While we were working on the Beach Beneath the Streets: Contesting New York’s Public Spaces, Greg Smithsimon suggested I write about Brooklyn as a global city in and of itself. Intrigued, I started looking at the waterfront and the changes the waves brought into the shores of my adopted home.
Caroline and I moved here in the summer of 2000 after being priced out of the Lower East Side. But as soon as we got here, the same process starting coming Brooklyn, with a rezoning plan that my friend Beka Economopoulos called “Gentrification on Steroids.”
We fought that battle and many more over bike lanes and community gardens, real estate and old business in Coney Island, police accountability and recovery after Sandy. We won some, but not all; it was hard to make sense of the process. Over and over, we were trying to fashion a distinct model of sustainable urbanism here as we grappled with the dialectical nature of the changes taking place over our shores.
My friend Mark Noonan, who quickly became a co-author for the project, suggested we think of the changes as tides, in homage to Whitman’s Brooklyn, offering a literary reading of the history of Brooklyn
City of the sea! City of hurried and glittering tides!
City whose gleeful tides continually rush or recede, whirling in
and out, with eddies and foam!
Walt Whitman, “City of Ships” (1865)
Could Brooklyn beat back the tides and serve as a model of sustainable urbanism?
And how should we tell its story?
Was it possible to record a people’s history of Brooklyn?
If so, how?
If so, how?
The result was Brooklyn Tides: The Fall and Rise of a Global Borough
by Benjamin Shepard and Mark Noonan
Transcript Press, 2918
Brooklyn has all the features of a “global borough”: It is a base of immigrant labor and ethnically diverse communities, of social and cultural capital, of global transportation, cultural production, and policy innovation. At once a model of sustainable urbanization and over development, the question is now: What will become of Global Brooklyn? Tracing the emergence of Brooklyn from village outpost to global borough, Brooklyn Tides investigates the nature and consequences of global forces that have crossed the East River and identiﬁes alternative models for urban development in global capitalism. Benjamin Shepard and Mark Noonan provide a unique ethnographic reading of the literature, social activism, and changing tides impacting this ever-transforming space. The book also features images of a rapidly transforming global borough by photographer Caroline Shepard, including its magnificent cover, as well as other artists including Brennan Cavanaugh, Robin Michals and Jose Parla.
Brooklyn Is Expanding: Introductory Notes on a Global Borough
Written by Benjamin Shepard and Mark Noonan, with notes from Greg Smithsimon
This book concerns tides: tides of people, tides of development, tides of industry,
tides of power, and tides of resistance. Brooklyn, once a city, then a borough,
and now a brand, illustrates the tensions that arise between the local and the
global in a given place. The ebb and flow of these dynamics can be witnessed on
the street as well as in the many seminal books and films set in Brooklyn and
concerned with its unique status as both a distinctive place and an ever-evolving
imaginative space evoking a wide range of associations and emotions. We
witness these dynamics, for example, in Woody Allen’s film
Annie Hall (1977). In an early scene, the protagonist, Alvy, is seen as a child in a doctor’s office in Coney Island in the 1940s. The doctor asks Alvy why he is depressed.
“It’s something he read,” explains Alvy’s Mom.
“Something he read, huh?” asks the doctor.
“The universe is expanding,” explains Alvy with his head down.
“The universe is expanding?” asks the doctor.
“Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, some day it will break
apart and that would be the end of everything!” Alvy posits.
“What is that your business?” notes his Mom with exasperation, turning back
to the doctor. “He stopped doing his homework!”
“What’s the point?” explains Alvy.
“What has the universe got to do with it?” his Mom chimes in. “You’re here in
Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!”
