Stop using ‘Brooklyn’ to mean hipster neighborhoods

Elite-oriented outlets typically only cover the borough's most affluent, Manhattan-adjacent neighborhoods

Last week the Daily Beast trolled the entire internet with an article claiming, absurdly, that “the Upper East Side is now cooler than Brooklyn.” In so doing, it epitomized one of the media’s worst habits: treating the entirety of Brooklyn as if it were only a few of its neighborhoods, and all of its wildly diverse 2.5 million residents as if they all belonged to one particular, affluent band of newcomers to the borough.

The article is replete with references to “Brooklyn restaurants” and “Brooklyn style,” that assume “Brooklyn” means only young, educated, trend-setting hipsters and crunchy yuppies who inhabit a fraction of the borough’s neighborhoods. The story even dismisses the existence of many of the people who actually do live in the very neighborhoods that it discusses. Author Tom Teodorczuk quotes Mark Dorosz, a random “internet entrepreneur” who lives on the Upper East Side, saying, “We’re infused by the Hispanic wave from Harlem rather than gentrified bullshit from Bushwick.” In fact, according to the 2010 Census, Bushwick is 65 percent Hispanic, versus only 7 percent of the Upper East Side. Even if you want to treat the claim as qualitative rather than quantitative, a short walk around each neighborhood will dispel the notion that the Upper East Side is more Hispanic-influenced than Bushwick.

Likewise, Dorosz asserts, “Brooklyn is more segregated than the Upper East Side.” As this map unambiguously shows, Brooklyn is less segregated than the Upper East Side. Clearly, Dorosz has no idea what he is talking about and neither Teodorczuk nor his editor bothered to verify these claims before repeating them.

This story is not an outlier. It is just an extreme example of an increasing tendency in magazines, newspapers, and websites: using “Brooklyn” and variations on it as a shorthand for “hipster Brooklyn” or “gentrified Brooklyn” as if no other Brooklyn existed.

Elite-oriented outlets are free to only cover Brooklyn’s most affluent, Manhattan-adjacent neighborhoods: the artsy North Brooklyn of Williamsburg and Greenpoint and the leafy brownstone neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights and Boerum Hill, though doing so leaves a host of compelling tales untold. But it is a journalist’s responsibility to be precise and accurate: If they mean only gentrified Brooklyn or northwestern Brooklyn, they should say so. If they don’t actually mean all of Brooklyn, then they shouldn’t use the word as a shorthand that insults the overwhelming majority of Brooklyn’s residents.

When reporters do use “Brooklyn” to refer to only its fanciest precincts, the result is often misleading or simply incorrect reporting. Take, for example, the June 11 AM New York article “Brooklyn rents skyrocket in May: Report.” The report from real estate firm MNS that the article summarized only measures rents in Brooklyn’s most desirable neighborhoods. Look at the MNS map and you can see that it covers only northern and western Brooklyn, leaving out most of the borough, especially its more affordable southern and eastern perimeter. The article makes no mention of that. If AM New York simply added a modifier, such as saying “north and west Brooklyn” or “in Brooklyn’s hottest neighborhoods,” the story would be accurate.

This erasure of most of Brooklyn and its residents is epitomized in New York magazine’s June 1 piece on Manhattan’s Chinatown “Feeling More and More Like Brooklyn” because of the arrival of hip, new non-Chinese businesses. But there is nothing inherently “Brooklyn” as opposed to “Manhattan” about the trendy restaurants sprouting up near Canal Street. Manhattan still has more such venues than Brooklyn does, especially per capita. And according to the 2010 Census, Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood contains the city’s largest Chinatown, with more Chinese Americans than the more famous one in Manhattan. So New York is implying that the Chinese Americans in Brooklyn either do not count, do not exist, or aren’t really in Brooklyn. Instead, they could have said, “gentrified Brooklyn” or “on Smith Street,” or whatever it is that they mean.

This problem also occurs in otherwise accurate and enjoyable pieces when writers quote a source talking about Brooklyn as if most of it did not exist and they neglect to correct the record. For instance, in 2012 GQ quoted Audrey Gelman, who was then the press secretary for Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, referring to Red Hook as “possibly the hardest neighborhood to get to in Brooklyn.” This isn’t remotely true, because while Red Hook has no subway stop, it is right on New York Harbor, a 15-minute ferry ride from Wall Street and a short bus or bike ride from the major transit hub in Downtown Brooklyn. Deep southern Brooklyn neighborhoods that also don’t have subway access, such as Mill Basin and Marine Park, are much harder to reach from Manhattan or Downtown Brooklyn. But Gelman didn’t mean Brooklyn, she meant “Brooklyn.” If one must quote her saying that, then inject an arch aside like, “Gerritsen Beach might have something to say about that,” or just point out the objective falsehood.

