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Brooklyn: The Sane Alternative

The Brooklyn I came home to has changed. For the first time in 10 years, it seems to have come together. In Park Slope, people like David Levine, Jeremy Larner, Joe Flaherty, Sol Yurick have moved into the splendid old brownstones; the streets seem a bit cleaner; on some streets, citizens are actually planting trees again, with money they have raised themselves through block associations and block parties. Art galleries are opening. Neighborhoods like Bay Ridge and South Brooklyn now have boutiques and head shops. People who have been driven out of the Village and Brooklyn Heights by the greed of real-estate operators are learning that it is not yet necessary to decamp for Red Bank or Garden City. It is still possible in Park Slope, for example, to rent a duplex with a garden for $200 a month, a half-block from the subway; still possible to buy a brownstone in reasonably good condition for $30,000, with a number of fairly good houses available for less, if you are willing to invest in reconditioning them. Hundreds of people are discovering that Brooklyn has become the Sane Alternative: a part of New York where you can live a decent urban life without going broke, where you can educate your children without having the income of an Onassis, a place where it is still possible to see the sky, and all of it only 15 minutes from Wall Street. The Sane Alternative is Brooklyn.

"Through most of its early history, Brooklyn was really a kind of bucolic suburb... solid and phlegmatic."

Impressions can be backed up by any number of statistics. Today, Brooklyn is the fourth-largest city in the United States. It has more people than 26 states, contains one out of every 65 people born in this country. For 30 years there have been jokes about the tree that grew in Brooklyn; in fact, the borough contains 235,000 trees, which is a hell of a lot more than you will find in the high-rise ghettos of the Upper East Side. Brooklyn's purchasing power in 1968 rose to $6,600,000,000, up $347,000,000 over the previous year. In 1967, wholesale and retail trade in the borough amounted to $5,400,000,000; there was a payroll of $2,400,000,000 for 704,800 jobholders. In a study called "The Next Twenty Years," the New York Port Authority predicts a 7.7 per cent growth in jobs by 1985, while population will grow at only 2 per cent. According to a 1965 Dun and Bradstreet report, Brooklyn is now the nation's fourth-largest industrial county, third-largest food consumer, and fourth-largest user of goods and services. The median income ($5,816) is still $175 less than that in Manhattan; but the median age of the 2,627,420 citizens is 33.5, lower than New York City's as a whole (35) and lower than the median (34) in the metropolitan region that includes Westchester, Rockland, Nassau and Suffolk Counties.

But no set of statistics can adequately explain what has happened to Brooklyn in the years since the end of the Second World War. They don't explain its decline. They don't explain its renaissance.

For me, Brooklyn is the great proof of the theory that many of the problems of the American city are emotional. If you were born in Brooklyn, as I was, you learned something about this quite early. Through most of its early history, Brooklyn was really a kind of bucolic suburb, dedicated to middle-class values, solid and phlegmatic. Its citizens owned small farms. They opened small manufacturing plants, especially on the Manhattan side of Prospect Park, which is the section of Brooklyn that today most resembles the dark industrial image of the 19th century. When the subways pushed out past Prospect Park into Flatbush and beyond, Brooklyn became the bedroom for the middle class. Its first period of shock and decline came after the 1898 Mistake, when the five boroughs were united into Greater New York under the supposedly benevolent dictatorship of Manhattan. Until then, if we are to believe old newspapers, Brooklynites were proud and industrious citizens who planted their own trees, who gloried in their independence. Most of them opposed the 1898 Mistake; but the deal was pushed through the State Legislature by the Republicans, who thought that the large number of Republicans in Brooklyn would help them wrest control of the entire city from Tammany Hall. (In those days, of course, Republicans were in the tradition of Lincoln, not Goldwater and Thurmond.)

After the 1898 Mistake, some sections of Brooklyn started to change radically. In the 19th-century part of town, the poor Irish and the poor Italians started moving in; they filled the old-law cold-water-flat tenements; they ran speakeasies during Prohibition; some of them learned how to make money with murder. The poor Jews moved into Williamsburg and Brownsville, where they also learned something about the rackets. The respectable people, as they thought of themselves, fled to Flatbush and Bensonhurst and even out into the wilds of Flatlands. But there was a long period of stability that almost lasted through the Second World War.


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