Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
In 2017, New York City’s largest borough lost about 2,000 people, the first net loss since 2010.
That seems backward. The borough has boomed in population over the past decade, gaining 144,071 residents—that’s a whole Syracuse-worth of people—from 2010 to 2017. Of every county in New York State, Brooklyn’s nearly six percent jump in population in that time period puts it second only to the Bronx.
But according to the latest Census numbers, Kings County (which is coterminous with Brooklyn, the largest borough in New York City) lost residents last year. Last year, Brooklyn stood at 2,648,771 residents, which was 2,088 fewer than in 2016. It’s a tiny loss for a huge area, but it is indicative of a larger trend—people are leaving Brooklyn.
In 2017, Brooklyn experienced a net loss of 40,797 residents due to outmigration, i.e., people moving elsewhere. (Where are they going? The “winners” of the 2017 population estimates were all big and hot—the counties surrounding Phoenix, Dallas-Forth Worth, and Las Vegas gained droves of new residents last year.) Immigration and natural growth (#strollermafia) kept Brooklyn’s total population loss to the much lower number of 2,088. The borough’s growth has been slowing down for a while, but 2017 was the first year since 2010 that new babies and foreign immigrants failed to outnumber departures. (Census numbers are published with a 90 percent level of confidence.)
There are a number of factors that might explain Brooklyn’s weakening population hold. One is that local retirees are moving to warmer pastures. Two, the national economy is steadily improving, and there are more jobs in metros with cheaper rent. (Dallas, Phoenix, Las Vegas, hi!) “The historical trend is that outmigration grows when the economy is getting better,” E.J. McMahon, the research director for the Empire Center for Public Policy, told the New York Post last year. Which relates to a third factor: In case you hadn’t heard, Brooklyn has gentrified, and is gentrifying.
While home sales and rental rates have slowed down recently, and rent prices have dropped slightly, housing costs are still near record highs. Whether gentrification leads directly to displacement is a separate question, but rising rents aren’t accommodating everyone: While white and some Asian people are flocking to neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, black residents, including a once-strong black middle class, are leaving. Likewise, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Bushwick are hemorrhaging lower-income Latino residents. Some are moving to other New York City boroughs and suburbs, and some are leaving the metro area entirely (in some cases for hotter climes). Meanwhile, some Brooklyn neighborhoods, like Brownsville, remain very poor and very non-white.
Who cares if Brooklyn’s population boom might be showing early signs of reversal? Not Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University and the director of the Rudin Center for Transportation. He looks at the city mostly from an economic perspective, and through that lens, Brooklyn is doing great: Having achieved a critical mass of younger, college-educated professionals, it will continue to reap the economic benefits associated with such enviable demographics, Moss suggested. “Have you ever gotten off at Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights?” he said over the phone. “There’s an organic butcher there. What the fuck is that doing there? That’s how you know the young people are there.” The downturn in population, Moss said, might be mostly explained by Brooklyn’ s booming residential market pushing people to Queens.
But while the presence of organic grocers, Apple stores, and astrology-themed cocktail bars may be signs of a healthy supply of well-shod young residents, they don’t necessarily point to diversity. The “creative class” doesn’t distribute its benefits evenly across racial lines. Across New York City, “black and Hispanic young people remain unemployed at much higher rates and are increasingly leaving the city even as white and Asian millennials continue to flock in,” Jen Kinney wrote for Next City in 2016.
Today, many Brooklyn neighborhoods still boast a super-diverse mix of residents. Gentrification is complex; people of all colors and economic backgrounds can enjoy its varied and oft-peculiar boons. Brooklyn has long occupied an outsize place in the global imagination as a metonym for what’s fresh and cutting-edge—partly for its ethnic and racial mix, partly for its adjacency to the center of one of the world’s richest cities. It’s too soon to predict if or how Brooklyn’s population dip will continue. But as growth is slowing, income disparities are rising, and homogenization is taking hold.