As the scene ends, the camera zooms out from the Coney Island roller coaster,
the Cyclone, with an image of Marilyn Monroe, as if in a film, blurred within
the iconic landscape of this amusement park for the people. The meaning of this
shot is as rich and complicated as Alvy’s adolescent psyche. Monroe, of course,
remains the quintessential icon of glamour. Her marriage to Arthur Miller
gave the playwright a heavy dose of Hollywood glitz to accompany his Brooklyn
accent. Though Monroe often claimed she wanted to retire in Brooklyn, the
couple’s polar personalities ensured the marriage would be brief. The grit
of Brooklyn and the glamour of Hollywood did not pair off easily. The scene
reminds us of the extent to which places, like celebrities, constitute a system of
semiotics and often contending associations. Raised in a part of Brooklyn that
remains both an actual and mythological space, Alvy, accordingly, confesses
to having a hard time differentiating between reality and fantasy and, for the
remainder of the film, despairs of ever finding himself on solid ground.
But Alvy’s anxiety was not without reason: Brooklyn was literally expanding
and, throughout the 1950s, would experience its most transformative decade
as tides of newcomers arrived, while another human wave, largely white and
middle-class, left for the suburbs. Existentialism was in the air in post-war
Brooklyn, a strange feeling that nothing was ever going to be quite the same
again after the world war which brought so many away and back. Outside
global forces were at work as well, as many returning soldiers and their families
moved out to the borough.
The city of Brooklyn had been contending with waves of people and change
long before the mid-twentieth century. Whitman says as much in his poem
“City of Ships,” written in 1865:
City of the world! (for all races are here;
All the lands of the earth make contributions here;)
City of the sea! City of hurried and glittering tides!
City whose gleeful tides continually rush or recede, whirling in and
out, with eddies and foam!
City of wharves and stores! City of tall façades of marble and iron!
Hurried and whirling tides are what Brooklyn—“city of wharves and stores”—
and Manhattan—“city of tall façades of marble and iron”—have in common. At
the same time, the city across the river has always felt like something very, very
far away. Globalization and mercantilism, war and environmental change, have
also felt like faraway notions. Nonetheless they were still felt. The incoming
tides were, consequently, not always gleeful, for Brooklyn was often at the
mercy of outside forces. The Dodgers were to depart in the 1950s in an example
of what a global marketplace and local powerbrokers with alternate ambitions
can do to a local space; this was only after the team had helped integrate
baseball, offering a feel-good narrative replaced by a sense of emptiness which
would last decades. From the nineteenth century into the twentieth, Brooklyn
was always part of something larger, something global, with which it was both
connected and seemingly disconnected, displacing residents like its beloved
It was hard to expunge the feeling that the borough was seldom at the
center of things. “When I was a child I thought we lived at the end of the world,”
explains Alfred Kazin in his 1951 book, A Walker in the City. “It was the eternity
of the subway ride into the city that first gave me this idea.” Brooklyn was
almost all periphery. Like present-day Los Angeles, it seemed to go on forever,
especially on the long subway ride he describes, from the East River, beneath
the Brooklyn Bridge, past Borough Hall and Prospect Park, out to Canarsie.
“We were of the city but somehow not in it,” he confesses. “We were at the end
of the line. We were the children of immigrants who had cramped at the city’s
back door, in New York’s rawest, remotest, cheapest ghetto, enclosed on one
side by the Canarsie flats and on the other side by the hallowed middle-class
districts that showed the way to New York.”
Kazin’s concerns about his life in the city are familiar to many. “The anxiety
of our era has to do fundamentally with space,” argues Michel Foucault in his
essay, “Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias.” Spaces are not mere containers, even as
they can sometimes entrap people, when there are no doors for exit or entry. For
Foucault, they are places involved with sets of relations that give them meaning.
“In other words,” he writes, “we do not live in a kind of void, inside of
which we could place individuals and things ... we live inside a set of relations
that delineates sites which are irreducible to one another.... Our epoch is one
in which space takes for us the form of relations among sites.”
