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Ellen Freudenheim

Ellen Freudenheim

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Brooklyn's Image Problem: Our Skewed Media Narrative

Posted: 05/12/11 04:02 PM ET

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 skewed.

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 residents.

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 undernourished.

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 right?