Research Paper: Exploring Design and Social Innovation in the Urban Environment

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Bedford Ave.

All the World's a Very Small Stage

In this age when we are can all connect instantly to all other corners of the world with the click of a mouse or a few keystrokes on our phones, it is hard to remember that in most respects we all live in a very small neighborhood. Each of us primarily inhabits a few blocks around where we live, around our workplaces, perhaps a few other loci such as our gym. Each of these microenvironments is defined by a very specific set of details, from the kinds of stores that it hosts to how safe the street feels, to how long it has been configured in more or less the current state. This paper examines one small corner in Brooklyn, assessing what makes it different from the neighborhoods around it, what makes it the place that it is.

This neighborhood is defined in part by the intersection of Bedford Avenue. This is the longest street in Brooklyn, and as such displays a great deal of variety of structures and subcultures from single-family homes to large apartment buildings. The street has a long history: As Bedford Road it was already an important thoroughfare in the 18th century, connecting Flatbush and Newtown Creek. By the 19th century it became one of the earliest paved roads in Brooklyn.

The particular section of Bedford Avenue of concern here is the section between Third and Fourth streets. This section of Brooklyn is a part of Williamsburg, a community very different from its better-known counterpart in Virginia. This area is in the process of gentrifying: Indeed, it can be argued that it has already been gentrified. Although, it should be noted, that the term gentrified carries with it a connotation of an influx of professionals interested primarily in buying into a real estate market when prices have been depressed. That has happened to some extent in this neighborhood, but the greater changes have been towards a semi-bohemian neighborhood that features clubs and upscale stores.

The neighborhood has changed dramatically several times over the course of the last century, changing dominant ethnicities as well as cultural dynamics, political inclinations, and economic underpinnings. In the first two decades of the last century, the area's population doubled as immigrants arrived to the country and the community from Eastern Europe as well as Italy.

Over the next decades, the neighborhood saw its ups and downs, but mostly downs.

By 1917, the neighborhood had the most densely populated blocks in New York City. The block between South 2nd and South 3rd Streets housed over 5,000 persons. In the 1930s, large numbers of European Jews escaping Nazism fled to Williamsburg and established an Hasidic enclave.

From the mid-1930s to the 1960s, public housing projects replaced thousands of decaying buildings. In 1957, the building of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway cut through the Williamsburg (as well as Red Hook and Greenpoint) community, destroying huge numbers of low-income, single and two-family homes.

In the 1960s, thousands of Puerto Ricans came to Williamsburg attracted by the abundance of factory jobs. Through the 1980s, the Hispanic community grew, with the arrival of Dominicans and other Latin Americans. In 1961, Williamsburg had 93,000 manufacturing jobs; by the 1990s, the number had decreased to less than 12,000. The decline in manufacturing left thousands of Hispanics unemployed.

A survey of the businesses in this neighborhood demonstrates the flavor of the neighborhood, a style that is echoed by the average pedestrian, who is in his or her twenties and thirties, tends to wear more black than is generally fashionable in the daytime, and is inclined to carry the latest brand in fashionable leather goods. The neighborhood has not been entirely tamed, or cleaned up. This does not necessarily seem to bother the residents, or at least the visitors, who may well be engaged in what they believe to be an adventure in the urban erstwhile (but barely erstwhile) jungle.

In many ways this collection of streets is a place that people visit. It is not a place that people are from, or at least not the current generation of either residents or visitors, a community so far marked more by an uptick in commerce rather than culture. The neighborhood is more marked by bars than galleries or theaters, suggesting that the neighborhood may well go from hip to stuffy without any significant time spent fostering a birthplace of the arts. While the neighborhood may be home to a number of "creative types," these are more likely to be graphic artists than avant-garde creators. A local cinema, for examples, revels in a retro-nostalgic kick, showing, for example, the Depression-era Gold Diggers, which features:

…impressive, almost surreal choreography by the incomparable Busby Berkeley (as spoofed in the great bowling dream sequence of the Big Lebowski) and Harry Warren's legendary score, which includes the naughty "Pettin' in the Park," megahit "We're in the Money" and the grand finale piece, "Remember My Forgotten Man," a paen to the fate of the WWI vets now on breadlines and living a Depression tramp's life.

Surely the aesthetic (and philosophy) here is more kitsch than anything resembling high art.

A Place Where Everyone Knows Your Name & #8230;

It remains a rootless place, a place for its residents to alight for a while, before moving on to the next near-bohemian neighborhood. It is hard to imagine people raising their children here, harder still to imagine children coming here to visit their grandparents and hear about the past. In a neighborhood that has been here (although not with these buildings or this atmosphere) for centuries, there is a disconnection from both past and future. Whether this is good or bad depends entirely on the perspective of the individual.

The new King's pharmacy in the neighborhood picks up the same theme: Alcohol and young people unsettled and uninterested in settling:

"Kings is a great pharmacy -- the void we saw is there's no food and no beer selection," one tells the Times. And it's the beer, cheaper than at local bodegas, that is helping to gradually thaw Williamsburgers' resistance to shopping at Duane Reade. How did the company know the beer would be such a big hit (it's the chain's top location for beer sales)? Typecasting: "It's really a young hipster community so we thought it would work well."

Those Williamsburg hipsters; if there's one thing they love, it's drinking excessively to numb the pain of life. So predictable!

The tone of the second paragraph suggests that while the image of the neighborhood as a place that younger crowds come to play in but not necessarily to take seriously is still current, it is already fading. Otherwise, this sarcasm would be out of place.

One of the clerks working there on a recent afternoon had this assessment to offer: "People here, they come in and they don't even say hello. it's like they don't think that they have to bother because they're never going to see you again. Even people I see all the time, they don't seem to like it when I recognize them. They don't want to be 'regulars' for some reason."

NYC Pet, in the heart of this section of Brooklyn, typifies the neighborhood, as can be seen through the reviews of the story on Yelp, which these days can be seen as an excellent source of community views on anything and everything. Certainly it is not comprehensive, but it does supply a significant range of the views of the people who live and work in the neighborhood.

There is in the tone of these comments a certain whininess suggestive of a neighborhood moving from the hip to the settled. This comment is typical of that mentality:

They supply chinchilla food but they don't supply the lava dust to bathe chinchillas, or rodent chewing toys. I've asked numerous times if they will order it but they argue because of the shelf life of the lava dust they don't like to supply it. So I have to go to Greenpoint to Petland to find a nice array of chinchilla and ferret products and good friendly staff. (NYC Pet, 2011)the following, on the other hand, suggests that there is still a significant portion of the neighborhood that would no doubt at least like to think of itself as belonging to the hipster crowd. The following poster is someone with rather a lot of disposable income and a dog rather than a human family:

NYC Pet offers a copious amount of pet supplies.options ranging from food, apparel, treats, Yappyhour events and toys to spoil your pooch rotten. If you want to provide your dog/cat the best of the best biologically appropriate premium food in the market, all the tops brands are in stock including raw diet options.

One customer, her puppy peeking out of her messenger bag, said that it was her third trip there. She did not seem to mind becoming a regular, although not on a long-term basis. "I only… [END OF PREVIEW]

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