May 10, 2009
I’ve always taken it for granted that brokers disseminate lies through the media to tweak property values. But a couple of weeks ago, I became a small cog in the national real estate propaganda machine myself while reporting for the New York edition of Time Out—on Kensington, Brooklyn, a supposedly “hot” new neighborhood stretch bordering wealthy the Park Slope district. Given the slick nature of the magazine, I filed a smoothed over narrative of what I saw—Bengalis, Hispanics and Hasids, chattering away amongst themselves in ancient dialects. I left out the trash filled yards, chop shops and nasty eyed stares from the locals. But a questioning email came back from my editor: where are the boutiques, cafes and charming restaurants? My answer, that there weren’t any, didn’t cut it with him.
My problem was I didn’t comprehend the nature of my assignment: To hype an up-and-coming “fringe neighborhood,” for bottom-feeding brokers. That’s what this was all really about. By the time my copy went through the editorial spin cycle it gleamed with low-slung starter homes and exotic eateries. I shouldn’t feel too bad; journalists have been burying the nabe’s true identity in acres of idyllic imagery since the end of the boom—when the area was shilled as a junior yuppie’s version of Park Slope’s family utopia. A typical example of how this message filtered through the media appeared in the Times, on May 25th, 2008. Experienced city reporter Jake Mooney introduced his readers to young artists moving their children to Kensington. The reason he gave for the artists fleeing wasn’t very convincing but it didn’t need to be: “[T]he last straw in Park Slope was the parking.” Stylish boom-era readers didn’t need Mooney’s 1400 words to get his drift. Artists were moving there, so “Kensington was the new Park Slope.”
Across the US, similar salesmanship—masquerading as journalism—can be found in money-hemorrhaging publications, kept on life-support by brokers’ ad revenue. Reading the LA Times most e-mailed article this week, it’s difficult to imagine the infusion of real-estate cash not holding editorial sway. “[P]ent-up demand in traditionally stable or chic areas have kept prices up — not as high as the market’s peak, but not nearly as low as they had feared,” the broker-sourced piece gushes, bending over backwards to assure readers that—contrary to popular belief—the sky hasn’t fallen on the real estate market. Right. But nowhere is this snake oil being sold as strongly and as cunningly as New York City, where self-conscious transplants eagerly suck down the so-called real estate “service journalism,” found in slick weeklies, Sunday newspaper supplements and websites such as Curbed.com.
In the last year, vacancies have risen drastically, and prices have dropped, so Kensington’s marketing campaign has been adjusted to gear towards a less-wealthy demographic. Clamoring as to why it’s the borough’s “Best Value Neighborhood,” the Daily News even rechristened the district with a hip-sounding designation: “Called K-Town by some, Kensington combines an urban feel with row-house living… “ Contrast the News’ description to a post on City-Data.com, a nationwide urban house hunters’ forum. Responding to a thread titled “What is Kensington Like,” a moderator wrote that although it was pretty safe it was also pretty grim. “It’s very dirty and there is a lot of graffitti. [sic]”
The term K-Town reeked of PR bullshit so I looked it up on Wikipedia. It was flagged with a “citation needed,” tab. Okay, academics routinely comb through the site with a virtual red pencil, so that didn’t prove it bogus. A friend of mine, Mike Byrnes, grew up right off Kensington’s main strip. In his 30’s, Byrnes’ still visits his parents there frequently. I asked him about the name “K-Town.” When his gravelly outer-borough laugh finally died down he said, “I never heard it called that in my fucking life.”
Even without the rebrand, The Daily News piece is dubious. It reads in part, “The neighborhood also has its own watchdog. Two friends run kensingtonbrooklynblog.com to monitor growth…” When I was scrambling for a cluster of hipsters to write about for Time Out, I had breathed a sigh of relief on finding a post on the very same. Entitled “where the cool kids go,” it seemed just what I needed to write about the alternative Kensington. The cool kids were all at “Jerbar,” a brand new hipster bar with a “speakeasy vibe,” right smack in the middle of Church Avenue’s Bengal grocers. It took me about a minute to realize that Jerbar was a turgid fantasia cooked up by the overzealous anonymous flaks behind the site. The bar doesn’t exist.
You wouldn’t know it from reading Wikipedia’s poorly sourced entry on Kensington, but, according to Byrnes, the place was rebranded before. In the 1980s, swaths of the city with bad reputations were diced up into tiny parcels and rechristened with aristocratic-sounding names or cute acronyms. Rough and tumble Flatbush—a massive neighborhood, with a large non-English speaking community—was parceled off. The resulting pieces were christened Kensington and Windsor Terrace without a trace of irony. Byrnes says he never even heard the term, “Kensington,” until he was a teenager. Stressing his consonants for emphasis he says, “It was always Flatbush, until one year this little phone book came around that said we were in Kensington.”
