(This is the second in a series of Exit Interviews that ILFA is soliciting. The first can be found here.)
Sonja Sharp over at DNAInfo did a very kind piece about ILFA wrapping up on Tuesday (my own "exit interview" of sorts) and it encouraged me to get back on the horse with this whole "wrap-up" thing. One of the great joys of writing ILFA over the past several years has been the conversations that spilt out across the local blogosphere, from this blog to local sites including Nostrand Park, Epichorus, and Brooklyn Born, and from there into the posts and comment threads of bigger sites like Brownstoner, Curbed, DNAInfo, and Gothamist. I've enjoyed cross-postings, links, and back-and-forth banter with all of these sites (and others), but in terms of consistency, longevity, and similarity of focus on northwestern Crown Heights, I've most frequently found myself in conversation with the good people of Brooklynian's Crown Heights and Prospect Lefferts Gardens Forum.
Brooklynian's forum is a message board, of course, and thus isn't the product of a single writer or editorial vision. Nonetheless, since March of 2006, whynot_31 has provided an impressive measure of their content. ILFA's proud to average 4 or 5 posts a week, but whynot has posted over 18,000 times. For those scoring at home, that's north of six postings per day, or more than one post every three hours (if they were posted at regular intervals), for the past seven and a half years. Now that, folks, is commitment. Whynot's dog serves as his avatar, but is also an important content generator, as a good portion of whynot's reporting on the neighborhood is researched while they're out for walks.
ILFA and whynot (who also holds the title of most-frequent-ILFA-commentor as MikeF) have just enough in common - not-so-new-ish arrivals with experience in non-profits and city services and more than a passing interest in the dynamics of neighborhood change - to engage in robust debate on everything from census statistics to documentaries. We certainly don't always agree, and we differ significantly in our general tone and style, but one of the things I enjoy about inhabiting the local blogsophere, as opposed to the giant comment threads full of trolls and ranters, is that these debates are suffused with a measure of mutual (if occasionally grudging, eye-rolling, there-you-go-again) respect. While there are plenty of people who like to shoot it out online (and we certainly do), whynot and ILFA have also conversed and collaborated in the real world, most recently on the CHCA Town Halls last spring. Thus, it was only appropriate, as I wind this thing down, to sit down and chat with whynot about the past, present, and future of Brooklynian and his take on the ongoing reinvention of Franklin Avenue.
Brooklynian started out as a blog, Daily Heights, in 2003. The readership, cultivated by the founder at Soda, Mooney's (now Sharlene's) and other local watering holes, was centered in North Park Slope and Prospect Heights, comprised of folks in their late 20s and early 30s who were, at that time, renting at the edge of gentrifying Brooklyn in the vicinity of Vanderbilt Avenue. Franklin was a similar place when ILFA started up in 2008, and whynot thinks it was comparable to Kingston Avenue today, ten years on and a mile and a half to the east.
As Daily Heights evolved into the Brooklynian message board, it acquired a loyal following of regulars who plotted frequent happy hours on its pages. The boards also attracted local businesses: by whynot's estimate, close to 1/3 of the business owners along Vanderbilt were regular readers and commentors by 2007. "They were as nervous as we were" he recalls, and wanted to know "did we make a good decision moving here?"
Whynot_31 wrote the first of his 18,000 postings in March of 2006, after finding $400 down the block from where someone had been shot. He asked if anyone knew what had happened to the victim; if he had died, whynot felt the money should go toward funeral expenses (the victim lived). The replies he received include personal messages from those with a professional stake in the matter. The exchange captures one element of the Brooklynian message boards that's remained constant over the past decade: discussion about crime, often watched rather carefully by law enforcement professionals (some of whom were also regulars). As whynot remembers, the 77th Precinct (which stretched, until recently, from Flatbush to Ralph Avenue) "had more important things to do" further east in Crown Heights, and "we received no police protection." This didn't so much bother the Brooklynians as galvanize them, and some regular posters served as a sort of informal neighborhood watch. As whynot remembers, "we made it easy for the police to do their job." He recounted some of these efforts recently in this thread, as what had once been a deli known for attracting violence and police raids became Gladys, on the corner of Lincoln and Franklin.
