A Preservationist in Pursuit of the American Dream – Part #3 The Brooklyn Interviews

Third in a series by Lizzie Boyle who drove across the country asking her contemporaries about the American Dream as a self-made summer internship. The author's subject, Meghann, in Brooklyn. Photo by Lizzie Boyle.

I was glad we stopped in New York City so early on in the trip. It is after all, and forgive this moment of clichéd expressions, the city of dreams. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, and so the expressions go on. Having grown up in a suburb of New York, this city became my benchmark for all other cities. I realize now that there truly is no other city like New York but in my child’s mind, in order to be considered a city it must have some level of density akin to Manhattan’s. Of course, my child’s mind didn’t articulate it just that way but you get the idea. I do consider this viewpoint to be somewhat privileged but it’s also skewed.

As a child, my family took us on vacations to small towns along the New England coast and its islands. I didn’t really explore another “true” big city until visiting Paris at age thirteen. Perhaps they hadn’t seen a reason to or simply wanted respite from city life. Even though we were in the suburbs that certain hustle and bustle is still present in any New York suburban town. All this to say, I was privileged to know a city like New York at a young age but naïve at the same time. It wasn’t until I was an older teenager and living in Charleston, SC that I came to understand that the presence of skyscrapers was not solely indicative of a city.

Kelsey, Fort Greene, Brooklyn, NY

Kelsey hanging out with the author and interviewer on her fire escape in Fort Greene Brooklyn. Her American Dream includes leaving America!? Photo by Lizzie Boyle.

I was interested in what my friends in New York thought of the city in which they chose to live. None of them had grown up in the city and only one grew up in the suburbs of Manhattan. I started my round of interviews with a friend I have had since age fifteen, Kelsey. As we spoke with her on the fire escape she told us about her life in New York thus far. Kelsey moved to Manhattan, specifically Morningside Heights, for her undergraduate degree and had now been in the city a total of eight years. Kelsey had, upon graduation, moved around different neighborhoods of Manhattan and had settled into Fort Greene, Brooklyn for the past two years.

She described her time in-between undergraduate and moving to Fort Greene as frenetic and when she found her apartment in this neighborhood the pace felt right. Kelsey described her neighborhood as more quiet and calm. She told us that she thought Fort Greene was “halfway gentrified” and had heard that it was, in its current state, the type of neighborhood that people study, presumably planners and sociologists.

Kelsey said that five to ten years ago Fort Greene was characteristically unsafe and not well kept. Now you can see families as well as young people. The proximity to the Frederick Law Olmsted designed park, Fort Greene Park, is a definite draw. The architecture, comprised mostly of older brownstones, and tree-lined streets are what one first notices when entering Fort Greene. The scale is definitely pedestrian oriented and on that May afternoon the streets were beyond friendly. Men sat on their stoop and children played at the nearby playground. It made all those things about the mean streets of New York fly out of the window.

As we moved onto the question of the American Dream, Kelsey’s first reaction was that her dream was actually to move out of America. She said, yes, of course it’s about making yourself but that she didn’t identify with the typical dream and didn’t want to move out to the suburbs. Kelsey said that home-ownership would be nice but didn’t really see it as possible, mostly because she wants to stay in the city. She does want that sense of permanence that home-ownership can provide but recognized that a long-term rental agreement can give you that same sense without owning.

After speaking with Kelsey I realized that young adults choosing to live in New York are there because of the opportunities a city of that size and force offer. Whether you’re part of the creative class or the financial wunderkinds, New York is a city in which to carry out your career dreams. Which, in and of itself, is another facet of the American Dream. Unless your last name is Trump, purchasing real estate in New York is like trying to buy something on the moon. For most people, it’s just not going to happen.

Meghann, Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY

Upper: One of the author's great friends and interviewee, Meghann hanging out with Kristopherson, the roadtrips mascot. She's looking for a place for her books, not a single-family home. Lower: Polish-American shop in Greenpoint.Photos by Lizzie Boyle.

I went on to interview one of my closest friends, Meghann, in her neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Meghann is a middle school English teacher who had been living in the boroughs of Manhattan for seven years. She studied at Fordham and upon graduation secured a teaching job in Brooklyn. She lives the ultimate urbanist’s dream. Meghann has a short bike ride to work, and on her way home stops at her local wine store, video store, deli, coffee shop, what have you. She’s friendly with shopkeepers in a way that recalls 1950s television programs.

When I asked her about the American Dream she cited being able to do what you want with your life. She was adamant about not owning a home. Meghann believed that it had caused her parents undue stress and she would not want to be tied down like that. She merely wants a place to house her books and then she would be happy. For Meghann, a certain lifestyle was much more important to her than being able to say that you own something. Incidentally, Meghann moved to Paris at the end of that summer and lives much the same way she did in New York. She has a new local wine store (admittedly, much better), a new video store, a boulangerie, and other such amenities.

I spoke with two other people in New York. One had much of the same answers as Kelsey and Meghann and the other said that she would like to own something one day. She said that she would like the permanence and stability of owning her own home. I can’t agree that it would offer someone stability but I do recognize the feeling of permanence it would afford. It is also a luxury that mostly only the middle and upper classes have. Lower-income people generally move more than their wealthier counterparts. Moving frequently causes increased strain on these individual’s finances and, in a way, perpetuates poverty. Had I spoken to individuals who grew up at or below the poverty line, the answers I culled might have been much different.

It is also interesting to note that in some cases, the suburbs are the new ghetto. Drive into any subdivision today and chances are you’ll find empty houses and unkempt yards. Many planners are exploring the possibilities of retrofitting the suburbs and all seem to turn to the “denser is better” mantra. Now if we could only get the American public on board.

We left New York feeling satisfied and excited to explore a lesser-known city to us: Boston.  We would be staying at our cousin’s apartment in swanky Beacon Hill…

Start the road trip at the beginning:
A Preservationist in Pursuit of the American Dream – Part #1
A Preservationist in Pursuit of the American Dream – Part #2 DC + BKLYN

© HISTPRES, LLC + Lizzie Boyle, 2012

About the author: Lizzie Boyle

Lizzie Boyle is originally from Connecticut and after a twelve year stint in the South is back up north living in Brooklyn. She studied Historic Preservation at the College of Charleston and Urban Planning at Auburn University’s School of Architecture where she worked on architectural and urban history. Lizzie has lived in Italy and plans to one day eat her weight in pasta. She enjoys writing about preservation, planning, urbanism, and history and how travel relates to all four. Lizzie’s favorite animal is the giraffe.

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