Two Saturday mornings ago, I was shopping at the C-Town on 9th Street in Park Slope. In the snack aisle I walked past a guy intently studying two bags of potato chips. He looked a lot like me, only with a shaggy beard and an untucked flannel work shirt, a popular look here. Next to him, an elderly lady asked for help reaching a box of garbage bags on a high shelf. “Just a second,” said the bearded guy, lost in his potato chip labels. “When you have a chance,” the woman said patiently.
I did the obvious thing. Since the other guy wouldn’t, I got the box for the woman. But I also had a very visceral reaction. I wanted to turn to the bearded potato chip scholar, get up in his face, and hiss, “Dude! What the fuck is wrong with you?!”
Fortunately, I didn’t act on that impulse. But the next time I might. And that’s why it’s time to leave Brooklyn.
I am leaving Park Slope because I am increasingly impatient with people too socially deficient to act like good neighbors. People who won’t spare five seconds to help an old lady. People who can’t figure out their way around without checking their iPhones. People who don’t say hi to the neighbors with whom they share a stoop. These things are getting noticeably worse. Rather than stew here and become the local grouch, I’m recognizing that I have passed my expiration date in this neighborhood. Time to exit gracefully.
When I moved to the Slope 8 years ago, the place had a reputation as a friendly neighborhood, especially as a haven for lesbians, writers and young parents. I remember walking through Prospect Park in autumn 2002 and seeing dads in fleece pullovers playing with their kids on the swings. “Those guys look like me in 10 years,” I thought, feeling as if I’d found long-term home. The kids were precocious, but there was a Lake Wobegone-style charm to this urban neighborhood where all the children were above average. Today Park Slope has a different reputation. It’s become an insane pleasure island for new parents with no adult social skills. It’s a place where it’s acceptable to be a mom or a dad and stay up until dawn drinking Jack-and-Cokes on the roof of a warehouse. You pay your dues to the Food Co-Op or the CSA not out of any sense of social responsibility, but as absolution for staying out too late on a Thursday eating wings.
By now, it’s old news that Park Slope parents take their kids everywhere. On any given night, you’ll find young children in the bars with their moms and dads. Walk around after midnight and you see parents out with kids in strollers or on trikes and scooters. I love kids, but I get a little weirded out when I see a toddler in a bar: I guess I can’t cuss here.
Let’s roll back to 2002. When I moved to 21st Street, there was no majority demographic on my block. It was a mix of immigrants (and their kids and grandkids) and young people from the usual menu of New York starter jobs—media, finance, education, advocacy, city government. Strangely enough, these people all got along and looked out for one another. When I got mugged in front of my apartment in 2007, I told one of my neighbors. Before long, three or four other neighbors who’d heard the news reached out to me to apologize. They felt ownership of the block, and they took its security very personally. They felt as if the block had let me down. That’s special.
Since then, developers have put up a few more luxury condominiums, a few nice restaurants opened around the corner, the schools have started to get better reputations, and the great churn of New York City real estate has flooded the Slope with young, progressive couples. People here still want to get along with their neighbors, but a gulf has widened between the multi-generation old-timers and the new residents. The new in-your-face parenting grates on the more conservative parents and the non-parents, and that friction make this place a fractured neighborhood.
About a year ago, a young couple and their two elementary-aged kids moved in next door to my building. My new neighbors have had a hard time fitting in. One of the first things they did was complain that one of the old men on the block played his music too loud. (He turned the volume down.) They installed a graffiti wall in their garden, so their children can practice street art. Their kids play behind a gate, never mingling with the other kids on the street. None of us know any of their names.
I guess these things bother me so much because I empathize with people who have trouble socializing. I’m a nervous guy from a family of shy people, from an awkward generation. Those of us born in the late 1970s and early 1980s were the failure-to-launch generation. We didn’t just watch “Arrested Development,” and were in arrested development. Aware of this, I feel like we have to prove we’re better than the sad expectations older generations set for us. As adults, we have to wise up and be fully functional. We should practice a vocation, care for the less fortunate, cultivate hobbies and interests, and set a good example. When I look around Park Slope, I don’t see this happening. I see too many guys my age who aren’t put together, who slouch when they walk, who can’t order a slice of pizza with confidence, who look fidgety and skittish. A lot of these guys are also fathers. It troubles me.
Now that I’ve indicted an entire neighborhood, I shouldn’t forget that Park Slope has been very good to me. Brooklyn has always been a place you can fit in if you don’t fit in anywhere else. I’m fortunate to have some solid friends here. But good people have been moving away. Chris to Chicago, Carol to Australia, Kelly and Justin to San Francisco, Ned to Los Angeles, Jess and Kip and Emily to the Upper East Side. Even Jonathan Letham, the novelist who helped give Brownstone Brooklyn its literary reputation, recently split for California.
My diagnosis: Park Slope’s reputation as a welcoming place went viral, and brought in new residents who made it a warped exaggeration of itself. Park Slope of 2010 is Park Slope of 2002 viewed through a Coney Island funhouse mirror. I offer no cure for this problem of deteriorated community, but I don’t want to stay here and whine. The borough across the river, to which I’ve commuted every workday for the last 8 years, looks pretty shiny. I made a plan. And so my last day in Brooklyn is November 15. It’s time to cede this neighborhood to the hip and despicable.
Might I encounter some despicable people on Manhattan? Oh yeah. But it’ll be a whole new kind of despicable.
Update: Reader reaction to this post.