Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Of Brooklyn Neighborhoods, Brokers and Developers


The other day, we ran an item about how the corporate types at Holiday Inn insist on calling the Gowanus Holiday Inn Express the "Park Slope" Holiday Inn Express even though the hotel is on Union Street between Third and Fourth Avenues. The issue gets at the somewhat ever-shifting boundaries, and even names, of some of our favorite Brooklyn nabes. It's especially rough for a neighborhood like Gowanus, whose territory can vary dramatically. There are even those who say that Gowanus, per se, isn't even a neighborhood.

In any case, the blogger known as Sunset Parker left a very cogent comment, reflecting on how his own Sunset Park community is being redefined--and slowly annexed by other neighborhoods--as real estate brokers and developers find it more profitable to identify part of the nabe as Park Slope or Greenwood Heights or Bay Ridge.

Sunset writes:
Now you must know what we feel like in Sunset Park. Our borders have been chipped away at by neighborhood imperialism and sheer ignorance (on both our north and south boundaries- by the Slope and Bay Ridge respectively).

The southern border of Park Slope is and always has been Prospect Ave (bet. 16th and 17th) where Sunset Park begins. However, the ridiculous Broker-created term "Greenwood Heights" or people who just elongate the south slope to the edge of the cemetery on 22nd is rampant. Just last week, OTBKB ran a "best of slope". The Lopez Bakery between 18th and 19th on 5th Ave was listed, as the Slope's best bakery, despite the fact that it's three blocks into Sunset Park. The Slope doesn't have enough that they have to claim our businesses as their own?

As far as Park Slope/Gowanus, to be clear, the median on 4th Ave is the official Western boundary of the Slope;Eastern boundary of Gowanus. Anything on the east side of 4th is in Park Slope. The ones on the west are in Gowanus...

But as you surely know, Brokers and Developers rarely constrain themselves with the truth...
Wonderfully said, Sunset.

In this Golden Age of the Early 21st Century Brooklyn Land Boom, there are those who look at our borough as nothing more than a huge real estate deal. This mindset says that if you can sell for more to someone buying in the "South Slope" rather than Sunset Park, well by all means, annex that street. And so, neighborhood borders are pliable and neighborhood names are marketing tools. What gets lost in the shuffle is that our communities are neighborhoods, many of them with long and proud histories and identities.

Gowanus is not Park Slope. Sunset Park is not Park Slope. Bay Ridge is not Sunset Park.

Oh, for a map of Brooklyn neighborhood boundaries upon which at least 51 percent of us could agree that shows lines of demarcation that don't make longtime residents scream bloody murder.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Except Sunset Park doesn't actually start until I think 34th St. The chunk in the middle, to the west of Greenwood Cemetery, is the famous unnamed neighborhood, which realtors are starting to call "Greenwood Heights.". When I lived on 16th between 3rd and 4th I had no idea what to tell people.

12:10 PM  
Blogger Gary said...

Although there are obviously exceptions, aren't the majority of neighborhoods somewhat fluid by their very nature? I realize that now, especially, realtors play fast and loose with traditional boundaries, but haven't the inhabitants of the neighborhoods themselves been at least somewhat responsible for defining their own space -- claiming desirable adjoining areas for themselves while allowing the less desirable areas to slide into other neighborhoods?

I know that, while running through the 50s in Sunset Park, I've seen a building (a school, maybe?) with "Bay Ridge" carved over the door, and my ex-wife's mother, who grew up on 58th and 61st Streets, refers to the area as Bay Ridge. So, based on this admittedly limited evidence, Bay Ridge historically stretched at least into the 50s. And how important are things like freeway construction (or subway lines or other landscape-altering projects) in defining neighborhood boundaries?

I guess my point is that neighborhood boundaries are not set in stone but rather can change over time. In fact, there are a number of "disputed" areas even now, from what I can tell.