Through the years, Brooklynian's readership has moved east with gentrification, providing both constant novelty (there's always a new bar opening somewhere) and a certain sort of consistency. When I spun one of the questions I often get (what's the role of a blog, anyway?) off to whynot, he noted that first-time readers and posters on Brooklynian are, for the most part, "starving and scared." Insofar as the Brooklynians have a role, they "make the scared feel safe" (sometimes with heavy doses of get-real sarcasm). They also provide something of a sounding board for local businesses: as whynot put it, "we tell people if they suck, but we'll give them a chance to improve" Unlike Yelpers, whynot and company often pair their online reviews with in-person chats, in an effort to express a measure of sincerity about their comments, and their willingness to come back to a place if it does, indeed, improve.
Whynot will admit that regular Brooklynians have "a bit of an edge" that puts some folks off and has led to plenty of accusations of hard-heartedness and schadenfreude, particularly when neighborhood changes have upset people. The moderators (unlike ILFA, Brooklynian moderates comments) don't tolerate too much racism or nastiness, but if the site's regulars have an angle, it's a pro-change one, for the most part. While they're not surprised that this offends some people, and while they certainly welcome posts from people with rival opinions, they're aggressive in their defense of their right to exercise their preferences as they see fit.
In terms of readership, whynot reports that Brooklynian peaked during 2007 and 2008, amassing around 500 unique visits a day and as many as 50 people actively on the boards at any one time. Today, those numbers have dropped to closer to 150 unique visits with 4 or 5 folks patrolling the comment threads. Some of this can be attributed to longtime, frequent posters moving away or otherwise disengaging, and some to the glut of new coverage of Crown Heights, which has, at this point, been thoroughly discovered by the major blogs and news outlets. It's also part of a generational shift away from the independent world of internet message boards and toward discussions on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. While Brooklynian has no plans to shut down, and whynot has no plans to stop posting, the decline prompted me to ask for a pre-emptive postmortem of sorts. What, if anything, could be learned from 18,000+ posts on Brooklynian, about the message board and about the neighborhood?
While whynot is firmly in the camp that changes in Crown Heights are not particularly special or unique (any more so than the gentrification of the Lower East Side or Williamsburg were and are) he did note that Brooklynian had been a regular reminder of the value of "interpersonal capital." The boards have attracted lots of people with particular expertise - lawyers (ADAs and public defenders alike), cops, building inspectors, council members' staff, and others - and the forum has provided an opportunity to share that knowledge and, in certain cases, to make use of it in specific ways. With respect to gentrification at large, whynot note that it's not just the individual class position of the newly-arrived that drives change, but their ability to act collectively, whether to acquire property, demand an impact zone, or support a local business. While he'd agree that some changes are a product of the relative wealth of newcomers and the choices they make as individuals, their access to education (and similar socializing experiences) confers the ability to navigate and negotiate everything from jointly-held leases to the mazes that are municipal agencies. This kind of middle-class collective action affects not just local businesses, but also city policies and service delivery.
This, incidentally, is a point that ILFA and whynot agree on: newcomers often wield great power, not just in the way they move through gentrifying spaces but on account of their ability to leverage education and expertise collectively. Where we differ, as I noted above, has been on the question of style. Both in his local work and his writing, whynot eschews moral questions beyond what is and isn't legal. He'll happily offer guides to paths he knows, and he'll direct people to those who have similar expertise, but what people do with that, or with their own knowledge, is entirely up to them. As any ILFA reader knows, I'm much more the bully-pulpit type; I've got an idea of justice that's, in a way, all my own (though I could go on about where I'm getting it from), and I've used this blog to articulate it and push for it.
Despite these differences (or perhaps because of them), whynot and ILFA have always had plenty to talk about. One place we'll be doing some of that talking is at the 9th Annual Brooklynian Festivus gathering, which takes place on December 15th. If you'd like to meet some of the characters that haunt your browsers in the flesh, it's as good a place as any.