The “form of relations,” of which Foucault speaks, take shape through our interactions
within the time we spend walking the streets, riding the subway, sitting
on stoops, or hanging out in public space, where we make new friends and
discover other spaces. It even takes shape within Brooklyn’s relationship with
its Manhattan neighbor. Manhattan is most often considered a place for work,
while Brooklyn is seen as a place of residence—though even this is changing.
The city is shaped by our interactions within these spaces, and the social
relations amongst the tides of people filling them. Waves of people, economic
systems, and stories shape the borough. Increasingly, Brooklyn is a place where
difference finds space between bike rides, bridges, brownfields, block parties,
foreclosure-defense street actions, communities of resistance, and community
gardens created by and for the people here. Here we dance with marching
bands, celebrate the legacies of Michael Jackson and Prince at Fort Greene
Park, visit Coney Island, or simply hang out on Brooklyn’s lively streets and in
its many watering holes and restaurants. Here, heterotopias take shape, day and
night, through interactions with a mix of people across class and ethnic lines.
These are spaces of otherness, with countless ebbs and tides between who’s
coming and who’s going.
Flowing through this book are the stories of community gardeners, agitators,
artists, students, and local residents trying to find a place to live, of those like
Kazin, who felt on the outside, while contending with the clash of bodies
and forces of the city “beyond.” They are the narratives of those lost on the
subway. It is the Brooklyn which has long had to cope with alienation, low-
wage jobs, inadequate housing, police violence, the possibility of deportation,
incarceration, and stop-and-frisk policing. As depicted in fictionalized stories
such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Death of a Salesman, and Do the Right Thing,
as well as in real life, Brooklyn is filled with those longing for greater respect
and upward mobility. It is a very distinct local place. Yet, as Alvy understood
well, it has always been connected to something much, much larger that is
in constant flux. This is a place where global forces always seem to have the
upper hand. But it is also a place where people organize and build their own
commons. Here, communities rise and fall, and rise again. Instead of the same
old thing, citizens have learned to ride the tides, forging their own distinctive
livable globalized space.
Hovering over these conversations is the concern that it may all be too late. The
condominiums popping up everywhere, skyrocketing rents, ugly buildings
overlooking Brooklyn Bridge Park, rampant police abuses, hospital and
independent bookstore closings lend credence to this conclusion. This specter
of failure has always been a part of life here. General George Washington
famously lost the Battle of Brooklyn, retreating into the fog rather than face
British troops who outnumbered his. The events of August 27, 1776 have often
been recognized as a moment of losing a battle but ultimately winning a war.
Instead of following conventional rules of engagement, Washington led his
troops West through the fog, past the marsh that would become the Gowanus
Canal, to the East River, where they fled to safety.Sometimes you have to
retreat and pick your battles. That is the story of this book, of battling titans,
the British troops, even capitalism itself. You are not always going to win, but
you are going to retreat, rope-a-dope, elude opponents, in the fight to preserve
something truly special. We see it today in the streets of Brooklyn from Bed-
Stuy to Prospect Park and Coney Island. This is a book about lots and lots of
small battles that amount to large wins.
This trend can be found in the advancing and receding waves of people and
history. To the western-most edge of Long Island have come successive tides of
people—Native American, Dutch, English, African-American, Irish, German,
Italian, Swedish, Hispanic, Caribbean, and Asian. For thousands of years,
Brooklyn was home to the Leni Lenape, who followed prey in the forests and, in
the summer, settled near shellfish-rich waters. Their vanquishers, the Dutch,
used axes and tidal mills to clear and drain the land to establish farms that
would supply agricultural products first for themselves, then for the British,
then for the Americans following the Revolutionary War. In the nineteenth
century, Brooklyn was flooded with people following tides of work—handling
products and raw materials, building ships, tunnels, and bridges, and manning
the warehouses and factories that would subsidize the Empire City across the
river. Settling in working-class, immigrant communities, Brooklyn residents
would continue to experience successive tides of dramatic change. Between
the rise and fall of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Great Migration of African
Americans from the South from 1910-70, the slum-clearing policies of Robert
Moses, the red-lining of real estate companies in the 1950s, the gentrification
of the last two decades, the compulsive re-zoning of mayors Bloomberg and de
Blasio, the rising waters of Super-Storm Sandy in the fall of 2012, and waves of
young people clogging the streets with their hands in the air, declaring, “Hands
Up, Don’t Shoot,” and “Black Lives Matter” in the fall of 2014, Brooklyn has
endured countless tides. The pattern is long in the making. So is the literature
on this global borough and its persistent questions.
