As a native son, my journeys into the old country of Brooklyn have always been a mixture of joy and melancholy. Both, of course, are shaped by time, by what’s changed and what hasn’t. For me and for millions who started life in Brooklyn, and then went away.
While I’ve been gone, the price of Brooklyn real estate has heated up to levels that would have seemed preposterous 40 years ago. Williamsburg—which a century ago gave the world the great gangster Bugsy Siegel—is now charged with the energy of artists and musicians, proclaimed the new Soho, the fresh Tribeca, or whatever the real-estate geographers are calling it these days. I’ve followed the raging argument over the plans of Bruce Ratner and Frank Gehry to build huge apartment houses and a new sports arena for the Nets along Atlantic Avenue. In the past few years, I’ve lunched with my wife on the new Smith Street and ambled along the new Fifth Avenue. On such journeys, I wasn’t living in Brooklyn. I was a mere tourist. We slept at night in our Manhattan loft.
And then a few months ago, my wife and I had to leave that loft, while final renovations were done, four years after our building was injured by construction next door. We laughed about waiting it out in Mexico or Paris. Instead, we found our way to Brooklyn, renting the top floor of a guesthouse down by the Gowanus Canal. For the first time in 25 years, I would rise in the Brooklyn morning and sleep through the Brooklyn night. As I write, we have been here for six weeks. I can see, not merely glimpse, what has become of my home place.
All Brooklyn people have their own versions of the borough, of course, shaped by time and place. Each connected hamlet has its own heroes, villains, legends, myths. My Brooklyn story has two main chapters. Almost 40 years ago, I published an article in this magazine that evoked the virtues of Brooklyn as an alternative to living in Manhattan. At the time, I was living alone in a rented garden apartment on Berkeley Place in Park Slope, getting over a sad divorce, drinking too much, trying everything in my power to calm the confusions of my two young daughters. I knew that my most implacable enemy was solitude, and that I needed a sense of community. I found it again in Brooklyn.
My new friends were united by common interests. Most were men and women of the liberal left. They had read Jane Jacobs and Dorothy Day and Saul Alinsky. They were against the war in Vietnam. They demanded full civil rights for all minorities, including women, gays, and lesbians. They believed that politics truly mattered, and had formed the Park Slope Independent Democrats to make their own existence felt in the hidebound Democratic Party Establishment. Most supported John Lindsay as mayor (and a few worked for him). Most supported Gene McCarthy for president in 1968, but they also mourned Robert F. Kennedy. It was a time of angry disputes, apocalyptic racial rhetoric, moral quandaries, bitter divorces (as all relationships were tested by the gathering power of feminist theory).
In the midst of all this, they remained absurdly optimistic about the future in the face of the most discouraging facts. In New York in the late sixties, including Brooklyn, tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs were vanishing. Welfare was replacing work. Drugs were everywhere, and so were guns, and the combination was pushing crime rates higher and higher. A pervasive sense of menace had settled on the city.
And yet these young men and women refused to flee to the suburbs, or to even more distant places. They wanted to live here, in seedy, run-down Park Slope. They found their separate ways to brownstones that were decaying, but not lost. Many of the older houses were owned by women who had outlived their husbands. They had fixed incomes, Social Security and pensions, and were forced to mutilate the houses in order to live. The long wide floors were often chopped into furnished rooms for single men (and a few women). The old pressed-tin ceilings, baroque fireplaces, and ornate plaster moldings were torn out. Sheetrock walls were built to form smaller rooms. Cheap sinks and toilets were installed in all of them. These young professionals looked at those houses and saw the future. They rolled the dice.
In 1970, I did too. I had custody of my daughters now, and bought a house on Prospect Park West. It was soon noisy with music, kids clomping down stairs two at a time, a housekeeper barking commands in Spanish, bare walls turned to cliffs of books. A few days a week, I drove off to the latest urban atrocity to write for the newspaper or this magazine. I wrote my first books. There were birthday parties and Christmas parties, parties for my brothers and for my parents and for all the laughing bravos I called my friends. Yes, there was a sense of danger from Prospect Park at night. Yes, one night a bullet was fired into my second-floor office. Yes, my mother was once mugged a half-block away by some yo-yo who got out of jail the day before (and was caught in the act by cops turning the corner in a patrol car). But it was home. I stayed there for twelve years, until my daughters grew up and went away and I started feeling like Charles Foster Kane moving through empty rooms. Today, when I stroll by that house, all I hear is the delighted squeals of young girls and the laughter of my friends.