More on the limits of anti-gentrification politics: Brooklyn is getting poorer

I’m trying to make more of an effort, whenever I write or talk about gentrification, to point out that the real issue is larger: that gentrification is only one aspect of income segregation – specifically, the part where the borders between rich and poor neighborhoods shift – and that the real problem is that we have such sharply defined rich and poor neighborhoods to begin with.

I might also throw in that income segregation used to be much less severe.

Anyway, one problem with our obsession with gentrification as the end-all of urban equity issues is that it discourages us from talking about other important things happening in our cities. In some instances, gentrification has become such a dominating narrative that it has completely erased broader trends that we really ought to be concerned about.

Case in point: Brooklyn is getting poorer.

Does that shock you? Were you under the impression that all of Brooklyn was in the process of becoming one giant pickle boutique? That would be forgivable, given that nearly every article filed from Brooklyn for a decade or so has been about gentrification. But no.

I recently ran across a post from data-crunching blog extraordinaire Xenocrypt, which noted that from 1999 to 2011, median household income in Brooklyn fell from $42,852 to $42,752. That’s not a huge drop, obviously, but when you consider that the national median income rose over the same period from about $50,000 to $56,000, it’s not at all a stretch to say that the borough is falling behind, economically. (UPDATE: Actually, I misread the numbers and the national median income fell from $56,000 to $50,000. So Brooklyn is actually catching up, sort of, to the country as a whole; but it still got poorer in absolute terms, and the broader point of this post – that in large parts of the borough, economic stagnation, not overheating, is the bigger problem – still stands.) Moreover, if you map (as Xenocrypt did) the borough’s neighborhoods by change in median income, you get a really striking picture:


…which is that, indeed, a good three-fifths or so of Brooklyn is actually getting poorer. Have you read any articles about that? No, I will wager that you have not. Neither have I. I strongly suspect that is because they don’t exist – at least not in any outlet that might be considered mainstream.

And what about housing prices?

Brooklyn Gentrification Map: Increase, Decrease in Home Values 2004 vs. 2012

So in large parts of Brooklyn, real estate prices are falling.

I have nothing particularly intelligent to say about this – these maps were news to me – except that it’s maybe the most dramatic example I’ve seen yet of just how limiting our fixation on gentrification is. I mean that both in a sort of journalistic sense, in that we’re being deprived of an accurate sense of what is actually going on in our cities, as well as from an advocate’s perspective: how can we claim to be working for fairer, more equitable, etc., cities, if we’re ignorant of their most basic economic and demographic changes?

15 thoughts on “More on the limits of anti-gentrification politics: Brooklyn is getting poorer

  1. One thing that I noticed, I’d like to see this map overlayed with an MTA subway map. Especially in the southeastern areas of Brooklyn, it seems the area that has the biggest declines in home prices seems to correlate somewhat with sparse subway lines (and possibly low frequencies)

    1. Actually, looking at the source, the numbers are all in constant 2011 dollars, so Brooklyn stayed in place, but the rest of the US went down from $55,000 to $50,000 rather than going up from $50,000 to $55,000. Even from 2000 to 2007, i.e. peak of business cycle to peak of business cycle, real median household incomes slightly declined, and going all the way to 2011, counting the recession and the non-recovery, shows a substantial decrease in national living standards.

      1. From a longer term perspective from 1990 to now, NYC as a whole is poorer than now relative to the rest of the country:,-1990-2011.pdf

        table 10 gives a good breakdown. Might be sample size issues, the 2010 and 2011 change seems rather high and too random. And of course, much of it is from poorer immigrants moving in, for example the Mexican population

  2. You should check out, a web magazine where, full disclosure, I’m a story editor. Our aim is to deliver deeply-reported stories on the borough’s economic, cultural, and political issues, which get short shrift elsewhere.