A Globalized Space
Scholarship on global cities has identified the distinctive roles that places
like New York, Paris, Tokyo, London, Los Angeles, and Chicago play in the
global economic system. However, most studies of the new role of these “global
cities” focus on downtown, the financial district, the multinational financial
institutions, and the white-collar employees who work there.
Far less emphasis has been placed on the contributions of the large numbers of working-class immigrants and their transnational culture, the armies of service industry
workers who sustain the financial industry and its executives, the reduced
social contract working people are offered in the neoliberal global city, and the
precariousness of this new economic order for most workers. Their experience
propels Global Brooklyn. Writing on global cities has rarely undertaken a
sustained examination of the periphery of the global city, even though it makes
up the vast majority of the city in terms of population, lived experience, and space.
global Brooklyn wakes the city up in the morning, provides the labor power that
gets it through its day, and puts it to bed at night. Its diverse communities are
also rich sources of global cultural production, even while residents face some
of the most severe consequences of the neoliberal policies generated by the
global city. On a day-to-day basis, its residents cope with a neoliberal political
ideology that protects private property interests, drives down wages, advocates
the privatization of social resources, and protests regulatory frameworks that
hinder free market values. “[U]neven development inherent in neoliberal
entrepreneurial economic development strategies favor ... concentrated capital
at the expense of the poor and middle classes,” notes Brooklyn sociologist
Alex Vitale. Those on the margins of this global borough feel the squeeze, as
inequality increases. Over and over again, the development of cities seems to
mold a polarization, dividing classes, creating pockets of urban poor, who are
increasingly restricted.” In a departure from previous studies,
Brooklyn Tides considers globalism’s effects on these local populations, placing particular emphasis on the agency people have to act and challenge the structural constraints the global city imposes.
Brooklyn Tides addresses the question of what it means to live in a global
city for the millions of residents who experience the benefits and costs on a daily
basis. Is there the possibility of another type of urban experience in the glare of
globalization? How do local people find space for autonomy while contending
with the tides of neoliberal urbanism crashing in around them? These questions
churn through this study of the ebbs and flows of Brooklyn’s tides.
To answer these questions, we consider the literature and history of
Brooklyn as well as the efforts of activists who have sought to have an impact
on this space.
The early chapters consider Brookyn’s past, while the latter half
of the book addresses current struggles. Living up to Walt Whitman’s adage
that Brooklyn can be a “City of Friends,” we trace the stories of past resistance
to groups of contemporary activists combating police brutality, fighting for
bike lanes and community gardens, opposing big-box stores, and forging a
sustainable city. While many suggest that there is no space for agency in the era
of globalization,these efforts suggest that Brooklyn can be a place where actors
successfully take on inequality and police brutality, while emphasizing a more
livable model of sustainable urbanism. Building on the principles of participant
observation, these later chapters borrow from the perspective of local activists
(including one of the co-authors of this book, Benjamin Shepard) to suggest
there is still room for regular people to have a larger impact on globalized
Along the way, we trace the workings of anti-gentrification activist Imani
Henry, of cyclists Keegan Stephan and Monica Hunken, anti-consumer activist
Reverend Billy (a.k.a. Bill Talen) and his Church of Stop Shopping, artists Robin
Michals and José Parlá, as well as groups such as Right of Way, Public Space
Party, Occupy, Equality Flatbush, and Transportation Alternatives to trace an
alternative story of global Brooklyn. This book does not consider the struggles
of every activist or campaign in this borough; rather it focuses on a small group
of artists and activists taking on the challenges of the globalization churning
through the streets of their neighborhoods. Through their efforts, each suggests
that there are things everyone can do to create a livable city. This is a vision of a
just, sustainable city, supported by mutual aid and friendship, not high poverty
rates and escalating cycles of police brutality to discipline the masses.
