The Brooklyn Renaissance

Buffalo, New York. Cleveland, Ohio. Detroit, Michigan.

What do these cities have in common? Many decades ago, they were all dominant metropolises within the United States. Buffalo, for instance, was America’s eighth largest municipality in 1900; Detroit and Cleveland were its fourth and sixth largest cities in 1940.

All of these cities are now striving, with differing levels of success, to reclaim aspects of their former glories. If they are seeking a role model, they might wish to consider the recent accomplishments of a borough that has not existed as an independent city since 1898.

The Borough of Kings

The City of Brooklyn joined with Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island to form New York City two years before the advent of the twentieth century. Prior to that time, the City of Kings had been the third or fourth largest city in the United States for many decades.

While still a city in its own right, Brooklyn became world renowned for its architecture, its public works, its cultural resources, and its mass entertainment options. The stately Promenade of Brooklyn Heights, the soaring towers of the Brooklyn Bridge, the high brow offerings of the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the public walkways of Prospect Park and the Coney Island beach and boardwalk all became icons of the American experience during the nineteenth century.

And throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the city-turned-borough continued to thrive, producing global celebrities like Woody Allen, Neil Diamond, George and Ira Gershwin, Rudy Giuliani, Rita Hayworth, Lena Horne, Larry King, Arthur Miller, Mickey Rooney, Jerry Seinfeld, Neil Simon, and Barbra Streisand

… and that was only during the first half of the century!

The Decline

It is difficult to pinpoint a precise moment when Brooklyn began its slow but inexorable decline. Some historians cite the year 1955, when the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper folded after more than a century of publication. Others note 1957, when the legendary baseball Dodgers abandoned its ancestral Ebbets Field home and moved across the nation to Los Angeles.

It is also difficult to note the exact moment when the borough hit its nadir. Perhaps that occurred in 1964, when Coney Island based Steeplechase Park was sold to real estate developer Fred Trump, the father of today’s Donald Trump. Or perhaps it occurred in 1991/92, when Brooklyn born heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson went to prison for raping a teenager, and the independent film Straight Out of Brooklyn was honored at the Sundance Film Festival for its bleak portrayal of the Brooklyn housing projects.

Indeed, in the last half of the twentieth century, Brooklyn was easily comparable to Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit as a region in decline. Nevertheless, the first decade of the twenty first century has presented Brooklyn with a very different fate.

An Era of Revival

Although the recent decade has been one of economic and social decline for many regions in the United States, it has actually represented a fairly prosperous period for Brooklyn. Hotels have opened throughout the borough. New parks have opened to the public, and entire new neighborhoods have sprung up along the lengthy shoreline. In addition, CBS has even launched a hit television series about a pair of aspiring women who are seeking success in the neighborhood of Williamsburg.

This recent era of revival may have peaked this past week with the announcement that the New York Islanders, a professional hockey team from Nassau County, will move to Brooklyn and join basketball’s Nets in the new Barclay’s Arena. The Nets have been lionized as a contemporary replacement for the baseball Dodgers; the addition of the Islanders has now been perceived as the proverbial “icing on the cake” of the borough’s renaissance.

But why has Brooklyn been able to regain its historical prominence when so many nineteenth century cities have failed to do so? To what can it attribute its new found prominence?

The Shadows of Manhattan

For centuries, Brooklyn has lingered in the shadows of Manhattan Island. Its proximity to the Great Metropolis has been perceived as an impediment to its development; in fact, some historians believe that the single most damaging event in Brooklyn’s history was its “Great Mistake of 1898” to merge with the other four boroughs.

Nevertheless, that very proximity may have served Brooklyn well during the past decade. Manhattan has continued to defy the national economic malaise, and has grown into what many believe is the world’s preeminent “global city.” Brooklyn has undeniably grown because of waves of new residents who have ventured out from the island of Manhattan in search of less expensive (and yet equally hospitable) neighborhoods.

In other words, a liability in the past era may have now emerged as an asset in the current era. Regrettably, if sheer proximity to Manhattan is the primary driver of Brooklyn’s success, then Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit may need to look elsewhere for a developmental role model.