Then there are the related mentions of “Brooklynites,” as if the term meant people who are rich, educated, mostly white, and originally from elsewhere. A glance at Census data shows that only 36 percent of Brooklynites are non-Hispanic white, less than 30 percent have a bachelor’s degree, and the median household income is only $45,000 per year. Nearly 40 percent of Brooklynites are foreign-born, and 23 percent live in poverty.

And yet writers frequently make blanket assertions about Brooklynites that presume they are all recent liberal arts college graduates who sport tattoos and vintage clothing. For instance, the New York Observer last year wrote that it made sense to see Brooklynites packing up and moving to the suburbs because, “The Brooklyn ideal is not the urban careerist, but the rural crafter. The most hardcore Brooklynites are the ones who never really wanted to be in the city in the first place.”

But the Observer doesn’t actually mean Brooklynites. It means “Brooklynites”—people who listen to indie rock and distill their own moonshine. When I say “hardcore Brooklynites,” I do not mean the people who most enthusiastically embrace the hipster artisanal ethos. I mean people who grew up in Brooklyn, or have lived there for decades, love it, and know it deeply. My definition is journalistically legitimate, and the Observer’s is not, because my definition does not exclude all the people who live in Brooklyn but do not conform to a shorthand stereotype.

Insofar as the Observer only sought to analyze a group of hipsters, it did so perceptively. It needed only some acknowledgment that it was not talking about either Brooklyn or Brooklynites, but rather a certain subset of each. (The Observer is especially prone to ignoring the Brooklyn outside its narrow lens: Its May package on “Brooklyn Influentials” included four rock bands and no mention of the numerous up-and-coming hip hop stars native to Brooklyn like Joey Bada$$ or Dyme-a-Duzin. It shouldn’t presume that its extremely white taste reflects the entirety of the borough’s offerings.)

Many “Brooklyn” stories even try to turn the word into an adjective or verb. The New York Times reported in 2011 on “the Brooklynization of the Hudson Valley, the steady hipness creep with its locavore cuisine, its Williamsburgian bars, its Gyrotonic exercise, feng shui consultants and deep clay art therapy.” Why is locavore cuisine and yoga necessarily the epitome “Brooklyn,” rather than borscht and Russian baths, falafel and mosques, or jerk chicken and a drum circle? The Hudson Valley is roughly 74 percent non-Hispanic white, and so if it were to be truly Brooklynized, that would mean diversified, not hipsterized.

Many journalists might respond to all this with an eyeroll, noting that the elite readership of these publications knows exactly what the writers mean when they say “Brooklyn.” But there’s a word for that attitude: It’s called elitism. Some would even call it classist, or racist, a byproduct of the fact that non-whites are severely underrepresented in newsrooms.

And the proliferation of inaccurate statements does lead to inaccurate perceptions. I recently got into an argument with an editor at a prestigious New York-based magazine, who claimed that Brooklyn was all rich and white. He conceded that was untrue when I brought up Brooklyn’s many majority black and lower-income neighborhoods, like East New York and Brownsville. But how did he get this false impression in the first place? Perhaps by reading so many articles that pretend the rich white minority in Brooklyn were the only people there.

To see how journalistically unsound the practice is, consider the following thought experiment: What if a New York-focused publication decided to talk about Brooklyn as if it consisted only of its Caribbean-American neighborhoods, like East Flatbush and Canarsie? The same readers and journalists who take it as a given that “Brooklyn” can be casually lumped into just one of its demographic slices would surely find it confusing and disconcerting if the group chosen wasn’t their own.

There are plenty of examples of publications—sometimes even the same ones—adding appropriate modifiers before “Brooklyn.” New York magazine has run items referring to “gentrified Brooklyn.” When Curbed covered an MNS report, it correctly identified the data as referring only to “northwest Brooklyn.” All that’s needed is for anyone who covers New York to make it a policy to always be so specific.

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Ben Adler is a staff writer for Grist and a contributor to CJR.