Still, why study Brooklyn? Just as every global city has a business district,
every global city has a Brooklyn. Whether they are called outer boroughs,
banlieues, peripheries, suburbs, or shanty towns, these are the vast districts,
much larger than the center-city home of power and wealth, which provide
the labor for the global city. Just as each city’s downtown is different because
of the individual roles each city plays in the global financial economy, so, of
course, every “Brooklyn” is unique, shaped by its distinctive history, the
residents’ responses to globalization’s demands, the particular composition
of its immigrant communities, and the cultural production that takes place
in each borough. While no book can do justice to every facet of globalization
across this borough,
Brooklyn Tides examines the stories of everyday residents
of Brooklyn to understand some of the most significant features of New York’s
most famous working-class, immigrant, and service-industry suburb.
Brooklyn has coped with the ravages of displacement and deindustrialization
for decades. In its most desperate decade, over half a million people moved out
of the borough. The borough lost tens of thousands of jobs. Between the
infusions of financial capital, economic development, cultural redefinition, and
accompanying homogenization, its neighborhoods were being remade in front
of our eyes. Within the last decade, rapid gentrification has made parts of the
borough sites of luxury living, work, and recreation. Today, its renovated waterways are being filled with high-rise condos. Much of this development is supported by
the legacies of red-lining, foreclosures, police brutality, sky-rocketing rents, and
hyper-policing of public space. In order to ensure this better business climate
for urban growth and development, New York’s brand of urban neoliberalism has
cultivated intricate public policies and policing approaches aimed at maximizing
social control of public spaces, including “closed-circuited video surveillance
systems, anti-homeless laws, and gated communities.”
Today, its citizens revel in the borough’s vast cultural resources but lament
patterns of displacement and uneven development which follow such patterns
of urban flux.While many newer residents bring affluence, for much of
the borough New York’s fiscal crisis of the 1970’s never ended. The borough
continues to endure persistent unemployment and loss of work for the lower and
middle classes. The story of global Brooklyn also demonstrates the power of
global capital and the processes of cultural erasure, as homogenization robs local
spaces of their color.
Nonetheless, while the forces of top-down globalization
steamroll communities, Brooklyn is hanging on, and even fighting back. Down
the same Coney Island boardwalk where local actors fought a wrecking ball aimed
at making way for franchise and new condo developments, Brighton Beach offers
a pulsing Brooklyn immigrant and cultural mix, adding to the neighborhood’s
rich history. Each day, countless communities here counter social controls with
movements aimed at spurring a vital and progressive urbanism.
As a global borough, Brooklyn contends with both cultural erasure
and expansion. Like many urban geographies, Brooklyn’s public spaces, its
waterways, its spaces for work and play, have become sites of contestation
that seek to navigate lurching changes. After all, for much of the nineteenth
century, Brooklyn was an agricultural community, transformed by the region’s
industrial development in the post-bellum period. As late as 1879, it provided
much of the region’s vegetable production. Four decades later, little was left of
this once flourishing agricultural economy or the rural communities it helped
sustain. This history raises the question: is urban development an inevitable
component of industrialization?
Could the agricultural base of Brooklyn’s
past have survived the residential real estate development with some foresight?
