The return Sunday, after a nearly 10-month absence, of HBO's "Girls” brings back not only the show's stars but also its neighborhood setting, the New York City borough of Brooklyn. As much a character as the hit series' four leads, the community has changed a lot since the 2012 premiere.
For those unfamiliar with the general layout of New York City (or those familiar only through movies and television), Brooklyn lies across the East River from the island of Manhattan. Despite having fewer tourist attractions than Manhattan, Brooklyn is the most populous of New York's five boroughs, with nearly 2.6 million residents. It's home to a vibrant community of artists, entrepreneurs and, according to countless gentrification trend pieces, aimless 20-somethings trying desperately to make it work.
Brooklyn cool isn't exactly new. Over the past 10 years the borough has become synonymous with hipster trends and embraced by companies capitalizing on the Brooklyn brand. Neighborhoods such as Greenpoint, Bushwick and Williamsburg were once a cheaper alternative to the Lower East Side for artists and creative types, but as gentrification goes, the artists and original residents of those neighborhoods were quickly priced out as hip took hold.
“Girls” takes place in several Brooklyn neighborhoods, including Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights and Williamsburg. At the time “Girls” premiered in 2012, Lena Dunham’s character Hannah Horvath would have had to pay roughly as much for her Greenpoint apartment as for a place in Manhattan's East Village. According to Rolan Sereny, founder of Brooklyn-based real estate firm Brick and Mortar, the place is likely priced somewhere in the $1,700-$2,000-a-month range, given its location in the neighborhood. Those who watch the show will note how minimal the apartment actually is. Frequently, people moving to Brooklyn learn quickly that having an affordable place often means sacrificing luxuries like space and a decent paint job. Unfortunately, as more and more people find residence in these trendy neighborhoods, prices have only increased.
“Prices were considerably lower in 2010, '11 or '12,” Sereny said. “Between 2013 and 2014 it was like a light switch. There was no slow upward motion of price switch. It was literally, January to December, prices were just $400 or $500 more than previous years.”
Sereny partly attributes the vast Brooklyn influx to its portrayal in film and TV. As neighborhoods like Greenpoint and Williamsburg became the hip spots to be, apartments began to fill up rapidly. Between 2010 and 2013 Brooklyn’s population increased by 3.5 percent, a rate two and a half times faster than the overall growth of all five New York City boroughs combined. Building developers planned larger projects to bring in more-affluent residents, as well as Michelin-starred restaurants and bars serving $18 cocktails. For businesses that survived rent increases, the boom of new residents has had a huge impact.
Washington Commons, a popular bar on the Crown Heights-Prospect Heights border, is one such business. The bar was mentioned by name in the show by Dunham’s character, who says she likes it because it’s “more of a dive.” Its mention on “Girls” in 2012 spiked a jump in business that continues to this day, according to Kevin Mulvaney, the general manager. Still, the shoutout wasn’t an act of charity; bars like Washington Commons are responsible for helping paint this new face of Brooklyn that shows like “Girls” thrive on. Mulvaney attributes this to the authentic yet ineffable quality that the neighborhood managed to maintain.
“It’s a wonderful and diverse area, probably my favorite neighborhood in New York,” he said. “The change has been a lot slower here. It’s maintained a lot of its traditional values and flavor, even with an influx of new residents.”
This realistic portrayal of life in one of the city’s finest boroughs is emblematic of a migration in the film industry away from Manhattan in favor of the vibrant community and picturesque streetscapes that make up Brooklyn. MTV’s 2009 “Real World: Brooklyn” and HBO’s “How To Make It in America” in 2010 showed a much different side of the borough than “The Cosby Show” or “Hey Arnold” did. Thanks to shows like “Girls” and movies like Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” Brooklyn has become saturated with movie and television filming in the past 10 or 11 years. This is due in large part to studios wanting to show off the borough's bohemian culture.
Not only is Hollywood increasing the number of characters that live in Brooklyn, such as Fox’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “2 Broke Girls,” it’s also getting significantly more viable for studios to film there. According to the New York Times, thanks to tax credits from the state, half of the 29 television series produced in the city in 2013 were filmed in Brooklyn. This is a drastic shift compared to the 2002-2003 season, which saw only one in seven shows filming in Brooklyn.
Nick Carr, a professional film scout who has been working in the city since 2005, told International Business Times that most New York-based studios aren’t in Manhattan. In the past four years or so, studios have begun to realize how much cheaper and easier it is to stay out of Manhattan and film in locations nearby. Luckily for them, the locations close by are now bristling with life and the kind of TV fodder that fans of shows like “Girls” love.
“The only time we went to Brooklyn and Queens, when I first started, was trying to get a ‘seedy New York’ shot. Like, looking for something under the elevated train or a dark alley.” Carr said. “Eventually something just flipped and I really think it had to do with the influx of television into the city. Movies always want to show off the big stuff like the New York Public Library and Grand Central Station and all that… Once TV took over as the main production source in New York, studios sort of realized that everything doesn’t need to be an iconic shot. We can get some really great stuff without going into Manhattan. So, why aren’t we doing that?”
It’s hard to tell exactly what caused the face of New York to shift from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Some say it’s as simple as a change in studio logistics, while others tout TV shows like “Girls,” which provide the rest of America with a glimpse at Brooklyn living. What's clear is that “Girls” and shows like it have been a case of art imitating life in a borough that continues to thrive, thanks in part to TV.