A makeover for Manhattan's poor stepsister

Jacques Torres seemed to have it all in Manhattan. From his $1 million custom-built kitchen at the famous Le Cirque restaurant, he concocted delectable pastries for presidents, royalty, and celebrities.

But last year, the renowned chef left this glamour for a lower-key neighborhood across the East River, where old warehouses rise from cobblestone streets. There, in Brooklyn, Mr. Torres opened a chocolate factory and store.

It may seem like a half-baked idea to some, but for Torres, the change couldn't be sweeter. "We love it here," he says. "We are really busy with our retail store, which surprised us."

Indeed, many New Yorkers are finding a pleasant surprise in Brooklyn, long considered the poor stepsister to bright-lights Manhattan. Thanks to Brooklyn's relatively cheaper rents and smidgen of extra room, everyone from wealthy bankers to struggling artists is thinking about living here.

But as the borough enjoys a renaissance, some residents are guarding against gentrification, which has permanently altered other neighborhoods. One aim is to keep Brooklyn's gritty and homespun feel as the community moves up.

"The influx of new restaurants and businesses creates a very progressive image of Brooklyn, which is in turn changing the neighborhoods," says Joe Chan, director of real estate and business services for the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.

At the heart of Brooklyn's metamorphosis is a vibrant arts scene, which has grown as artists seeking more affordable spaces move to the area.

The borough's crown jewel is the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), the nation's oldest performing arts center. Fort Greene, where this internationally acclaimed institution is located, had been on a downward economic spiral since the Civil War. But what used to be vacant parking lots and derelict buildings is now the Mark Morris Dance Group, which will open its doors this fall. Its presence is part of a large plan by the BAM Local Development Corporation (LDC) to grow an artist landscape in Fort Greene.

Planners hope that subsidized rents and an emphasis on local artist groups will keep the community close to its roots. "This is so SoHo doesn't happen all over again," says Jeanne Lutfy, president of the BAM LDC. She is referring to Manhattan's once-bohemian quarter that turned prohibitively expensive in the past 10 years.

Restaurateurs have also taken advantage of lower rents across the river - often half the price of similar spaces in downtown Manhattan. Brooklyn's Smith Street, dubbed "Restaurant Row," is lined with trendy lounges and eateries, like the French Patois and Saul, opened by a former chef at Manhattan's revered Le Bernadin.

Although rents have risen considerably on this narrow stretch, it seems neither pretentious nor impersonal. "People watch out for each other here," says Bette Stoltz, executive director of the South Brooklyn Local Development Corporation. "It still feels like a community."

One of the newest and hippest communities is the once-gritty DUMBO - Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. That's where chef Torres has set up shop. Another newcomer is the Modern Humorist, a satirical website. In their wake have followed cafes, a Peas and Pickles grocery store, and high-priced restaurants like Kino.

Communities like Brooklyn Heights along quaint streets have always been posh and eclectic. But the adjacent neighborhoods, part of Brooklyn's "brownstone belt," have become some of the most popular spots in the real estate market.

Sarah Graham, until recently a Manhattanite, took an apartment in Williamsburg, commonly referred to as the new East Village. "I moved to Brooklyn because I could afford it," she says. "I could get an apartment that's bigger than a closet." Plus, she likes the small touches, such as the low rise of apartment buildings along her street and the smell of a local bakery.

Voicing similar sentiments is Kristen Schaefer, who is moving to Carroll Gardens, the heart of the Italian community in Brooklyn. "I love all of the new restaurants," says the young photographer. "It is so hip there."

Of course, not all of Brooklyn has been swept up in the revitalization. Even though some development has taken place in the largely African-American communities of Brownsville or East New York, "they've been left out of the loop," says John Manbeck, historian for the borough of Brooklyn.

Some believe it's for the better. Development has caused angst among older residents, especially immigrants and minorities, says Elan Padin, a director of a Fort Greene branch of the Corcoran Group real-estate company. "People are getting squeezed out of the community," he says, as many home valued tripled in three years.

Many also fear the borough will no longer be able to handle one of Brooklynites' most pervasive concerns - traffic congestion. "Unless someone comes up with an original, comprehensive plan, we are building ourselves into a mess," says Dennis Holt, a longtime Brooklyn resident.

But Mr. Holt, a writer for a local newspaper, is still waiting to see how the experiment in Brooklyn will unfold. "I believe this is not just the renaissance of Brooklyn, but the creation of a new Brooklyn," he says. "How far we'll go to become a new Brooklyn, nobody yet knows."

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