Luxury condos take over Fort Greene neighborhood
Vincent Fonseca leaned against the rail outside the housing project where he lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and puffed on a cigarette. He tilted his head back, crossed his arms over his chest and watched construction workers hang glass windows on the top story of Avalon, a luxury apartment building across the street.
Avalon is one of six high-rises Fonseca, 63, can see from his apartment on Gold Street, north of Myrtle Avenue and east of Flatbush Avenue.
He can see Toren and Oro, two condo buildings across the street, next to Avalon. He can also see the tops of The Brooklyner, Forte and DKLB. Each building is at least 30 floors high, glassy, modern and expensive.
“It’s turning into Midtown Manhattan,” Fonseca said.
But to him, that is not a good thing.
During the last two years, Fonseca has watched the condos erupt from the ground and dwarf the housing project where he was born and has lived, on and off, for decades.
He has endured the constant noise of bulldozers and dump trucks. He has witnessed his view of the Manhattan Bridge disappear behind cubes of steel. And he has watched Laundromats, pharmacies and grocery stores — some of which had been around since he was a child — vanish to make way for more construction.
“I used to walk across the street for milk,” he said. “Now if I need a container of milk, I got to walk four blocks uphill.”
The 10-minute walk up Myrtle Avenue to the first corner market is desolate, without a store in sight. A Duane Reade on the corner of Myrtle and Flatbush avenues was bulldozed a year ago, and a dirt lot took its place. A sign next to the lot reads, “Coming Soon: 13,000 Square Feet Mega Supermarket.”
“It’s unbelievable,” Fonseca said. “The bad part is (the developers) never consulted with the community. They don’t care about the community because it’s poor people.”
Fonseca’s historically lower-class neighborhood has disintegrated in the midst of new high-end development that few people in the projects can afford.
Fonseca can barely manage his $260 monthly rent. He is a retired deputy superintendent of surface maintenance with the Metropolitan Transit Authority. He still supports two of his five children in college and must pay for costly insulin for his diabetes.
He is worried that if developers take over the Ingersoll Houses, where he lives, he won’t be able to afford a new place to live.
“I’m disabled and retired,” Fonseca said. “I live off Social Security. Where am I going to go?”
Many residents are convinced the New York City Housing Authority is looking to sell the cluster of 35 buildings. The Ingersoll Houses is 60 percent empty, according to some residents, though the NYCHA could not verify that number.
The agency reports the housing project is undergoing an $87-million renovation, but some residents, such as Martin Lawrence, 30, don’t believe the improvements are for them.
“Look what’s here,” Lawrence said, pointing to the towers. “It is big business. We’re just the little people. Of course they want us out of here.”
The Brooklyn-based advocacy group Families United for Racial and Economic Equality believes gentrification in Fort Greene is pricing people out of the apartments their families have lived in for generations and forcing them to relocate far from their jobs.
“These people want to walk to work,” said FUREE member John Tyus. “They want to raise their kids in the same neighborhoods where they grew up. They want to afford new condos.”
New condos range anywhere from $300,000 to $850,000, and sometimes higher. A three-bedroom, three-bathroom unit in Oro, next to the Ingersoll Houses, is listed at more than $1.2 million, for example.
But 22 percent of Brooklyn residents live below the poverty line, according to FUREE. Many make less than $20,000 a year, and the unemployment rate among the working poor is 25 percent.
Tyus contends gentrification, and the subsequent displacement of poor residents, is happening in vain because scores of condos are empty. FUREE and the New York City coalition Right to the City conducted a citywide survey in October and found 126 new Brooklyn condos are either vacant or construction on them has stalled.
Now Tyus is lobbying city leaders to transform the vacant buildings into affordable housing for low- and middle-income families.
“The city is supposed to be more responsible than greedy,” Tyus said. “This is going to be a city of the rich. Is that the agenda?”
Tyus believes developers, at the encouragement of city officials, are sprucing up historic urban neighborhoods in Fort Greene and downtown Brooklyn to conform to a wealthier standard that simply is not part of the existing community. Doing so would take away the economic needs of the consumers, who are mostly African-American, Caribbean and Latino, according to FUREE.
Take the Fulton Street Mall, for example. The borough’s main shopping thoroughfare just west of Fort Greene is filled with low-priced stores like Jimmy Jazz, Dr. Jay’s, Footlocker and McDonalds.
One late Tuesday afternoon in November, much like most evenings at the Fulton Street Mall, the commerce hub bustled with lively shoppers.
Teenage girls chatted in groups, swinging their shopping bags back and forth between their legs. Older women complimented each other on their hair, which they had just gotten styled at a nearby salon. Loud, high-energy music pulsated from car stereos.
“Just because the area doesn’t have Saks Fifth Avenue or Bloomingdales, just because people don’t see the stores that are there now as profitable, doesn’t mean they aren’t,” Tyus said.
Fulton Street is the third largest retail district in New York City, grossing nearly $1 billion each year, FUREE reported.
Even so, it is in the middle of a $15-million revitalization effort, and Fulton Street that night looked like a construction zone. Chunks of concrete lay on abandoned sites. Orange cones and yellow caution tape riddled sidewalks that had been torn up. Cranes and loaders hogged what little sidewalk remained. Makeshift pathways detoured shoppers. Scaffolding was ubiquitous.
Some shop owners welcome the coming changes.
Rich Aviles, 28, manager of bargain clothing outlet Conway, said he expects his store’s low prices to attract more customers than pricier stores that may move onto Fulton Street.
“It will be great for business because more people will want to shop at the affordable place,” Aviles said. “Plus, I think the sidewalks they are making are marble and the new glass condos all around here are beautiful.”
Lenny Berg, 28, manager of pawnshop Bargain Bazaar, agreed.
“The condos are a good thing,” Berg said. “This wasn’t always the best of neighborhoods — lots of drugs. I think it’s changing for the better. A lot of the old crews are moving out because condos are coming in.”
Most Fort Greene residents, FUREE and RTTC say new development in moderation is positive.
“We’re not anti-development,” Tyus said. “Just develop responsibly. In 10 years, if this keeps going, Brooklyn is going to look like downtown Manhattan. Basically, Manhattan southeast.”
Tyus’ sentiment about the enormity of the condo explosion is palpable on every Fort Greene street where a new tower has risen.
“Jesus, look at this,” said a passerby to her friend as she gestured toward DKLB, a luxury high-rise on DeKalb Avenue near Fulton Street. “They are taking over.”