Brooklyn: not just place, but a state of mind — and a brand and a lifestyle and, for the better part of two decades, a hotbed for real estate investment.
Thanks to a renaissance fueled by craft beer, artists and artisans, Brooklyn is the gold standard for urban renewal as well as the poster child for gentrification.
Yet, for Gerard Longo, owner of Mettle Property Group, the borough is more than a savvy business investment, it’s home.
“It might sound defensive, but Brooklyn was always a great place,” he said. “It was always diverse in its culture, in its character. What I’ve seen is it’s evolved to where the rest of the world has picked up on that energy and now they appreciate it as well.
“And of course, yes, it’s nice to have a few Michelin star-rated restaurants.”
Starting his career as a part-time broker, Longo worked his way into a management position at Madison Estates before buying the firm in 1992. Shortly after that, he spun the company’s development division off into Mettle Property. During the past 25 years, the subsidiary has grown its portfolio to 20 properties, including more than a dozen in Brooklyn.
A born and bred Brooklynite, Longo takes pride in his deep roots in Cobble Hill. His home is a few blocks from where his great-grandparents lived and “within a hundred yards” of his mother’s birthplace. A black and white photo in his Marine Park office shows his newly-wed grandparents behind the counter of a luncheonette they owned in the same Italian-American enclave. Somewhere in that bygone image is a horseshoe that now hangs a few feet to the right of the frame.
“A lot of immigrants of that time were superstitious,” he said. “They really believed in luck.”
Glance around his office and one might think Longo shares that fixation, between the metal arch on the wall and the smattering of elephant figurines and paintings, each with its trunk raised to invite good fortune. However, in conversation, he’s quick to extol the virtues of hard work and self-determination. If these items have a unifying quality, it’s their connection to history.
On worksites, Longo is a harvester of artifacts. Be it an antiquated light switch, a telescopic peephole or a vintage sliding door pull, if it’s old and interesting, there’s a good chance it’ll end up polished, sitting on one of his shelves.
Longo has pursued developments in pockets of the city protected by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, including a string of townhouses on Congress Street in Cobble Hill, and a pair of Tribeca warehouses converted into luxury condos. He’s also chosen to preserve non-landmarked properties and conform to neighborhood aesthetics without prompt from City Hall.
“It’s not just ‘let me buy this property and build what’s going to make me the most moneyʼ,” he said. “Don’t misunderstand me, I am absolutely in this to make a living, it’s what I do to feed my family, however, you can have successful jobs and you can … be conscious of the community, conscious of the rhythm that’s there — and there is a rhythm in every neighborhood, you just have to find it sometimes.”
From building preservation and what he likes to call “urban archeology,” Longo’s interest in history has expanded into politics, culture and religion. He has amassed an impressive collection of documents at auction — land grants signed by presidents, correspondence from Civil War soldiers, a note from Jackie Kennedy to the woman who helped her respond to the many letters of condolence she received after JFK’s assassination.
“I was looking for anything historical and that led into documents and that led into thinking about community, thinking about when leaders were true leaders and had to make decisions, even though they might not have been popular,” he said. “Basically, it leans toward people who’ve had to make a decision in life.”
He estimated that one binder of documents, which he transported from his secure archive in a zipper-sealed, black fabric bag, was valued somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000.
Longo prefers binders to frames and glass cases because they keep the contents accessible when he makes his collection available to schools free of charge.
“We see a lot of the kids … and I found it to be effective that you allow them to touch the documents because that’s what kids do, when you tell them not to touch something, they only want to touch it more,” Longo said. “It doesn’t really impact the paperwork that much (and) it’s a connection, in a sense, that this book was held by Martin Luther King. It’s more important to me that it impacts those kids and draws that connection.”
Longo is a proponent of education as well as the city’s new Affordable New York Housing Program, which incentivizes mixed-income buildings through tax incentives to developers, although he would like to see the city take more steps to improve the public school system. He hopes he can help affect that change through his projects.
“At the end of the day, it all feeds into the community and actually will help people like me, developers,” he said. “If you have a smarter community, a well-educated community, you’ll have more opportunities, the community will do better, will prosper, will have less crime.
“The city of New York should be able to do that.”
As a student of history, Longo is mindful of his place in it. The 54-year-old contemplates what will become of his collection of artifacts and talks, at least half-jokingly, of his plan to calculate his life expectancy and spend his money accordingly so his three children, triplets in their first year of college, will have to stand on their own financially.
He also reflects on the status of his home borough. Though some of his fellow longtime Brooklynites are opposed to the rapid changes going on around them, he believes this is the natural progression of things.
“When people say Brooklyn’s changed, it’s not necessarily for the better it’s not for the worse, it’s just evolved. Everything evolves,” he said. “Who can go back to their hometown and it’s exactly the way they left it? I don’t know any one that still exists.”