Monday, January 24, 2011

Brooklyn Rednecks? (Revised)

Gerritsen Beach will never attract hordes of sun bathers.

No palm trees arch over the sandy fringes of the water.

Although a popular fishing spot, you're almost as likely to encounter raw sewage from the nearby TGI Friday's restaurant as you are fish in the murky tides. Even at dusk, if you squint, Gerritsen Beach barely passes for idyllic.

Turns out, that's true both in its scenery, and its civic life.

A Village in a City

With a population of about 7,500, this overwhelmingly white, mostly blue-collar community near the ocean boasts its own volunteer fire department. Although its history can be traced back an impressive three hundred years, most of the area around Gerritsen Beach didn't get developed until after World War I, when summer bungalows were erected en masse for seasonal visitors.

Over time, the bungalows in this colony were winterized and turned into year-round dwellings. Today, these homes, which were built close together, have been carefully enlarged and modernized, each one practically touching its neighbors. Although clean, tidy, and even somewhat quaint, there's hardly any room left for the narrow streets and even narrower sidewalks that make the place look like a crowded town in Asia.

But Gerritsen Beach isn't in Asia. Or in America's rural South. It's in Brooklyn, New York. Yes, if you were to suddenly find yourself plopped along the neighborhood's main drag, Gerritsen Avenue, you'd be hard-pressed to realize you were standing inside a borough of 2 million people, let alone a city of 8 million.

One of New York City's fascinating characteristics involves its many anomalies, hidden in unlikely crevices all over the five boroughs. Gerritsen is a case in point, although not necessarily for the better. Because unfortunately, as cosmopolitan and sophisticated as New York can be, this neighborhood has some of the most simple-minded people you will find anyplace.

While Brooklyn has evolved into a multi-cultural smorgasbord of skin colors, languages, and cultures, Gerritsen Beach has remained fiercely homogeneous. Isolated from Brooklyn's more urban core and nestled among the shoreline reeds of the city's meandering estuaries, it's been hidden from much of Gotham's crime, ethnic strife, and even through-traffic. If not for the occasional hate crime which makes the news, even suspicions that latent racism motivates Gerritsen's self-preservation would largely be ignored.

Not that it's a ritzy, high-dollar haven. Quite the contrary. Gerritsen's housing prices average a stunning 40% lower than Brooklyn's as a whole. Still, the community benefits from both a public and a private elementary school. And although it has no subway service, city buses do ply its streets, providing mass transit access.

On paper, at least, it's hard to understand why minorities haven't flocked to such an affordable and family-friendly place long ago.

Sins of Some Parents No Excuse

Gerritsen Beach's residents would probably insist the lack of change in their neighborhood comes from strong inter-generational family ties, a strong community spirit, and a strong aversion to big-city meddling. However, other neighborhoods have boasted these three strengths in the past, and more, only to be washed in the flood of cultural integration and assimilation. Can Gerritsen's stark white demographic, currently at 90%, be simply a coincidence?

Oddly enough, the residents of Gerritsen Beach don't even treat each other with respect. Take, for example, the temerity some local civic leaders had when they told a construction contractor he could dump his debris in a local city park without a permit. Or the ambivalence by most in the community at reports of teens frequently intimidating the Chinese owner of a local laundromat.

Or Gerritsen's recent infamy as a haven for Halloween hoodlums.

Apparently, for generations, one of the neighborhood's fond traditions has been to let kids run amok on Halloween, pelting vehicles and pedestrians with eggs and potatoes, and spraying shaving cream on parked cars. This past October 31, a local blogger took photos of the mayhem and posted them online after numerous calls from upset residents to 911 went unheeded by the police.

Kids reportedly pelted two Hasidic Jews with eggs, and when a passing motorist stopped to complain that they had egged his car, the brats hit him on his backside with yet another egg. A mother pushing a stroller also got hit, and a window on a passing city bus splintered after being pelted with rocks.