All of which leads me to a proposal for an interesting project (improbable and unfeasible as it may be): Go stand on various streets all over the borough and ask passers-by to tell the questioner what neighborhood they're standing in. The results -- which would no doubt be fascinating -- could then be plotted on a big map. Hmmm... maybe when I'm finished with the running thing...

1:50 PM  
Blogger jhr said...

You're certainly free, to think whatever you like, but I'm sorry, Justin, you're mistaken. There are official boundaries for every neighborhood. Sunset Park's has always (going back to the nineteenth century) been boundaried by Prospect Avenue to the north (between 16th and 17th) and Bay Ridge Avenue to the south (in the upper 60's). You're just misinformed about 34th street being a boundary (like a lot of people). That chunk you refer to is NOT an unnamed neighborhood. It is (and always has been) Sunset Park. This has been the case for at least 150 years. Within the last decade or so, real estate brokers began calling it Greenwood Heights and the South Slope for reasons that are purely racist, so they could jack prices up. However when the neighborhood was all white, made up of Scandanavians, Poles, and Italians (when the Slope was an Irish enclave), no one had any problem accepting Sunset Park's true boundaries.

As far as your former situation, its interesting. 16th and 4th is definitely still Park Slope (albeit the sw corner, but still Park Slope). Not sure what you'd call the area below 4th... Like many of the changes going on in Brooklyn, these arbitrary neighborhood changes (to borders that have officially existed for close to two centuries) are made by and for newcomers which only adds a certain insult to injury.

For the record, Sunset Park's borders designated by the City of Brooklyn (going back way before "the Great Mistake of 1898" when Brooklyn was incorporated into the City of New York) are Bay Ridge Avenue, Prospect Avenue, the water and 8th Ave. That's official. (Official as in, recorded in the Hall of Records, City Hall or wherever they store such designations). Its worth pointing out that even the community board which represents the neighborhood in question (which, if I'm not mistaken, you are a member of), correctly designates that area as Sunset Park.

1:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Justin. Neighborhood boundaries are fluid, not set in stone. I know a longtime Brooklyn resident who refers to the 50s as Bay Ridge. I think it's silly that people get so up in arms about neighborhood parameters. There are much more important things in life to worry about.

2:10 PM  
Blogger jhr said...


There's also a building on 41st streeet , directly across the street from Sunset Park (the park itself that the neighborhood is named for) that has Bay Ridge carved over it. What's in a building name? There's a Manhattan Avenue in Brooklyn. Does that make the neighborhood it runs through part of Manhattan? How about Manhattan Beach, a Brooklyn neighborhood as physically far as possible from the island of Manhattan. Does the name mean that Manhattan Beach is somehow a subset of Manhattan (the way Williamsburg has become)? Of course not.

The Ridge (South Brooklyn's spine) itself that Bay Ridge is named for is actually higher and more prominent in Sunset Park... so what does that mean? Is Midwood high school actually in Midwood?

The anecdote of your ex wife's mother is actually what I'm talking about. After WWII, when Sunset Park's white residents began moving to the suburbs, they were replaced by Puerto Rican immigrants. Whites, left behind, and eager to differentiate and seperate themselves from these newcomers, identified when they could with the two white neighborhoods on either side: Whites in south sunset park (50's and 60's), claimed they lived in Bay Ridge. Whites in north sunset park (along the cemetery), claimed south slope status or even Windsor Terrace...

Racial makeup used to be a much more prevalent neighborhood identifier and was a much bigger deal back in the day. I grew up with someone whose parents bought a gorgeous brown stone on 5th street in Park Slope about 40 years ago for $13,000. The price had been dropped from $15,000 because three black families had recently moved onto the block. The working class Irish family I refer to, couldn't have afforded 15, but was able to swing 13. (My point here, is that racism used to be much more up front and working class whites did everything they could to not identify themselves as living among blacks or Puerto Ricans.) By continuing to trump these border fallacies, people only give creedence (uninentionally) to the racism that spawned them.

2:14 PM  
Blogger jhr said...