  3. This is definitely interesting. I suspect that most people’s perceptions of Brooklyn are skewed because they only think of the part of Brooklyn that is close to Manhattan and don’t realize how large the borough is. Also, the neighborhoods that are declining the most in southern Brooklyn, in which Hispanic and Asian immigrants are moving to formerly all-white neighborhoods. Most of the decline is probably due to immigration, but these neighborhoods are still solidly middle-class. Also, the poorest non-gentrifying neighborhoods in Brooklyn, such as Brownsville and East New York, are staying about the same. Because there are more neighborhoods that are seeing abrupt shifts from poverty to affluence than abrupt shifts from affluence to poverty, people tend to notice gentrification more than gradual urban decline.

  4. Immigration is definitely playing a role here. Interesting that the NY Post just had a piece about Asian Brooklyn and how it is a gateway neighborhood into the middle class, but as we see, incomes are declining probably because of neighborhood transformation.

    The housing prices map seems to leave out rental costs. I’d be interested to see if the same trend applies.

  5. Benjamin – what you said about declines correlating with Asian & Hispanic immigrants isn’t supported by the data on Sunset Park, where prices are up 21% and there is still plenty of Chinese and Central American immigration. It is worth nothing, however, that Sunset Park has the highest rate of residential overcrowding in Brooklyn. For all of NYC, only Jackson Heights in Queens is worse.

    Michael – I see no correlation with transit lines. Coney Island is up while East New York, Canarsie, and Brownsville are down. All three neighborhoods are at the ends of frequent subway routes. But East Flatbush, Flatlands, Bergen Beach, and Mill Basin all lack subway routes, and their price declines are not significantly different from neighborhoods like similarly far away from Manhattan, like Canarsie, that do have the subway.

    Coney Island is the really interesting case here. What happened to cause the price rise?

    1. An increase in residents, even poorer ones, might expected to raise home prices due to demand outstripping supply. I think what Benjamin was referring to was a decline in income. I don’t think immigration has made Sunset Park any poorer, as it has been poor the last few decades. Foreign born % was already 46% in 2000 for Sunset Park. You can find rent and home price information here. If the numbers are right, rents barely budged from 2005 to 2010, though that masks large variation between neighborhood. Growth in housing units (7.5%) from 2000 to 2010 far outpaced population growth (1.6%).

      I think this where the data behind the maps come from. From the link, it appears there was a huge boom in housing prices borough-wide from 2000 to 2005, and a moderate decline following it. Those maps use near housing boom peak levels of real estate prices as the starting point. The decline isn’t that surprising, as the whole nation had a housing price decline. Gentrification was so strong in NW Brooklyn that it offset the general decline. As Alon Levy pointed out, once you look at constant dollars, Brooklyn actually did better than the nation as a whole, and ignoring the gentrified neighborhoods, maybe about the same.

  6. I call foul on that map: look at the slippery middle category of “stagnant.” The natural place to mark a boundary between declining and rising price would be 0% change, wouldn’t it? But the map maker chose to use “-10% to 10%.” But what is worse, s/he decided to color that segment in a color very close to the “decrease” category, and nothing like the “increase” category. So this gives a large swatch of grey, and makes it look like we have mostly decreasing areas: but about half of those light grey areas saw an increase, sometimes up to 10%. The map would like very different if those were all light pink, or even green or yellow or blue!

    1. Yeah, I wouldn’t have done the coloring quite like that. Still, for the point being made, I think it’s fine. Also, an increase of 10% over that many years really is stagnation.

  7. This is pretty interesting and definitely counter-intuitive. And, no, I have not read this anywhere else.

  8. The recession? The poor people have become so poor during this recession/depression/whatever it is that the people who have enough money to buy up houses and get out of renting have lower economic standing than what was around before the bubble popped? You know, I don’t get this. before if lots of poor people were moving in changing the demographic in the magical days of yore when everything was better and spoke a different language that was a cool thing to celebrate, but now that the demographic is established, boring, hip-types changing the demographic well that’s just horrible and we should stop it. It’s so stupid, false, close minded and stereotyped.

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