Civic Irresponsibility

You might have expected the parents of these kids to have been aghast at the brazen lawlessness of their offspring. Instead, they turned their ire onto the blogger, Daniel Cavanagh, who himself grew up in the neighborhood. How dare he publicize the private merriment of their children for all the world to see? He's destroying their wonderful community by painting these kids in an unflattering light. Nobody got hurt or killed, and the property damage was minimal. So, what's the big deal?

At a neighborhood association meeting later in November, one of the indignant parents yelled at Cavanagh to leave Gerritsen if he didn't like living there. One of the mothers crassly accused Cavanagh of being a sexual predator because the photos he took of the mayhem featured adolescents.

That same woman - and I'm using the term loosely (watch the video here to see what I mean) - even claimed she was trying to get one of her sons into Xaverian High School, an exclusive private boy's academy in Brooklyn's affluent enclave of Bay Ridge. What were his chances of being selected by Xaverian now that Cavanagh had besmirched his reputation?

Now that this story has gone viral, with even the New York Times mulling the role Cavanagh's blogging has played in fanning its flames, this once insular community can't seem to hide from the derision it's receiving from all over the blogosphere. It's as if their secret reality has exploded in their faces, only they want to keep denying it like they have done for all these years.

Urban Hicks?

Obviously, it would be inaccurate to summarily cast all of Gerritsen's residents in the same dark light. After all, it was the consternation of fellow residents which prompted Cavanagh to document the Halloween event with his camera. And Cavanagh himself appears disgusted with the intransigence of his lifelong neighborhood.

Isn't it still hard, however, to wrap your head around the existence of such a curiously literal backwater in a metropolis like the Big Apple? Who'da thunk such a place could still be found along the Belt Parkway between Coney Island and Kennedy Airport?

Or that rednecks could come with a Brooklyn accent?


  1. So a working-class, predominantly white neighborhood in Brooklyn with some kids who behave badly on Halloween is automatically filled with ignorant, "redneck" bigots. You've given no evidence of hate crimes, no complaints of housing discrimination. All you've really done is proven that you are a cliche' stereotype--the northeastern, elitist liberal who points the finger at the "racism" of others while being oblivious to his own classism.

  2. OK, I'll admit it: I knew the "redneck" part was a stretch. And yes, I made some overgeneralizations based on relatively limited evidence. Thanks for calling me out on that.

    I still stand by my suspicion, however, that the Gerritsen community is too insular and myopic for its own good. For it to be this stratified in someplace as diverse as Brooklyn is not coincidental. I would encourage you to surf through Cavanaugh's blog to glimpse everyday life there.

    Nevertheless, I appreciate your feedback and will try to be more balanced in the future.

  3. To be fair.

    Gerritsen Beach has quite an extensive history with hate crimes.

  4. Thank you again for the feedback, Jennifer.

    And thanks to Mr. Cavanagh, whose last name I just realized I've been misspelling for two days. I'd like to add myself to your growing list of supporters in your effort to civilize what could be a very charming corner of my own hometown (my father's family is from Sunset Park/Bay Ridge).

    Please note that I have revised my essay in light of your input.

  5. I grew up in gerritsen beach. I can testify to the racism, alcoholism and perversion that goes on in this neighborhood. I moved out at 19 years old and even had my parents offer me a house to live in there to which I fiercely objected to. I now have children and would not want them growing up there. There is alot of statutory rape, and predators living there as well as drug addicts and criminals. Considering most of the neighborhood is inbred; if you are not related to anyone through blood or marriage be prepared to be targeted at some point. I hate that neighborhood and yes most of the simple minded alcoholic/perverts/drug addict racists will defend it. I don't understand the sense of pride! I don't even like to mention to people the name gerritsen beach when people ask me where I grew up. I tell them " around sheepshead bay " . They choose to be secretive no matter how many people get hurt. Turning the blind eye to perverts preying on young girls because it might be their third cousin . I wish someone would just go undercover and observe the true madness no one will dare speak of. Other than my parents still living there and a few close family friends when hurricane sandy hit them hard I grinned silently to myself. The neighborhood needs a washing.


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