The Vanishing Class

Middle-income neighborhoods are disappearing from cities, and in New York they’re being squeezed to the very edge.

Down at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a 300-acre industrial complex where warships were once made, a company called Capsys has been building prefab houses in a soaring skylit World War II–era foundry. House modules, modest 20-by-40-foot boxes, sit on the floor in various stages of completion, from raw steel frames with concrete floors to Tyvek-wrapped packages outfitted with kitchens, bathrooms, and heating systems. I’m wandering around with Alexander Gorlin, who’s best known for his high-end work, such as the apartment tower (named, actually, the “Gorlin”) at Aqua, the exclusive Miami Beach development. It’s unlikely that any of these Gorlin houses will be named for the architect. They’re destined for the Spring Creek development, a new community going up on the edge of East New York, a neighborhood once known for its high murder rate.

The architect was hired by the Nehemiah Housing Development Fund, a nonprofit developer established by the East Brooklyn Congregations, which has built several thousand low-cost mostly single-family homes in the neighborhood since the 1980s. He was brought in to give this new development’s row houses a more sophisticated look. Gorlin created a color palette from the available shades of Hardiplank, a cement-board siding popular in affordable housing: for example, deep Evening Blue and subdued Countrylane Red. “We just made them as bold as possible,” Gorlin says of the facades. He threw in some easy urbanistic tweaks—like moving the parking spaces from the front yard, where Nehemiah has been putting them for years, to a rear alley. “This is more like Siedlungen,” he says, referring to the German workers houses built in the first decades of the twentieth century. “Or Brooklyn brownstones. Or Queens, where I grew up.”

We’re touring the prefab house factory because I’m on the trail of the missing middle class. I first noticed that it was MIA at a May panel discussion called “Townhouses Old and New, The Future of the Brooklyn Block.” Jonathan Marvel, of Rogers Marvel Architects, presented his firm’s lovely Modernist single-family town houses designed for a new development on State Street, in historically unglamorous downtown Brooklyn. The 3,800- to 4,200-square-foot homes sell for more than $2 million. Otis Pratt Pearsall, founder of the Brooklyn Heights Landmark district, held forth on the pleasures of town-house living, showing pictures of the street on which he’s long resided, Willow in Brooklyn Heights, where the average home now sells for $2.7 million. Then Gorlin, who is also the author of The New American Townhouse, reviewed the history of the town house and presented renderings of his East New York houses.

During the question-and-answer period, I observed that while Marvel’s town houses were part of a full-block scheme that also includes Schermerhorn House, a 217-unit complex that will provide permanent housing for performing artists and low-income tenants, there was nothing—certainly no town houses—for the middle of the market. Developer Abby Hamlin, who was in the audience, made a case that given New York’s rarefied real estate market her State Street town houses actually represent the middle. Gorlin argued that given how much things had improved in East New York since the Nehemiah project began in the 1980s, his town houses could also claim the middle. In a way both Hamlin and Gorlin are correct. One represents the high end of the middle, the other the low. But the middle of the middle was still nowhere to be found.

In June the Brookings Institution released a study called “Where Did They Go? The Decline of Middle-Income Neighborhoods in Metropolitan America.” It found that middle-income neighborhoods constituted 58 percent of all urban neighborhoods in 1970, but that the figure has now dropped to 41 percent. Poor people are now more likely to live surrounded by poor people, and rich people by rich people. Maybe that doesn’t sound noteworthy, but the Brookings researchers argue that middle-income neighborhoods are vital because they foster upward mobility.

The report reinforced my gut reaction to the panel discussion, and it dovetails with abundant anecdotal evidence. The New York papers have been full of stories lately about how Metropolitan Life is trying to sell off Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, two massive developments built as housing for returning vets in the postwar era, long considered oases of middle-class life in Manhattan. The assumption is that a new owner will turn the 11,250 apartments into luxury condos, and it’s unlikely that anyone will build a middle-income enclave to replace it, at least not in Manhattan.

So although it seems counterintuitive, I travel all the way to East New York, the ends of the earth by Brooklyn standards, to look for the vanishing middle class. While East New York still leads the city in confiscated guns, there were only 29 murders there last year, down from an all-time high of 126 in 1993. Although Ronald Waters, Nehemiah’s general manager and director, tells me it would be safer to take a taxi to visit his office in one of the 691 row houses that have sprouted over the past nine years, I arrive on a block so tidy and peaceful that it feels as if I’ve teleported to Levittown circa 1956—except for the fences. Each sweetly modest beige house has a postage-stamp-size lawn and a parking space, all ringed by a forbidding wrought-iron fence. Some home-owners have built brick gateposts and topped them with masonry lions or horses’ heads—a local status symbol, I guess—to make the fences less severe.

“You know Celebration?” Waters asks me, standing in the basement of a house that serves as both his headquarters and the project’s sales office. Gorlin’s plans are pinned to the wall. “I get the feeling that this is the East New York Celebration. It’s livelier than normal.”

Gorlin’s efforts are part of an upgrade, an acknowledgment that East New York is doing better. The much-coveted houses will be sold by lottery. Fifty percent of them must go to those who already live in the neighborhood; five percent are reserved for uniformed officers of the NYPD. Waters says they have received about 12,000 requests for the 637 available houses. They will be mostly two-story, 1,600-square-foot three-bedroom homes. They’ll cost $204,000, but the city will kick in a $46,000 subsidy. A handful of two-family homes, priced at an unsubsidized $357,000, and three-family homes, at $488,000, will also be built. The maximum income for a one- or two-person household is $85,080, and for a three-person household it is $99,000. (Minimum incomes are guided by the mortgage lenders.) By comparison, the U.S. Census Bureau says the median household income in 2003 was $43,318 in the United States and $39,937 in New York City. (The median income for a family of four in this country is $65,093.) So demographically speaking, the Spring Creek buyers would seem to be—almost—middle class.

“I consider it a moderate-income development, between low and middle,” Waters says, noting that many of the buyers are immigrants from the Caribbean or Africa, and a lot are bus drivers and firemen. “It’s for people climbing out of the low-income level.” In other words, it’s exactly the kind of place the Brookings Institution study says is vanishing, a neighborhood designed to help people on the way up.

I decide to take the subway home. I’m cheered by my sunny afternoon stroll to the station, past row after row of Nehemiah houses interspersed with older apartment buildings and small parks. Even the high school kids who crowd the platform are neatly dressed and well behaved. East New York seems so ordinary, so snug, so middle class. Clearly I’m seeing a success story, what 20 years of methodical community building will do. But I’m also witnessing a tragedy: I must travel almost to the shores of Jamaica Bay to find a new development in New York City made for the middle. Well, that’s what a decade of heedless development will do.

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