Loew’s Kings Theatre opened in 1929 to a Brooklyn screening of “Evangeline” and closed in 1977 with the showing of George C. Scotts’ “Islands in the Stream.” Between those bookend performances, it gave joy and jobs to many locals. Perhaps you’ve heard of some of the ushers—Sylvester Stallone, Henry Winkler, Barbra Streisand? Ben Vereen danced on the stage while his mother worked there. Bob Hope performed, as did Milton Berle, Jimmy Durante, and Sophie Tucker. Located below Prospect Park in Flatbush, Kings Theatre is about to be renovated. When finished, in 2014, the complex will showcase a baroque-style performing arts center amid an outdoor garden. With seating for 3,600, it will be Brooklyn’s largest theatre and New York City’s third largest. This $70 million development is but one example of transformative change coming to the city’s most populous borough. The head-turning location deserves discussion, but Kings illustrates this important change: jobs are coming to Brooklyn.
At his annual State of the Borough Address in early February, Marty Markowitz highlighted plans for the Kings’ restoration. With his usual effervesce the borough president said, “We’re on our way to making that dream come true.” The reference easily could have been to the broader makeover of the borough. Indeed, at that same gathering, Mayor Michael Bloomberg uncharacteristically went a step beyond Markowitz in praising Brooklyn, telling the crowd, “Brooklyn has arrived—and it’s very much due to Marty.”
Beyond lavish political praise, look what business is saying: Crain’s New York Business recently noted that Brooklyn added more than 14,000 jobs last year and is “at the forefront of the city’s economic recovery.” Concerning Kings Theatre, the president of New York City Economic Development Corporation, Seth Pinsky, recently told NY1 News, “One of our goals is not just restoring an architectural gem, but also creating economic development opportunities, which is just as important to us.” The renovation will require about 500 workers and create 50 permanent jobs. Private enterprise then should create or expand local businesses to serve patrons taking in an expected 250 yearly stage productions.
Such revolution is coming to Brooklyn largely because of the evolution happening across the East River. Soon Manhattan’s tallest residential building, dubbed 8 Spruce Street, will open in the financial district. Some see symbolism in how the new Frank Gehry tower turns its back to the New York Stock Exchange and comes between City Hall and Wall Street. Architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff has said that the tower “seems to crystallize a particular moment in cultural history, in this case the turning point from the modern to the digital age. [It also appears to] epitomize the skyline’s transformation from a symbol of American commerce to a display of individual wealth.” Manhattan goes ever higher upscale as home and playground to the rich, forcing artists, professionals, and others of the middle class to move to the outer boroughs. Brooklyn seems to be the favored one in that exodus, but favored status has been long in coming.
Brooklyn became a borough of New York City in 1898 and has, almost literally, been in the shadow of Manhattan ever since. Brooklyn accounts for almost twice the population and three times the land area of Manhattan, but Manhattan’s vertical rise trumped Brooklyn’s horizontal growth. Most jobs and upscale living have been in that high-rise domain. But the dynamics are shifting. The New York Times recently noted that Brooklyn suddenly has grown an impressive skyline. From the 51-story rental tower Brooklyner to the 40-story condo christened Oro, the investment gold has poured in.
Proof of fundamental change, though, is found beyond Downtown Brooklyn and the Manhattan-facing waterfront neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Dumbo, Cobble Hill and, recently, Red Hook. Historically, those have been bedroom communities preferred for their easy access to jobs across the river. However, the borough is turning inward now for housing and jobs, and that is the transformative element that is changing Brooklyn.
Park Slope was the bellwether, but other areas adjacent to Prospect Park are experiencing growth now. New construction and businesses are flourishing in that ring around Prospect Park—Windsor Terrace to the southwest, Prospect Heights and Lefferts Gardens to the east and southeast, and Prospect Park South down under the park.
Next in line beneath the park lie Kensington, Ditmas Park, and the rest of Flatbush. Large portions of that interior Brooklyn real estate are blossoming. On Cortelyou Road—half a dozen blocks from Kings Theatre—a new restaurant row scents the air in the Ditmas Park section of Flatbush. Dining choices include Purple Yam (Filipino fusion), Kumo (Japanese), Qathra (Egyptian), Mimi’s Hummus (Middle Eastern), Castillo Plan (tapas and wine bar), and The Farm on Adderley (locally sourced). That choice of cuisine isn’t the Flatbush of old, or the Brooklyn that many people think they know.
“In 2011, the progress we are making transforming old into new will be more visible than ever,” Mayor Bloomberg said in his January State of the City Address. Then he turned to an ongoing Brooklyn project: “We’ll see the transformation … at Coney Island, once a sad shadow of yesteryear, and long written off by skeptics, but now drawing record crowds with new amusements and new excitement.” But he didn’t stop there, saying, “We’ll see the transformation at the old piers that are now becoming Brooklyn Bridge Park, where a new carousel will open this year. At the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which we’ve transformed into one of the country’s most successful, and greenest, urban industrial parks, Steiner Studios will begin to double what are already the largest soundstage and production facilities on the East Coast. And they’ll partner with Brooklyn College to create the first graduate level film school of its kind in the region.”
Not all of Brooklyn is happy with what they see as gentrification, and they jeer change even when it brings good jobs. Some fear the borough is loosing what makes Brooklyn special. Last year Dvora Meyers, a freelance writer who lives in Clinton Hill, was quoted in The New York Times concerning “The State of Brooklyn.” She said, “My neighbors, most of whom aren’t from around here, can’t admit that their New York experience isn’t authentically gritty. Worse still, most have developed amnesia and have forgotten their pre-Brooklyn existence. When I lived in Los Angeles, I never claimed to be an Angeleno, but when I ask a Brooklyn resident where she hails from, she immediately answers, ‘Brooklyn.’ In a strong Southern drawl.”
Then there are the transplants who are “from around here.” Former Manhattan dwellers find—for the most part and perhaps to their surprise—that they like their new home. But it could be improved. If only it had better-stocked grocery stores, nicer shops, and more housing options, then it would feel more like home. Demand creates supply, and so the amenities follow the transplants.
Does this migration, from near and far, mean Brooklyn is losing its character? “Fugetaboutit,” many homegrown Brooklyn residents would say. They point proudly to how the flavor of Brooklyn—even down to the name as a brand—has gained appeal and marketing power. From Brooklyn Industries and Brooklyn Brew to the excitement of the Brooklyn music scene and the fame of Park Slope Brooklyn’s writers, there is muscle in the borough’s moniker and enticement in her distinctive ‘hoods.
Perhaps this new, all-things-Brooklyn cachet is a fulfillment of destiny—a return to the path providence put on hold in 1898. How fitting then that the first job of Kings Theatre, deep in the heart of the borough, will be to host a party in 2014 celebrating Brooklyn’s vibrancy.