(a study in contrasts: the photos that accompanied pieces about Crown Heights from the NYT's Sunday Real Estate Section, above, and today's Metro Section).
Until Sunday, the New York Times hadn't been out to Franklin Avenue since 2009, when they sent a reporter to cover (and help manufacture) the "Franklin Avenue Coffee Wars." As of this week, however, Crown Heights is officially on the Grey Lady's radar. On Sunday, we landed on the front page of the Real Estate section, paired with Carroll Gardens and praised for "a trove of brownstones and row houses" in an article aimed at prospective homeowners entitled "So You're Priced Out. Now What?" Today, we're in the Metro Section, where Liz Robbins paints a more complicated and thorough portrait of the neighborhood in article titled "Unease Lingers Amid a Rebirth in Crown Heights," which comes complete with its own Franklin Avenue slideshow. Robbins's reporting does a nice job of capturing the voices of different residents and business owners (love the quotes and images from the Franklin Avenue Merchants) and gets at many of the challenges and contradictions Crown Heights faces. That won't keep ILFA from nitpicking (Times articles are blogging gold, after all), but I do so in the spirit of furthering an interesting conversation, not tearing the article down.
The Crown Heights Riots loom large in this piece, which is no surprise - most New Yorkers still free-associate "Crown Heights" with "riot," and we just observed their 20th anniversary this summer. That said, I wonder a bit about Robbins's contention that gentrification on Franklin Avenue is "set on scarred earth" on account of the riots, or that "an undercurrent of unease, suspicion, and resentment from some longtime residents, a legacy of the riots." The photos in the slideshow make this claim as well, but somewhat misleadingly: the 8 photos of Crown Heights today are on Franklin, while the photo from the riots looks to me like Utica Ave, over two miles east.
From what I understand (and to be fair, I wasn't here when they happened), the epicenter of the riots was considerably east of Franklin Avenue. That doesn't mean they weren't a watershed event for residents of Franklin at the time, or that people weren't affected by them. But having spent four years writing about Crown Heights and having watched how the riots were commemorated this summer, outsiders are much more likely than locals to use the "riot" as an explanation or frame for all things Crown Heights, both past sufferings and current changes.
Franklin was indeed "scarred earth" in the 1980s and early 1990s, but that wasn't really a result of the riots (things were bad well before rioting began in August of 1991). Rather, the riots, like the drug dealing Robbins mentions, were symptoms of massive, systematic metropolitan disinvestment in neighborhoods like Crown Heights. For decades, Central Brooklyn experienced real-estate and banking redlining, urban deindustrialization, massive unemployment, the reduction of much-needed city services after the collapse of the urban welfare state amid the fiscal crises of the 1970s, and the resulting rising crime, decreasing in educational and economic opportunity, and declining living conditions. Locals fought hard against this onslaught, creating major institutions like the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation and Medgar Evers College and working through much smaller community organizations and block clubs like the Crow Hill Community Association to improve streets, schools, and safety. As Robbins notes, they redoubled their efforts after the riots, and their efforts are major reason why Crown Heights is changing today. Insofar as there is "unease, suspicion, and resentment" (and Robbins is absolutely right that these feelings exist, and she does a great job of finding these voices), it's not, in my experience, so much a legacy of the riots as a feeling that after years of fighting without the city's support to improve their neighborhood, longtime residents are now being priced out on account of these improvements (and, in some cases, the sense the city is using services selectively - impact zones, charter schools - to serve new arrivals at the expense of longtime locals). As Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries puts it while discussing his opposition to the re-branding of Crown Heights at the end of Robbins' article: “The collective efforts of the black and Jewish neighbors are what made Crown Heights the destination and the attractive neighborhood it is today.” Attempts to whitewash or ignore these efforts, or the displacement of these people who worked so hard for so long, seem to be very real and very fair sources of resentment.
One other thing I absolutely must point out, because it's a common mistake that can be completely misleading and drives me up the wall: the white population around Franklin Avenue has absolutely NOT "increased 15% in the past ten years, according to the 2010 census." A 15% increase is a relatively mild thing - adding three people to a group of 20 is a fifteen percent increase. In the four census tracts that border Franklin Avenue between Eastern Parkway and Atlantic Avenue, the percentage of the population that was white in 2010 was between 16-28%, which must be what the article is trying to say. However, as there were very few white residents in these census tracts in 2000, the increase in the white population in these four tracts from 2000 to 2010 was between 350-1,198% (you can see this plain as day on the New York Times census map). Another way to say this would be to say that the white population has quadrupled (in the tract bordered by Franklin, Classon, Park, and Eastern) or has increased twelve-fold (in the next tract over, between Franklin, Rogers, Park, and Eastern). The black population, during the same period, has experienced a nearly-uniform 30% decline, which means that almost a third of the black residents who lived in these four tracts in 2000 don't live here anymore (at least - it could be more than that due to internal turnover within the Black population over the decade, of course).
Stats mistakes aside, an interesting article. Thoughts?