Well thanks for so casually shitting all over the history of the neighborhood I grew up in. A neighborhood which lays claim to Brooklyn's most beautiful cemetery, the highest point in Brooklyn, the first co-ops in the country, where Elvis was inducted into the Army, where many of the ships that America fought on in WW II were built. Perhaps you don't care what its called, perhaps you have no problem with Congress changing the name of french fries to freedom fries. Sunset Park is a neighborhood that has its own unique history. As is Bay Ridge, as is Park Slope. As is every other neighborhood. The boundaries ARE vitally important to define the rich history (and not in fact fluid, by any definition).

Where do all these "I believe neighborhood boundaries are fluid" statements coming from? Are the borders of towns fluid? Are the borders of cities fluid? Most wars in history have been started by people who think boundaries are fluid. Pakistan and India, anyone? WW I and WW II were both started because of "fluid" definitions of borders. What is a neighborhood, but a small country?

2:22 PM  
Blogger Gary said...


Since I'm new to Brooklyn (and not a resident of Sunset Park) I'll diplomatically defer to your judgment on the specifics of you nabe's borders.

However, as someone whose educational and professional training has been in history, I think there is substantial historical evidence that boundaries (whether neighborhood or nation) are, indeed somewhat arbitrary and subject to dispute and movement.

Moreover, the answer to your (presumably rhetorical) questions in your previous comment about these things is a resounding "yes":

-- Cities do indeed change their borders, either by annexing unicorporated land or even swallowing other cities whole. Brooklyn, keep in mind, wasn't always the city we know now, even before the 1898 consolidation. (It comprised six or seven smaller, self-contained communities -- Bushwick, Gravesend, Flatbush, New Utrecht, Flatlands, and the village of Brooklyn itself.)

-- National boundaries are particularly fluid. Those of our own nation have changed dozens of times. They can also be imposed on a population, regardless of how those people self-identify. Witness the "scramble for Africa" in the late 19th Century, when European nations divided up a whole continent. And what about disputed borders across the globe today? Cypress, Timor, the Balkans, Korea, the former Soviet Union -- there are plenty of examples of people who define themselves by racial, ethnic, or religious identity before they do by the often capricious and arbitrary imposition of political boundaries. And you cite the example of India and Pakistan, but don't forget these nations (and their boundaries) were essentially created -- imposed -- by western powers during the 1940s, not by the people who lived there, and have more to do with the historical extent of British imperialism than the wishes of the residents.

Anyway, I don't mean to step on any toes or offend anyone's sense of where it is they live. All I'm saying is that things like boundaries aren't chiseled in stone and handed down by the Gods of Geography. We -- the residents of a city or citizens of a country -- are the ones that define these things. And as people change over time, definitions of where they live can too.

3:30 PM  
Blogger Gary said...

A quick addendum to my previous comment:

SP, you're absolutely right about the influences of racism in urban history (geez, look at a place like Detroit, the history of which over the last half-century is essentially defined by it). But regardless of the root causes, the movement of people is a dynamic, constant, ongoing thing -- which illustrates my point, I think, about the fundamentally fluid nature of trying to describe these things.

And just out of curiosity (nothing more), two questions:

1) When was Sunset Park (the actual park) created? From what I understand, that's where the neighborhood got its name, no?

2) You refer to a document where the city "officially" designated the boundaries of SP. What's the nature of this designation? Was it related to taxes? Police precincts? Was it like the "community district" appellation the city uses now?

3:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


This debate reminds of the debate between "strict constructionists" and those that favor more liberal, contextual interpretations of the Constitution. Also see: fundamentalists and The Bible.

In my opinion, the ultimate definition of neighborhood comes from the people who actually live there. Since everyone has a different opinion, it will rarely be possible to define firm boundaries to any nabe -- and that's ok. "Official" definitions will have their place, but what really matters is where people say they live.

I agree that brokers attempts to relabel neighborhoods to associate areas with more desireable areas is odious. I also think it's a bit obnoxious to resist any change (or overlap or inconsistancy) in definitions of neighborhoods. The built environment changes and the people who live in the neighborhoods change, so if it makes more sense to use a different word, why not?

6:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the life of me I don't understand this almost anal retentive notion of neighborhood 'boundaries' and names. Neighborhoods are more state of mind. They are not 'official' or are they a political entity. Years ago in many areas people referred to their area as what parish (Catholic church) they wre near.
Its just a reference.
Get over it. So what if someone calls 17th St Pk Slope or whatever.
When people ask where (what neighborhood) just looking for general reference from what they know. I don't get this obsession.
What, if you move 2 blocks across some mythical 'border' your identity/lifestyle/self-concept suddenly changes?

10:24 AM  
Blogger jhr said...

You're obviously not from here. I'm not trying to start up a whole nativist/immigrant debate, but I couldn't disagree with your statement more. I am presuming that you moved here from somewhere else and only live in Brooklyn because its more affordable than Manhattan. Your viewpoint, while perhaps valid, is alien and insensitive to people who grow up in a neighborhood and then raise families there (very similar to the notion of people who grow up and stay in a small town their whole life, the big difference being in Brooklyn vs. bumfuck, USA) The rich history, the changes and yes the borders are all vitally important to a neighborhood's identity. And if you think all neighborhoods are the same, you are incredibly and sadly mistaken. Architecture, ethnicity, landmarks, unique stores, businesses and industries vary vastly from neighborhood to neighborhood. All contribute to the unique identity of each neighborhood. I have very little interest in what goes on in the rest of America. My country is New York. My state is Brooklyn. And my town is Sunset Park. I gather you live in an apartment for a year or two and then move. You don't know your neighbors. You don't see the same people every day, over a period of decades, see them get married, have kids, die etc. You don't know the restaurant owners and bodega owners and the names of their kids. You go "home" for holidays, but live somewhere else. For those of us born and raised here, the neighborhood is almost an extension of the family.

12:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

SP, that's horribly unfair. Leaving aside the "you weren't born here so you aren't allowed to comment on your neighborhood" angle, your argument of why boundaries are important fits in perfectly well with Gary's argument about evolving borders. If somebody is born on 25th St. now, and is told their entire life that they live in the neighborhood of Greenwood Heights, and develop bonds with everyone else who thinks they live in Greenwood Heights, and raises their kids in a neighborhood called Greenwood Heights, then do their experiences not count because you grew up in the same neighborhood believing it to be called Sunset Park? 400 years ago it was probably called something in a completely different language, and you can't invalidate the Native American families existences because you call the land something else, and another generation calling it something different doesn't invalidate your childhood. Accusing Gary of effectively being indifferent to history and his neighborhood is wildly out of line.

6:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stumbled across this late in the game, but I and SP have debated this on other blogs, to again reiterate and sound like a broken's some info AGAIN, that should help to end this particular threads' debate on "Greenwood Heights:"

Greenwood Hts. is derived from "The Heights of the Green Wood" on maps which predates the Battle of Bklyn (Battle of LI) in 1776.

It was also known as the "Heights of Gowan" by the British. The Name "Greenwood Hts, Green-Wood Hts. or Hts. of Greenwood" have been used off and on for HUNDREDS of years. Dropped by city zoning maps back in the 1960's, NOW recognized by City Planning after the South park Slope/Greenwood Hts. rezoning in Nov. 2005.

So, call Community Board 7, City Planning or one of our local electeds and ask them about "Greenwood Hts." 'Nuff said.

That aside, who cares? It's a nice nabe, as is Sunset Park & the South Slope. SP, Get over it. It's official, according to the city.

In addition, seems that the area was also under debate and CALLED Greenwood Heights all the way back in 1987, according the NYT:

"Manuel Scharf, a Brooklyn developer, knows that home buyers like Park Slope. But he concedes that his new town-house development, called the Villas at Park Slope, is actually situated in a fringe area that some call Park Slope South and others call Greenwood Heights."

OK, more trolling for info. Hope that helps end the debate.

10:29 AM  

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