Of the boroughs outside Manhattan, Brooklyn gets the most buzz — as a tourist attraction, a “hipster brand” and an incubator of art and artisanal products. That has provoked a backlash from longtime Brooklynites and others wary of smugness from the borough’s Brownstone Belt.
However entertaining these debates, Brooklynites — and, I dare say, all of us in the non-Manhattan boroughs — share one common problem: we’re essentially powerless. We lack meaningful local government, as well as broad-based media and civic organizations.
Marty Markowitz, the borough’s president and its relentless cheerleader, says that Brooklyn has nearly everything a city needs and that fulfillment will arrive when a professional sports team, the Nets, finally moves to an arena here in 2012 or 2013.
If only that were true. While Brooklyn, if independent, would be the country’s fourth-largest city by population, it has lacked a boroughwide daily newspaper since The Brooklyn Eagle shut down in 1955, the victim of a strike and the changing economy. It is tough for a daily to serve Brooklyn’s fragmented neighborhoods and economy successfully or profitably. Moreover, the city’s three Manhattan-based daily newspapers have tiny Brooklyn bureaus, so the lament of Paul Moses, a former New York Newsday columnist and now a professor at Brooklyn College, remains true: “Nowhere in the country do so many people get so little local coverage.
Thus, Brooklyn’s powerful developers, institutions and politicians often evade scrutiny. While local blogs and community weeklies do their part, the latter have been diminished. After Rupert Murdoch bought the independent weekly Courier-Life chain in 2006, its rival, The Brooklyn Paper, trumpeted its independence, only to suffer the same fate — a Murdoch takeover — three years later. The papers have since moved into the same building, cut the staff and published many of the same articles. In my blog, AtlanticYardsReport.com, I’ve observed how The Brooklyn Paper has muted once-tough coverage and editorial criticism of Mr. Markowitz’s beloved arena project, Atlantic Yards, which is being developed by the newspapers’ landlord, Forest City Ratner.
During a little-noticed hearing of the city’s Charter Revision Commission in June, Gerald Benjamin, a professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz, made a trenchant observation: “The fundamental principle in this city is that there’s no real local government.”
Not only are city agencies mostly centered in Manhattan, but community boards, the purported voices on local planning issues, have tiny budgets and only advisory votes, though they serve areas larger than some upstate cities. Some at the charter hearings have suggested that community boards deserve larger budgets and professional planners, with the City Planning Commission giving greater weight to their advisory votes. The charter commission chose not to take a deeper look.
Brooklyn has a few academic research groups, but they’re quiet, or focused on specific issues. While established neighborhood organizations and new groups do address local controversies like bike lanes, and labor and religious groups sometimes flex their muscles, they haven’t meshed into a boroughwide network.
Citywide good-government organizations, meanwhile, like the Municipal Art Society and the Citizens Union, do not — or cannot — pay too much attention to Brooklyn.
The upshot? While Brooklyn may make a neat T-shirt slogan and be shorthand for culinary innovation, such a focus on consumption and authenticity gives a pass to the powers that be.