Why is it we that live where we do? Grand Design? Happenstance? Dumb Luck? Stubborness? Is it really "better" where we are? Or is "it" really better simply because we are there?
Portia serves first, and damned-near, no POSITIVLEY [sic] aces it.
God bless Brooklyn.
My Love Affair With Brooklyn
Umm, you live in Brooklyn? [Loser]
Ohhh. That's nice. [Not]
Is your family from there? [Why else would you live there]
No? You mean moved there? [Why??]
Hmm. Yeah, I had a friend who lived there once but now he lives in the City* [who wouldn't]
So, ya wanna meet for dinner in Soho?
[cuz that's as far south as I'm willing to go]
Where? Are you kidding? I don't even know how to get Brooklyn.
brook'lyn: Two simple syllables that could fill a book, or dozens. Venerated by some, dissed by others but no one is apathetic upon hearing its name.
Most everybody knows something about it. It's where the British nearly destroyed Washington's troops, the place where dem bums played before they left, the home of stick ball and open fire hydrants, where Woody Allen was born, W.H. Auden lived and Walt Whitman wrote ("I too lived--Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine.") It's where Son of Sam stalked its young couples, Tony Manero disco-danced his way out of its clutches, and riots following a blackout nearly destroyed its soul. Its nickname is the "City of Churches." It boasts it own language [Brooklynese], and one out of every seven Americans can trace their family roots through its streets.
But for all that Brooklyn is--and was--it is not New York. It doesn't teem with tourists nor have the cache of a Fifth Avenue, a Times Square, the Philharmonic or soaring skyscrapers. Yet, it has something New York doesn't have: It has neighborhoods. Real, honest-to-God neighborhoods that are steeped in tradition and language and history and smells. Nowadays, when New York's Little Italy is inhabitated by everyone but, when Times Square is run by Disney, and there are no Jews on Hester Street, Brooklyn remains the quintessential city of immigrants, Places like Bensonhurst, where grandmothers still live with their sons or daughters, and goombas frequent social clubs, Bay Ridge where you can pick up a pound of Irish bacon that isn't vacuum sealed or made by Oscar Meyer, Boro Park where men dress in black, wear big hats and sport tendrils, and of course, Little Odessa where the signs are written in Cryillic, and borscht is sold on every corner. Brooklyn is tribal, and it's the very the very reason that some people choose to leave it, and others of us choose to stay.
In this time of dizzying change, when streetscapes are transformed overnight, Brooklyn gives us passage back to the New York of stoops, and egg creams. As corny as it sounds, Brooklyn isn't just a place to live; Brooklyn is a way of life.
I haven't always lived in Brooklyn. In fact, even though I was born and raised in New York, and a mere 20 miles away, for most of my life I didn't know a damn thing about Brooklyn. Nor did I want to. Oh sure, I had been to Brooklyn as a kid when my parents took us to Coney Island or we drove through it on our way to New Jersey, but once I was old enough to "talk" with my feet, I avoided it at all costs. To me, Brooklyn was New York's step-child where people lived while waiting to leave. It was the stuff of merciless jokes, Brownsville, strong accents and where everyone lived in narrow, stuffy "walk-ups." No, no, no. Brooklyn wasn't for me, Manhattan was the place to be.
After college I took up residence on the Upper East Side, aptly named the "Silk Stocking District," and joined the scores of Manhattanites who believed that New York ended where its bridges and tunnels began. There I stayed for the next decade with nary a thought to that strange place across the river. That is, not until serendipity stepped in one glorious Spring Day when a friend "dragged" me across the river to Brooklyn.
Once we landed in Brooklyn, we walked along the Promenade, which has views of Manhattan that Manhattan doesn't even know it has, or as President Lincoln said quite rightly standing at the same river's edge some 150 years earlier: There may be finer views than this in the world, but I don't believe it. We roamed through neighborhoods lined with stately oak trees and century old houses, visited the Bard's garden, even managed to crash a party. I was smitten.
When it was time to head back, we decided to take the long way home and walk across the Brooklyn "they said it couldn't be built" Bridge. My first "crossing" but not to be my last. And that's where it happened. Somewhere beneath its soaring arches, its thick cables and sturdy towers, somewhere before the mid-way point of its span when I was still closer to Brooklyn than I was to Manhattan, I realized I had fallen "in love." I turned to my friend and said:
"You know what? I'm going to move to Brooklyn."
"Yeah, right, you'll never leave "the City."
A year later I did. That was 15 years ago, and I've never looked back.
I live in a place that was settled by the Dutch. I cross a Bridge that was designed by a German, and built by the sweat of unskilled Italian and Irish laborers working side by side. I ride in cabs driven by Russians, and buy my newspapers in bodegas run by Middle Easterners. I don't know if the people who live in these neighborhoods are legal or fluent in English, and I'll be honest, I don't really care. I like Brooklyn the way it is. I like the fact that Brooklyn is tribal. I like its texture and diversity, and the fact that there is still a pride in one's heritage. I like its scale and the narrow brownstones with flower boxes in the front but no elevators inside. I like that Trump hasn't crossed the river to erect gleaming high-rise apartment buildings that bear his name atop in yard-high gilded letters, and whose windows don't open. I admit it. I love my adopted hometown, and its scrappy, colorful, sometimes "in-your-face" persona, and I hope it stays that way.
Who knows. Someday, I may "choose" to die somewhere else but for now I can't think of a better place to live. There's an exit sign when you leave Brooklyn that sums up my feelings best, and in perfect Brooklynese.
So the next time you're in the City, do yourself a favor. Take the 2 or 3 subway to Clark Street and spend the afternoon in Brooklyn. It's only 25 minutes from Times Square but it's worlds apart. And when you're ready to head back to the Big Apple, take the scenic route across the Brooklyn Bridge's wood-planked pedestrian walkway. There are benches along the way, facing north and south (I prefer south) where if you time it right you can watch the western light bathe the steel and glass skyscrapers of Wall Street, admire the shapely silhouette of the Lady in the Harbor, or trace the lights of the Verrazano's string of pearls in the horizon. It's at this hour that the city is at its most magical. So go ahead, sit a spell. You too, may find that something special happens on the Bridge to Brooklyn.
* Brooklyn may be the fourth largest city in the US and one of the five boroughs in New York City, but to any New Yorker worth her salt, Manhattan remains "the City." When you live in Brooklyn or Queens or The Bronx, you may work in the City, or shop in the City but you will never live in "the City."
Between now and now,
between I am and you are,
the word bridge.
you enter yourself:
the world connects
and closes like a ring.
From one bank to another,
there is always
a body stretched;
I'll sleep beneath its arches.
Brooklyn, you take care of this one.
She knows your soul.
Where are the rest of you breathing?
I really want to know.