Park Slope Pundits Get the Story Wrong

Why lifestyle pieces need context

I grew up in Park Slope, Brooklyn, so a headline on The New Yorker’s homepage Monday, declaring “Park Slope is Dead,” piqued my interest. Alas, the story contained no new information, only inaccurate riffing on something I already knew about: that Southpaw—a live-music club around the corner from my parents’ house, where it replaced a 99 cent store in 2002—had just closed. In a development that is apparently too deliciously symbolic for any writer to ignore, Southpaw is being replaced by a firm called New York City Kids, a business offering academic tutoring and activities such as rock climbing for children.

The New Yorker ran a Talk of the Town-esque dispatch on Southpaw’s last night by a young staffer named Andrew Marantz. (I don’t know Marantz, but I’m friends with his cousin, a former colleague of mine.) Marantz is clearly a talented writer: his lead artfully ties this minor event to the sea changes that have swept neighborhoods across New York City: “CBGB gives rise, inexorably, to DBGB. Just as a red giant becomes a white dwarf, an edgy block must lose its edge.” But the story he tells is an inaccurate one. To read The New Yorker you’d think that Park Slope went straight from grimy to trendy, and it is only now settling into adulthood and having children. In fact, yuppies bearing children were in the Slope long before Southpaw, and it was the arrival of venues like Southpaw that removed the edge years ago.

At least Marantz has the defense that he is writing for a national publication and the precise details of the history of one neighborhood isn’t supposed to be his area of expertise. The Brooklyn Paper has no such excuse. The paper that seeks to be the borough’s weekly paper of record made the same errors, minus the entertaining references. “A long-standing Park Slope concert hall will close and become a tutoring school now that the hood caters more to kiddies than roadies,” read its lead. Give the writer, Natalie O’Neill, credit for trying to write a cute lead. Then deduct far more for the fact that what she says makes no sense if you know the neighborhood at all: The Slope has always catered more to kiddies than roadies. Park Slope was never the East Village. Nor does nine years make a business an especially long-standing one. There are stores across the street from Southpaw that have been there four times as long.

These articles get the neighborhood’s evolution precisely backwards. Park Slope was initially gentrified in the 1970s and ’80s by families like mine that moved there for more space than they could afford in Manhattan or Brooklyn Heights, often to raise children. There were stores selling toys and books for children and babies long before there were trendy bars, clubs or restaurants.

Marantz quotes a banker lamenting to New York in 1985 that people such as himself moving to the Upper West Side were killing exactly what he liked about it. Marantz equates that to what is happening Park Slope today, without pausing to ask what exact quality he is writing about. The answer on the Upper West Side in 1985 was probably diversity. Diversity defined the Park Slope I grew up in. That’s been disappearing rapidly in the last ten years, since a bunch of recent college graduates from the suburbs started pouring in. They’ve displaced much of the Latino population, along with the original babies in strollers, like me. If “the Slope is dead,” it died around 2002 when places like Southpaw replaced the bodegas and it stopped being racially and socioeconomically diverse. In fact, Southpaw replacing the 99 cent store around that time is the far better encapsulation of Park Slope’s essential changes than one yuppie business closing to be replaced by another.

But these articles are written by people who grew up elsewhere, who don’t understand the neighborhood’s evolution they are proclaiming upon, and who didn’t made any serious reportorial effort to learn.

This is a larger problem in the way newspapers cover gentrifying neighborhoods. The Southpaw pieces are typical of how writers who moved to Brooklyn a year ago feel entitled to declare what it is, was, or should be. The New York Times—which loves nothing more than to beat to death a minor dispute among a thin slice of upper-middle class New Yorkers—has run multiple stories about, or written by, single newcomers to Park Slope who complain about the presence of children in bars and the parents who get huffy when being asked not to arrive with toddlers in tow.

“I refuse to share my bar space — the last refuge for single Slopers — with infants,” wrote Risa Chubinsky on the City Room blog in 2010, as if she were a native being imposed upon by a swarm of arriviste parents. Never mind that she opens the piece admitting she only just moved to Park Slope recently.

In 2008, on the front page of its Style section, the Times ran an article about the debate between Park Slope residents who think babies should be allowed in bars versus those who don’t. Somehow, everyone on both sides managed to come off badly. Obviously bars have the right to ban children, or let them in, as they see fit, and patrons who object have the right to simply go elsewhere. And yet the Times only quoted those people who seem to feel personally infringed upon by a single bar making a different decision than the one they would favor. The patrons seemed blissfully unaware, and the reporter did not point out, that ten years earlier they would have been lucky to have any bar worth going to in Park Slope, with or without children.

Likewise, Marantz quotes a poet who has lived in the Slope for fifteen years who complains, “The yuppies are taking over. There’s too many baby strollers already.” My parents were young urban professionals—the people who would later become known as yuppies—when they moved there in 1978, two decades before the poet who Marantz cites to represent old Park Slope.

At a minimum it would have been worth it for anyone writing on the subject to Google Southpaw. The sixth result, right there in the middle of the first page, is New York’s review of the venue upon its opening: “When the folks behind Blue Ribbon opened an outpost on Fifth Avenue, it was a pretty sure indication that Park Slope had completely turned its back on the crunchy identity it had once embodied. So it was something of a surpise [sic] when a rock venue—rock!—opened in the form of Southpaw.”

Life experience, of course, is one way to know the relevant context. But doing your homework in reading up on a subject and interviewing the right people is another. The missing context of these articles is similar in a way to the habit political reporters have of quoting partisans making incorrect claims, and then failing to correct the record. The difference is the constraining factor: writers and editors of politics pieces worry that independent cogitation will bleed into bias, whereas the writers and editors of lifestyle pieces seem simply unaware that there is a larger context at all.

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