Closing in on Brownsville: Brooklyn Gentrification Nears the Final Frontier

Brownsville is packed with projects, but will they be enough to stem the tide of gentrification once it hits the neighborhood?

Brownsville is packed with projects, but will they be enough to push back the tide of gentrification?

“So many of the civic successes heralded by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg,” Ginia Bellafonte wrote in The New York Times back in 2012, “might have happened in Lithuania for all the effect they have had (or could have) on the lives of people in Brownsville,” which Ms. Bellafonte then goes on to helpfully identify as a neighborhood in northeastern Brooklyn.

We’re not sure if gentrification counts as a “civic success,” and we aren’t aware of any pasty-faced, heritage flannel-wearing hipsters wandering around Pitkin Avenue, the neighborhood’s main drag, yet. But if trends in nearby neighborhoods are any indication, it won’t be long before Brownsville—a byword for blight, home to the largest concentration of public housing towers in the city and to this day a place that some mail carriers fear to tread—is selling something artisanal besides stamp bags.

Developers struck out as far as Halsey Street, only three L stops away from Broadway Junction, the gateway to Brownsville, during the height of the last boom, and “East Bushwick,” which bumps up against Brownsville’s northern border, is again heating up.

And now we have another datapoint in the closing-in-on-Brownsville thesis, this time on the neighborhood’s western front: hipsters and yuppies have hit the “far eastern edge of Crown Heights,” writes DNAinfo, that font of Brooklyn proto-trend pieces. DNAinfo chronicles the apartment hunt that led Sean and Pranjali Davidson to a gut-renovated $1,700-a-month two-bedroom rental at Montgomery Street and Utica Avenue, just half a dozen short blocks from Brownsville. The fact that the move warranted a DNAinfo write-up suggests that striking out that far east is still rare, but residential demand continues to far outstrip supply in the five boroughs and we expect that the gentrification bubble will continue growing at more or less the same pace it has been for the past few decades.

East New York's housing stock pales to that of brownstone Brooklyn, but it's nicer than Northside Williamsburg's vinyl.

East New York’s housing stock pales to that of brownstone Brooklyn, but it’s nicer than Northside Williamsburg’s vinyl.

And when bobos bearing yoga mats do hit Brownsville, there’s at least one person who won’t be surprised: Julia Vitullo-Martin of the Regional Plan Association. In January she penned an article for Untapped Cities asking, “Is Brownsville Brooklyn Ready for its Jane Jacobsian Comeback?

“With multiple trains”—one of which is the L, Brooklyn’s main vein of gentrification, with a history of raining money down on the neighborhoods it courses through—”and good bus service,” she wrote, “Brownsville is a candidate for transit-oriented development.”

Buffeted by racial tension during the Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike and stripped of its middle-class Jewish families in the 1960s—”neighbors firmly believe Pitkin Avenue compares with Fifth Avenue,” one author wrote in 1951—the neighborhood lost its white middle class to the suburbs.

Now the worst of the decay is over. Fires no longer rage in vacant houses, a few new schools cropped up during the 2000s and Brownsville, along with its neighbors—East New York, Canarsie and Cypress Hills—have started to attract West Indian, Latino and even some South and East Asians immigrants. But so far, the neighborhoods have remained untouched by the skyrocketing real estate values and gentrification pressing in from all sides.

Not yet, at least—but in a real estate cycle or two, who knows?