I live in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Ditmas Park, within Flatbush and Community District 14. US Census data reveal Ditmas Park to be one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the country, and its population of foreign born immigrants is significantly higher than the New York average. A myriad of old and new restaurants reflect the increasing diversity of Ditmas Park, from Mexican, to Tibetan, to pan-Filipino. The cultural diversity of Ditmas Park, and its slightly longer commute time to Manhattan, provides protection against the homogenous type of gentrification that has swept through some Brooklyn neighborhoods over the past decade, raising housing and rental prices in its wake. Many residents were not thrilled when a Dunkin Donuts opened on Cortelyou Road in 2011, but the coffee chain’s presence has not taken business away from Madeline, the local café across the street. Madeline has expanded, and was spotted on a recent Saturday afternoon with a long line at the counter. When local blog Ditmas Park Corner posted that the Williamsburg-based clothing store, Brooklyn Industries, would be opening a branch on Cortelyou Road, the comments in protest led one neighbor to remark “You’d think a Walmart or McDonalds was coming to Cortelyou by the level of angst here.”
With such involved residents it is not surprising that Ditmas Park and the surrounding neighborhoods are home to at least three community composting projects. Nearby neighborhood Windsor Terrace is currently part of a Bloomberg- initiated composting pilot program, which requires residents to preserve their compostable organic matter and leave it out for curb-side pickup. The composting program will become mandatory for all of NYC by 2016. Ditmas Park Corner reports that “The plan is to reduce food waste and associated costs by using scraps to make fertilizer and natural gas. By 2017, the goal is to divert 30% of waste from landfills.”
Alexandria is a 28 year old graduate student obtaining her teaching degree from Columbia University Teachers College. She hails from the Bay Area in California and has lived in Brooklyn with her boyfriend, Evan, a Brooklyn native, for six months. Alex has strong feelings about sustainability. She believes that a large picture approach to sustainability is vital to our survival. Resources should be used at a rate where they can replenish indefinitely, and a “holistic approach” should be taken to ensure that the “whole system can be sustainable.” Evan, a 30 year old bicycle mechanic for Citi Bike, agrees, but added that sustainability should also be examined on a small-scale personal level. Many Americans are in debt and “their very lives aren’t sustainable.” Income inequality and a lack of jobs make it harder for people to live sustainably. “Obviously people are going to make cheaper decisions that allow them to get to the next paycheck,” he said, regardless of their negative impact on the environment. Alex says that she believes it takes so much more than the individual to create true sustainability, which is a process, not a product. So many factors are required, and that is the largest challenge facing sustainability.
Evan has noticed a significant change in air pollution in Brooklyn over the course of his lifetime. He had asthma as a child and clearly remembers days when he couldn’t leave the house due to ozone/air quality alerts. There are fewer of those alerts nowadays, he says. The data supports Evan’s observations. Air quality in NYC has improved, although it is still relatively poor, especially in high traffic areas. Part of the credit for improvement in air quality goes to former Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC initiative, which required buses and taxi cabs to switch to hybrid systems. In addition, more New Yorkers are taking public transportation, and Evan has noticed that biking has increased in popularity. Bike lanes have been added all over the city, and Evan says that “biking has become cooler. It’s not just dorky weirdoes biking. Now it’s kind of cool dorky weirdoes.” It’s nearly impossible to ask a long time Brooklyn resident about changes in their community without the word “gentrification” coming up. Evan sees pros and cons to the gentrification of Brooklyn. He appreciates the Green Markets popping up all over the city, and the Flatbush Food Co-op on Cortelyou Road, “even though it’s kind of expensive.” He credits city funded Public Service Announcements, such as the graphic anti-soda ads on the subways, with raising awareness about healthy living in NYC.
Evan sees poverty and a lack of well-paying jobs as one of the most pressing issues in his community. He calls the American Dream a “thing of the past,” and he finds the economic environment in America to be a “cut-throat” one that leaves a lot of people behind, especially those who don’t have a close support system of family and community. He has noticed many elderly residents in his neighborhood who seem to be alone and struggling. It disturbs him to see elderly women pushing carts through ice and snow on their own. “Brooklyn is such a place of struggle where people put in effort to survive and live…so if you’re old, you need people to help you,” he says. Alex connects poverty to the low quality of public schools, which she sees first-hand as a teacher. Poverty and income inequality top her list of local issues, and she relates them to a lack of community on a larger societal level, an American tendency to live as every person for themself.