This is a question well worth asking. Brooklyn’s transformation from rural
economy into a dense urban center took shape in response to both technological
innovation and a seemingly blind faith in free markets which made farmland
prohibitively expensive. Still, questions about costs and benefits, what was lost
and gained from what Marc Linder and Lawrence Zacharias term ‘’irrational
deagriculturization” grip global Brooklyn. Any number of values were stifled
when the borough paved over a once vibrant agricultural terrain. Facing a
rapidly changing landscape, can this “agricultural dissolution” be reversed
here? Some suggest the answer is affirmative. Urban farms are making a
comeback in Brooklyn. The largest of these, Brooklyn Grange, produces over 40,000 lbs. of organically-grown vegetables, grown on rooftops in the Brooklyn
Navy Yard. According to Paul Lightfoot, the chief executive of Bright Farms,
“Brooklyn ... has now become a local food scene second to none. We’re bringing
a business model where food is grown and sold right in the community.”
For such initiatives to become a sustained reality, policy makers must
support a host of progressive ideas, particularly the right to open space. Of
course, such thinking challenges cities to question a dominant paradigm which
views economic development and community needs as opposites.
They need not be. Others follow a different road along a seemingly unsustainable path
toward hyper-development. Over the dozen years of the Bloomberg era here,
space was rezoned—a third of the city—to make way for more sky-scrapers,
gentrification, blandification, and inevitable displacement. And the process
Here, all that is solid melts into air.Marx was willing to note that capitalism
does amazing things, yet he was appalled by the human cost.
Still, negative development is not all inevitable. Throughout
Brooklyn Tides, we consider the social, cultural, and ecological costs of such patterns, while suggesting there could be a different route for a global city. Could this be a space where regular people fight off what look like inevitable tides? Just as the Native Americans, for a brief spell in the 1650s, resisted the Dutch, and brownstone owners in
Brooklyn Heights in the 1950s protected their neighborhood from demolition
by Robert Moses, the borough’s past suggests there might be other paths for
such a global space.
Is it possible for this global borough to follow a path
toward a more sustainable urbanism? This account of Brooklyn’s past and
present insists that the future of the borough remains in the hands of the
people who live here.
* * *
“Take me to this place known as Brooklyn!” Allan Swann orders his host,
Benjy, in Richard Benjamin’s 1982 film
My Favorite Year
about 1950’s television.
“Where is it?” he asks. Played by Peter O’Toole, this Errol Flynn-like film star
is escorted to a place which feels like the end of the world from its Manhattan
neighbor. There he meets Benjy’s Jewish mother, her Filipino husband, former
boxer Rookie Carroca, and the rest of his outlandish tribe, as well as most of
his neighbors in the apartment building. The building, teeming with quirky
eccentrics, welcomes Swann as a hero.
For Michel Foucault, a heterotopia is
a space for difference; a space for otherness; a welcoming space for long-time
residents and newcomers, insiders and outsiders, such as the tribe Swann
Can the same be said of Brooklyn today?
Sometimes marketed as a Manhattan suburb, is it a space of difference or
has it become something more digestible? Long a borough of immigrants and mixed races, a reverse migration has set in. Many residents are simply displaced
while even long-time home-owners have chosen to leave. As Spike Lee laments
about his historically black neighborhood of Fort Greene, increased real estate
values have caused many locals to sell out: “Black people by droves [are] moving
to Atlanta, they’re moving to North Carolina ... They’re selling their houses and I
don’t blame them. I can’t say to them, ‘you can’t sell your house’ ... What we need
is affordable housing for everybody ... Brooklyn Heights is the most expensive
neighborhood. Then you got Park Slope, Fort Greene, Cobble Hill, Clinton Hill
and then, you know, it works like this... the rents get cheaper the further away
you go from Brooklyn. And the reality is, after the sand on Coney Island, it’s the
motherfucking Atlantic Ocean. So, where you gonna go?”
Despite increased rents, the space does, however, remain a draw for writers and those working in creative industries. Today, many see their Manhattan neighbor as the outer
borough. The tides of people, work, resistance, and flux continue.
To be part of the discussion, join us tonight Monday: