500, given today's crazily low interest rates. And considering that a pretty universal rule of thumb (for buying as well as renting) is that your income should equal 40x one month's housing payments, you'd only need to make $140K per year to carry that. Now tell me how many middle-class people are going to be able to unite all those conditions? It's much more common for both the mortgage and the income to be considerably higher. And if the mortgage is low, the income is usually even higher than that.

babs said...

Also, the very rich may not have much income from wages (i.e. working at a regular job), but they still have it in interest and dividends - and considering the low interest rate climate, and not-great dividend payouts of late, an AGI of $350K does imply a pretty substantial asset base to start, more so than some corporate hack who only has to work 90 hours a week (or more) for his/her salary and bonus.