Chris, 24, is a concessions supervisor at the Barclay’s Center. He has lived in Flatbush for his entire life, and he doesn’t believe that NYC’s recycling program is as effective as it could be. He has seen recycling bins in residential buildings be misused, which he attributes to a lack of awareness and education. “Part of it is that people don’t really know what they’re doing. The city will just drop off signs and bins, but if the people don’t really know what they’re doing, it doesn’t help.” However, Chris is more concerned by safety and crime issues. “It’s funny how you can go from one block over to the next and everything changes and it’s a totally different neighborhood.” He says that once a neighborhood has a bad reputation, the city will put less effort into the area. It is true that the diversity of Ditmas Park cuts off sharply at its borders, becoming mostly white to the south and west, and mostly black to the east.
Chris shops at a Stop and Shop supermarket that is two blocks from his home. The prices seem normal to him, and there is a huge variety of food. Yet he pines for more community gardens and fewer large chain stores. Sometimes a spot catches his eye and he thinks, “a garden would look good here.” But, he says, the empty lots just turn into more buildings. The closest garden to his home that he knows of is a fifteen minute subway ride away. “I think that defeats the idea of having a community garden if you have to travel to it,” he said.
John is a Brooklyn College professor who has lived in Ditmas Park for ten years. On a recent trip upstate he bought produce from a local farm-share and was so impressed with the quality, and enjoyed his ability to support a local economy that he vowed to buy food from the Farmer’s Market on Cortelyou Road more often. The most immediate change he has seen in the community over the past decade is the blossoming of businesses. He uses the bar/flower shop that we are having our conversation in as an example. “It used to be an antique shop hanging on by a thread. Now it’s a bar and a flower shop and the young lady who took over the flower shop is actually doing quite well with it.” He says that the community has maintained an eclectic facade, so much so that he is hesitant to use the word “gentrification.” John partially credits the ethnic diversity of the neighborhood as a driving force behind its renewal without full-blown gentrification. He says that the cultural diversity leads to more food options. Ripe avocados can be found at a Mexican grocery, and fresh bok choy is sold at the Tibetan owned bodega.
“Old and new businesses and restaurants line a block on Cortelyou Road”
Like Chris, John also worries about an uptick in crime. He attributes this to an “apparent concentration of wealth.” An AT&T store on Cortelyou Road was recently robbed at gunpoint, and someone was shot a few blocks down on Church Avenue, he says. Crime in the neighborhood is a hot topic for conversation, despite the fact that all crimes have been steadily decreasing since 2000, when there were 4,425 total of the seven major felony offenses logged in the 70th precinct. In 2013, there were 1,832. A renewed sense of community may be to blame for the perception of increases in crime. The widely read Ditmas Park Corner blog publishes stories from residents about crimes they have witnessed or been victims of. Bars like the one I met John in have popped up around the neighborhood and serve as centers for residents to get to know each other and share their stories. The Farmer’s Market is another place where neighbors stop to speak with each other. It may not be that there is more crime, but that there is more communication, so we hear about more crime than we used to.
As I walk around my neighborhood, I feel safe. There are trees, grass, and wide sidewalks. The Farmer’s Market that pops up on a block of Cortelyou Road every Sunday, rain or shine, hosts one of the neighborhood’s three composting programs. Judging by the crowd I weave through to get to the stand that sells organic, dairy- free key lime pie, residents have embraced the Market, and with it the concepts of locally grown, organic produce, and hormone and antibiotic-free meat. On my way home I note the mountains of black garbage bags, snow-peaked this winter, piled on the curbs in front of apartment buildings. They aren’t too bothersome now, but in the hot months the smell can be overwhelming. Each resident produces more than two pounds of garbage every day, according to the Brooklyn Community Board 14 Statement of Community District Needs, Fiscal Year 2014 Report, but the bags may shrink in size if Bloomberg’s plan for a composting city is enacted in 2016. Room will be made for composting bins full of organic waste that can be put to good use, creating natural gas and fertilizers instead of rotting in a landfill. The residents in my community want to do what they can to live more sustainably, but they need guidance. If people are having a difficult time understanding the rules to the recycling program, an entirely new education will be needed to effectively run a city wide composting program.