These layers of misinformation and spin would be low comedy if so much hard earned money weren’t at stake. According to Trulia.com, a real estate price index for consumers, the median sale price for a cozy piece of Kensington is well over 500 grand. Not exactly cheap, but it represents a 25% decrease—or 175 grand worth—in median price dip since last year. But here’s the kicker: Kensington property listings have only budged 1% on average—staying at the dreamy amount of $352K. Kensington is one of only three neighborhoods in Brooklyn with such a discrepancy between average list price and median sale price. (List prices are usually much higher.) One of the three is its sister nabe, Windsor Terrace. On Saturday, the flaks at kensingtonbrooklynblog.com were jumping up and down about a one-bedroom—for $289K. “This is probably the best Home for sale in Kensington today [sic].” You don’t need to be an undersecretary of HUD to figure out something is rotten in this formulation.
When I was trolling around for yuppies, I bumped into a symbol of the broken Kensington dream; A chubby nebbish coming home from the city with his wife and young child. They emerged from the Church Avenue F entrance into a sea of Bengals wrapped in white robes and taqiyya. Seeing my notebook he was anxious to talk. He volunteered, “You want to know if Kensington is the next Park Slope?” Just minutes before, speakers mounted on nearby shops were buzzing with afternoon Islamic prayers, so it wasn’t exactly foremost on my mind.
After going back and forth with the comparative merits, he decided ruefully that it wasn’t, saying: “The concept doesn’t feel like a perfect fit.” Mark has a reason to give the bunk idea due diligence though. Six years ago he fled from the Slope and bought a condo here, hoping real estate prices would rise. Here he is with a kid now, living in what looks like South Asia—through the deep recession. Mark explains the ethnic make-up of the Church Avenue away with a wan smile: “stores are lagging behind as the neighborhood population shifts.” Right across from where we chat, an Albanian Pizzeria has changed over to a Bengal cafeteria, which is having its grand opening. I don’t think that’s what the man means.
Eight months after the crash, prices have dipped, vacancy rates have soared and Brooklyn is filled with guys like Mark, trying to keep the ball rolling. Even though gentrification has stung him hard he continues to pass on the gospel. When we were chatting his pro-gentrification rap was mild, buried behind irony. He called the nabe’s lack of services a, “happy bind,” saving him from the glitz of the Slope. With his square glasses, beatnik shirt and guilt complex he was the picture of a New York liberal conflicted about his role in gentrification. But later, in an email the PC attitude came off, and his tone was almost desperate. He wrote, “It’s starting to look a little like the ‘cooler’ neighborhoods. There are a lot more of ‘us’ here now.” The use of square quotes mars his generally even-tempered email like a bloody lip. In a few hours, he had transformed from cool urban frontiersman into a self-effacing version of a block association goon.
But Mark is caught in a trap, so we should cut him some slack. Things haven’t worked out like he planned. For years he’s been sold the urban elite’s version of the homeowners dream by a toadying press—addicted to the brokers’ ad revenue. As late as 2007, as the American homeowners dream was dying; Mark was getting a very different message about the city’s real estate market. Condo sales were stronger than ever, the dailies blared. On March 3rd of ’07, the headline of a hysterical feature in the now defunct New York Sun announced that increasing the city rental stock was, “an impossible dream.” Buy or move to Wichita.
That was the crescendo of a big lie that had been orchestrated as the bubble began to deflate—by the real estate PR whizzes: the myth of the impenetrable New York housing fortress. Wall Street bonuses, European capital, and a chronically low vacancy rate, insured that NYC real estate would increase in value forever. A 2,600-word September 2007 piece in New York boldly posed the question, “Is the New York real estate bubble about to pop.” (The answer: of course, it wasn’t!) The piece’s writer, Michael Idov gave the last word to conservative Harvard economist, Edward Glaeser, a frequent proponent for deregulation of urban zoning. “I would continue to bet on New York.”
Now the indomitable bubble lie has been exhausted brokers have found other lies, tailor made for the bear market—of renters giving each other high-fives because negotiating a 2% rent decrease from recalcitrant landlords. On March 29th, the Times Real Estate section laid out a blueprint for the new blitz. It showed a picture of two smiling professionals under the self-assured caption of “Why These Renters are Smiling.” The weeklies followed up with their version of the new message, bent on releasing a little steam from the kettle—so the whole shit house doesn’t go up in flames. Mark is still invested in the old pie in the sky though. All he can do is repeat to whoever will listen: Kensington is the next big thing.