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40th Anniversary

Brooklyn Revisited

I’ve been part of the Brooklyn diaspora for some time now. I understand that the Brooklyn of 40 years ago is not the Brooklyn of 1928. And only a fool would try to predict the Brooklyn of 2048. But this we know: One constant in New York is the velocity of change. Attempts at freezing time here always fail. New York is too big, dense, various, too full of collisions large and small, artistic and commercial, too full of energy, desire and ambition, to ever remain the way it was. New York is not a museum disguised as a city. It’s not Venice.

But in Brooklyn, the visitor, whether native son or total stranger, can experience a very special sense of beauty. Much of it derives from a simple fact: Manhattan is a vertical city, and Brooklyn is horizontal. In a preface to a collection of his short stories, John Cheever once talked about Manhattan when it “was still filled with a river light … and when almost everybody wore a hat.” Hats are making a minor comeback, but in Manhattan, the river light is gone forever.

The reason: the soaring scale of most Manhattan buildings blocks the light. But Brooklyn is still the wide, low borough of light, bouncing off the harbor and the ocean (out by Coney Island), a place of big skies, a place where you can see weather, not simply defend against it. Clouds move swiftly, driven by the wind, or hang in lazy stupor. Storms can be tracked visually, as the immense dark clouds make their tours. At dawn the sun begins to pass over Prospect Park, Green-Wood Cemetery, then all the way to the Verrazano Bridge, the start of its long day’s journey into the New Jersey night. The light is immanent, muted, a promise. Along the way, every neighborhood is given fresh clarity, every building assumes the kind of volume that depends upon shade as well as light. In Brooklyn, most building is on a human scale and so the sun can do its work of gilding every surface. You walk for the morning paper, and total strangers say, “Beautiful day.” And you must assent. And when the scale has been violated, by apartment houses or housing projects, two things are always lost: a sense of community, and beauty. The big Stalinesque apartment houses now rising on Fourth Avenue seem like faceless transients from Area Code 800. An apartment house, after all, is rarely a community. But above all, they violate any sense of Brooklyn scale. That is why much of the opposition to the Atlantic Yards project is so bitter. Brooklyn is not Frank Gehry. It’s Edward Hopper.

On the Saturday of the Labor Day weekend, I wandered along Seventh Avenue and stopped at the corner of 12th Street, beside the Little Purity diner. A group of young men, most of them Latinos, were setting up tables for a block party. Traffic was blocked on the Sixth Avenue end. And down the block, just past the house where my friend Raymond Dix once lived, there were teenaged kids playing … stickball. They were swinging awkwardly at a ball. Then one kid connected. The ball bounced past a couple of fielders right at me. I knocked it down, then threw it back. The ball was blue, not pink, but it was still a kind of spaldeen. And I wanted to call my friends and tell them the news. Stickball. On 12th Street! A half-century after traffic drove the most beautiful game off the streets of Brooklyn. With a little practice, I thought, and a real spaldeen, maybe the kid could learn to hit it over the avenue.