Twenty-five years ago, Brooklyn had an image problem. Print, radio and TV media coverage
tapped a steady drumbeat of robbery and street crime, gunfights and homicides in Brooklyn. If
there was headline news about Brooklyn, it screamed organized crime or deadly drug deals.
Of course, that wasn't all that was happening in a borough of two-and-a-half million people. But
to readers of New York's paper of record, the New York Times, or even tabloids like the Daily
News and New York Post, the reflection of Brooklyn in the media mirror was hopelessly
Fast forward to today. Crime is down, Brooklyn is up.
Unfortunately, the media's misguided coverage of Brooklyn has swung, drunkenly, in the other
direction. It's still skewed.
Today, the media -- old and new, from national newspapers to hyper-local blogs -- seems as intent
on celebrating the gentrification of Brooklyn as it once did on vilifying the crack cocaine-ification
of the borough. We have a new narrative!
An over-enthusiastic embrace of new restaurants and rejuvenated neighborhoods accompanies
caricature-like coverage of select micro-cultures: "Park Slope moms," "Williamsburg hipsters"
and "Gowanus artists."
It seems harmless. But all this focus on the expensive, artisanal and hip fosters a culture of
entitlement that's foreign to the borough's history -- and more importantly, to the majority of its
The hard, cold fact: Brooklyn, according to the 2010 census, is the second poorest of New York
City's five boroughs, after the Bronx.
And this makes me wonder, as someone who, for a quarter of a century, has documented, dressed
up and paraded in words what Brooklyn offers tourists as well as residents: What harvest are we,
the chroniclers of Brooklyn, sowing?
For instance, there's more media attention paid to New Brooklyn Cuisine, whatever that exactly
means, than to the borough's enormous hunger problem. Hundreds of thousands of Brooklynites
can't afford adequate food, according to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. A study
on obesity patterns in New York City neighborhoods found 10 out of 24 of the highest risk areas
were, you guessed it -- in Brooklyn.
Occasionally, a guilty note does creep into the media's coverage. Recently the New York Times
ran a long article, photo included, describing an evening of gustatory excess in newly-hip
Gowanus. The goings-on seemed more ancient Rome than modern New York, descending into a puerile food fight among beer-besotted 20-somethings. The headline couched a critique: "In the
Beefsteak Revival, Gluttony Is Good." Tell that to the one in four Brooklyn kids who are
As it goes with food, so it goes with that other human essential: shelter. Based on the abundance
of articles celebrating a certain slice of Brooklyn lifestyle and real estate, you'd think the borough
was a vast expanse of unaffordable brownstones, deluxe high rises and uber-cool, renovated
industrial lofts. For a dose of reality, visit the ho-hum Flatlands neighborhood in the heart of
Brooklyn, or beleaguered East New York.
And, while I may be treading on thin ice here, even those Brooklynites who've died in America's
simultaneous Middle East wars seem to be treated differently, and along class lines.
The tragic deaths of photographers Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington, both killed while
working in Libya, received extensive coverage, in print and online. Yet more than a dozen
Brooklyn residents, most in their 20s, also have been killed in the line of duty in the past decade,
according to the AP's News Research Center.
While one suspects that Hondros and Hetherington -- creative, accomplished and edgy, the very
face of New Brooklyn -- would have been the first to protest getting "more ink" posthumously
than uniformed military personnel, that's precisely how it's played out.
Our media mirror reflects back Brooklyn the playground. Brooklyn, where all the cool people
live. Brooklyn the creative hub. All this may be true; Brooklyn's huge bounce-back into
prominence is exciting. But this upbeat narrative disguises the borough's coexisting truths and
anguish, of hunger, of achievement gaps in education, of health disparities and of poverty, that
grind on in the shadow of our delicious limelight.
Two decades ago, Brooklyn's image was tarnished by crime. Today, Brooklyn's image is gilded
by gentrification. The pendulum certainly has swung -- too far.
What is it about Brooklyn's image, and our collective narrative, that we can't seem to get it