Olympics: Economic Winners and Losers

Each Olympic Games produces its share of sporting winners and losers. Each winner experiences the pleasure of mounting a podium and receiving a glittery medal, while each loser takes solace in the knowledge that (s)he has competed against the world’s greatest athletes.

But the cost of staging the Summer Olympics has soared beyond $15 billion dollars. With that much money at stake, each Games inevitably produces economic winners and losers as well. So how can we distinguish the winners from the losers? And what can we learn from them?

The Winners

Athletes who win gold medals often advance to careers of fame and fortune. From Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie to American decathlon athlete Bruce Jenner, Olympic champions have frequently become global media celebrities in Hollywood films, Madison Avenue marketing campaigns, and other commercial endeavors.

Global corporations often emerge as winners too. The upcoming James Bond film Skyfall undoubtedly profited immensely by the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Olympiad. The event featured a parachute jump — indeed, a literal “sky fall” — by characters portraying the British spy 007 and Queen Elizabeth II.

The East End of London will also benefit by hosting the main Olympic Stadium and several other facilities. In fact, Olympic organizers convinced an initially skeptical public to support their plans because the new venues would rejuvenate a neighborhood in need of development funds. Soccer star David Beckham, who spent his childhood in the East End, has been widely praised for working vigorously to bring the Olympiad to his boyhood home.

The Losers

On the flip side of the roster of economic winners, of course, reside the economic losers of the Olympiad. First and foremost, every losing athlete who dedicated years of hard work to physical training would have been better served, in retrospect, by engaging in more financially productive endeavors.

The same principle applies to the government of the host city. In order to minimize construction costs and post-event maintenance expenditures, many of London’s Olympic events have been scheduled in temporary structures that will be torn down or dramatically downsized at the end of the Games. In fact, the basketball arena was even offered to be shipped to Rio de Janeiro for use during the 2016 Olympiad!

Although the use of temporary facilities may minimize costs in the short term, it may nevertheless result in the loss of rental and tourism revenues in the long term. Unlike Montreal, which recouped some costs by renting its Olympic Stadium to the baseball Expos for over 25 years, and Beijing, which now sells tours of its iconic Bird’s Nest Stadium, Londoners will be unable to enjoy any Olympic facilities that are torn down or sold off.

London vs. Athens

The primary question, of course, is whether Britain would have been better served if its leaders had dedicated a decade of planning time and billions of British pounds to other endeavors. Considering the British government’s commitment to an austerity oriented fiscal budget, as well as the recent slide of the national economy into an extended economic recession, it is reasonable to believe that the Olympic expenditures are inappropriate in nature.

Of course, Olympic supporters can retort that the global visibility of the Games could not have been achieved by any other means. They can also assert that, as a one-time only event, the Games do not require the type of long term spending commitments that would otherwise have been necessitated by massive expansions of social service programs.

Nevertheless, with economic conditions in Greece deteriorating so soon after its government’s massive fiscal commitment to host the 2004 Olympic Games, one cannot help but wonder whether Britain has placed itself at risk of experiencing a similar fate. Although London possesses incomparably greater financial resources than Athens, it is not immune to the vicissitudes of the global economic markets.

The Big Apple’s Experience

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, a city that lost its own bid for the 2012 Games may now consider that defeat to represent a victory in disguise. New York City, after all, had (like London) developed a proposal that featured massive construction projects in neighborhoods that needed such funds.

But those Big Apple neighborhoods have been growing more prosperous as a result of private initiatives that emerged in the wake of the failed Olympic bid. The Far West Side of Manhattan, which would have served as the site of New York’s Olympic Stadium, has been revitalized by the renovation of the High Line elevated linear park. And the East River waterfront, which would have hosted the Olympic Village, has experienced gentrification in neighborhoods such as Long Island City in Queens and Williamsburg in Brooklyn.

Would London’s East End have experienced such development without a victorious Olympic bid? Perhaps you may find it difficult to envision such an outcome. And yet no one could have predicted that Brooklyn’s real estate values would ever rival those in Manhattan … as they now do.