Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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You Can Go Home Again. You Probably Shouldn't.
August 27, 2015 -- Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again, but you probably shouldn't.
That's the bitter business-travel lesson I learn whenever I go home to Brooklyn. Yeah, that Brooklyn, home of hipsters, holier-than-thou ex-Manhattanites, holistic healers and artisanal hamburger makers. There's another thing Brooklyn is famous for now: hotels. Dozens of them. Hundreds of them, in fact, if you believe TripAdvisor.com, which lists more than fifty traditional lodgings, more than 60 inns and bed and breakfasts, dozens more so-called "specialty" operations and nearly 500 vacation rentals. Nearly three dozen more hotels are on the way. Who are staying in all these places? What in the name of George C. Tilyou or Nathan Handwerker are people doing staying in hotels that boast views of the Gowanus Canal, one of the most fetid and polluted waterways in the country? Don't get me wrong. I think it's great that Brooklyn has hotels. It was only 17 years ago that I was writing emotional columns about the first new hotel built in the borough in more than 60 years. "Brooklyn finally has a hotel," I wrote when a Marriott opened in downtown Brooklyn in 1998. "America and the world can come to Brooklyn now and order room service and pay too much for overnight dry cleaning. Frequent flyers could tell their spouses and their families they were going to Brooklyn on business. People would come over the Brooklyn Bridge and now they could stay if they wanted to stay." Ever since then, as Brooklyn went from downtrodden afterthought to global cultural cliche, other worldwide lodging chains have piled in to cash in. Hilton brought a Hampton Inn to the Flatbush Avenue Extension, one of the grubbiest parts of Brooklyn's most-famous thoroughfare. There are Best Westerns near Prospect Park, Sheepshead Bay and the Barclays Center, the new sports arena located where the long-gone Dodgers once wanted to build a baseball stadium. Starwood built side-by-side Sheraton and Aloft hotels just off Fulton Street, once one of the busiest shopping avenues in America. InterContinental has brought its hottest brand, Hotel Indigo, as well as its best-known brands, Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express. The first Wyndham-branded property in Brooklyn opened last month in Sunset Park. Boutique hotels with cutesy-poo names like The Box, BPM, The Condor, NU and Le Bleu are everywhere. And where there aren't boutiques, an array of Airbnb options operate in neighborhoods like Midwood, once most famous for nurturing Woody Allen and Carole King. All this lodging action required Marriott to respond, of course. It opened a 133-room Fairfield Inn four years ago in a once-tumbledown stretch near downtown and embarked on a $43 million renovation of its original hotel, the 667-room high-rise now known as the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge. It also takes pains to point out that it is deeply steeped in Brooklyn's oh-so-precious foodie culture. The Brooklyn Bridge Marriott aligns itself with the Brooklyn Roasting Company, the Brooklyn Winery, Ovenly, McClure's and, naturally, Red Hook's Sixpoint Craft Ale and Brooklyn Lager. But as a returning Brooklynite who has been largely unimpressed with recent hotel stays in the borough of my birth, I ask the question again: Who are these people staying in Brooklyn hotels and why are they staying there? "Not as many business travelers as you'd think," one general manager told me a few weeks ago. "Mostly, we get small-town visitors who buy into the Brooklyn hipster ethos and foreigners who think Brooklyn is the center of culture in New York. They're the ones who are most disappointed when they learn most of the things they came to see are in Manhattan." The numbers are increasingly worrisome if you happen to be in the hotel business in Brooklyn. After years of effortlessly absorbing the new inventory of rooms and jacking up nightly rates with abandon, it's clear the Brooklyn hotel boom is waning. Occupancy rates have dropped to about 75 percent this year and average nightly rates are down a few percentage points to around $155. That's a far cry from the hefty numbers racked up across the river in "the City," which is what we Brooklynites once called Manhattan. It also bucks the nationwide trend, where room rates and occupancy rates are at historically high levels. Truth to tell, though, I'm probably the wrong guy to bloviate on this topic. My vision is clouded by the Brooklyn of my childhood: the two awful decades between 1957, when the Dodgers left for Los Angeles, and 1977, when the borough bottomed out after an electrical blackout. Bad as it was, though, I miss things that today's hip Brooklynites doesn't know or care about: Ebinger's, the famed bakery chain; truly inexpensive apartments; neighborhoods that didn't know from trendy; and the defiant, chip-on-our-shoulder, Manhattan-treats-us-like-crap attitude. Still, remnants of that Brooklyn remain and, should you deign to check into one of the borough's lodgings, I urge you to visit. The store "up the block" where our family bought groceries is now a Georgian restaurant. Across the street from the shop where my father (and, before him, my grandfather) sold and repaired shoes is a pretty nifty Vietnamese restaurant. Entire swathes of geographically southern Brooklyn are now dominated by a heady and invigorating mix of Russians, Turks, Armenians, Uzbeks, Chinese and Hasidic Jews. They all live next to each other in too-small, too-expensive homes and they don't care much about what the world thinks of Brooklyn. And they almost never stay in Brooklyn hotels. Their visitors spend the night on the couch in the family living room. If you really wanted to, you can buy the house in Sheepshead Bay where I grew up. My father sold it in 1996 for $210,000. It sold again a decade later for $605,000, nearly triple my dad's selling price. It's on the market once more and, in a sure sign that the Brooklyn boom is over, the selling price has been reduced to $949,000, only about 50 percent more than the decade-ago price. But fair warning: I checked into a Manhattan hotel last weekend and got upgraded to a suite that had more square footage than my family's childhood home. The furniture was better, too.
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