Lesbians as ‘Canaries in the Urban Coal Mine’

Editor’s note: Welcome to There Goes the Neighborhood, an occasional feature on trends that presage where New York’s neighborhoods are headed.

The Sycamore, on Cortelyou Road in Kensington, Brooklyn, is the sort of whimsical establishment only a freshly gentrifying neighborhood can support. A combination florist and bar, The Sycamore also inexplicably sells high-end bath products, and a vodka soda is $3.

How does one end up here? Looking for lesbians. Not for purposes of dating, but to learn from them. They have a natural property: auguring increases in property values.

SLIDESHOW: Take a tour through Kensington >

Why is this? Well, there is a joke among lesbians—Q: What did she bring to your second date? A: A U-haul. Practical, and always in search of domesticity, lesbians are handy urban pioneers, dragging organic groceries and prenatal yoga to the “frontier” neighborhoods they make hospitable for the rest of us. In three to five years.

In pre-recession desperation, they were up as far as Inwood. These days they are prepping the real estate we will later salivate over in deep, deep Brooklyn.

“There is nothing to do within walking distance except grocery shopping,” says Emily Rosen, 26, a Kensington resident. “But, it’s a crazy amount of space. The second we saw it we were like ‘Oh God!'” Ms. Rosen moved here about four months ago with her partner. Her focus on grocery stores foreshadows a persistent theme in the discussion of her neighborhood, which she chose for space, price and relative safety.

The two-bedroom she and her partner share would be considered mammoth, even uncalled for, in post-gentrification sectors of Brooklyn, like Park Slope a couple of miles to the northwest. Stepping into the hulking home, the third floor of a two-family house just north of Church Avenue, I am shocked to realize they have a dining room, an art studio, an overfed cat as big as my closet, and a bar. I feel like I’m in Phoenix.

She takes me on a walk along Stratford Road, between Church and Cortelyou roads, a stretch lined with gorgeous Victorian homes. I realize this neighborhood is unlike any I’ve been to in Brooklyn. Fully restored mansions are placed creepily right next to totally dilapidated ones, and every lawn is as green as a 1950’s fertilizer ad. “It’s interesting to think of who would live here,” Ms. Rosen muses, just as we come upon our answer: a lesbian family. Lauren McNulty, 37, is walking home from the park through this surreal oasis—Westchester with edge— with her twin baby girls.

“When I moved to New York in 1999, there was nothing here,” says Ms. McNulty, referring to the area called Victorian Flatbush. “But now…” she pauses and gestures around, “now there are two great grocery stores.” Alright, maybe “number of good grocery stores,” a metric potentially as difficult to quantify and track as “propensity of lesbians,” is the real sign a `hood is in the throes of pre-gentrification.

 

THE IDEA THAT GAYS bring gentrification has been floated since the 1980s (and that they bring it to the Kensington area since at least 2004). “Groups like gays and artists like to live in urban areas, often because of social support networks,” says Sharon Zukin, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and author of Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. “Lesbians may be canaries in the urban coal mine. And lesbian moms may be an even more acute canary, maybe because they are especially concerned about the character of the school district.”

But there are factors other than lesbians pushing Kensington’s gentrification. “The neighborhood is beautiful, and we can still be car-less,” says Ms. McNulty, who lived in Williamsburg and then later Windsor Terrace, before moving here. And it is beautiful. I feel like I’m in Los Angeles’ Hancock Park, but after a half-hearted apocalypse.

Though it’s a lovely walk, the afternoon light is dimming, and in an hour or so I will want to be at a bar… unclear if the neighborhood will facilitate. We arrive at Cortelyou (neighborhood epicenter of stuff-white-people-like) and reach all the aforementioned grocers. There is “Natural Frontier,” which seems somehow apt, a health food store offering a crushing variety of vitamins. Hip-looking coffee shop Vox Pop (which I at first think is called Box Pop, inspiring many double entendres that produce only confusion) has that down-to-earth local feeling long ago bled from Williamsburg and Park Slope. And down Cortelyou, at the intersection with East 15th, is the Flatbush Food Co-op. Orthodox Jews and Muslims exist in harmony.

Of course, it’s not all fun and games, or not just yet. Ms. McNulty recalls a shooting recently at the Cortelyou subway stop. And Ms. Rosen’s partner Abby says firmly, “It’s boring and no one should live here.”

But a two-bedroom in Park Slope will set you back between $575,000 and $800,000, according to David Maundrell, president of Aptandlofts.com, a Brooklyn-based brokerage. Williamsburg has similar pricing, but with the high end at about $850K. On the other hand, a two-bedroom in Kensington goes for between $425,000 and half a million. “It’s a hidden secret,” Mr. Maundrell says.

“We felt like it was an extension of our old neighborhood,” says Ms. Rosen, who used to live in Park Slope, “but here there are real dive bars.” She pauses. “I mean, there are places in Williamsburg that will charge you $3 for a PBR on tap.”

Yes, yes there are.

SLIDESHOW: Take a tour through Kensington >

gvoien@observer.com