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Brooklyn: The Sane Alternative

As Bedford-Stuyvesant expanded (any street that was occupied by blacks became Bedford-Stuyvesant, whether it was in Clinton Hill or Crown Heights), fear expanded. In Park Slope, across Flatbush Avenue from Bed-Stuy, real-estate operators started breaking up the fine old brownstones into black boarding houses. Most were occupied by transients, as boarding houses have always been occupied, and they simply didn't care what neighbors thought about them. The streets became littered with broken bottles and discarded beer cans; the yards filled with garbage; drug arrests increased; hookers worked the avenues; there were knifings and shootings, and soon the merchants on Flatbush Avenue started folding up and moving away. No insurance could cover what they stood to lose. When the Peconic Clam Bar on the corner of Flatbush and Bergen Street closed up because of too many stick-ups, the game looked finished. The Peconic Clam Bar was across the street from Brooklyn Police Headquarters.

And then, suddenly, Brooklyn seemed to reverse itself. You still cannot get a taxi to take you from the Village to any neighborhood remotely near Bed-Stuy. But the borough has halted its own decline, stopped, brought the panic and the despair almost to an end.

Again, the reasons are complicated, and have certain emotional roots. The wound of the Dodgers' departure seems finally healed; the arrival of the Mets gave the old Dodger fans something to cheer for, and there are no more of the old Brooklyn Dodgers now playing for the Los Angeles team. Baseball itself has declined in interest: it's slow, dull, almost sedate these days, especially on television. Pro football excites more people in the Brooklyn saloons, and it is a measure of the anti-Establishment, anti-Manhattan feelings of Brooklynites that they all seem to root for the Jets (not all, of course, not all, but the romantics do).

"Those streets will again be alive with children, perhaps even trees."

Word also began to drift in from the suburbs: things were not all well out there. Those who left Brooklyn because the schools were overcrowded soon found that the schools were also overcrowded in Babylon. Those who fled the terrors of drugs soon found that there were drugs in Rahway and Red Bank and Nyack too, and that flight alone would not avoid that peril. There was cultural shock. A childhood spent leaning against lampposts outside candy stores could not be easily discarded, especially on streets where there were no candy stores, where the bright lights did not shine into the night, where the laughter of the neighborhood saloon was not always available. People started longing for the Old Neighborhood. "These people can't even make a egg cream right." "I tried to get a bits-eye-oh out here an' it tastes like a pair a Keds." When I would go out to California on various assignments, I learned that I would be serving as a courier from the Real World; guys who had gone out to Costa Mesa and San Jose and L.A. 20 years before wanted me to bring veal, real-thin-honest-to-Jesus veal cutlets so they could make veal Parmigiana the way it is supposed to be made. In the suburbs late at night, people would sit in their living rooms and talk about boxball, devilball, buck-buck-how-many-horns-are-up? (called Johnny Onna Pony by the intellectuals), ringalevio, and always, always, stickball. Remember the time Johnny McAleer hit three spaldeens over the factory roof? Or the time Billy Rossiter swung at a ball, the bat flew out of his hands, hit an old lady on the head, and went through the window on 12th Street? Remember the Arrows, and the great money games they had on 13th and Eighth? Nostalgia worked its sinister charms. The Old Neighborhood wasn't much, but it wasn't this empty grub-like existence in the suburbs, struggling with mortgages and crabgrass and PTA meetings and water taxes and neighbors who had never shared one common experience with you. A little at a time, people started to drift back. It was not, and is not, a flood. But it has begun.

For younger people, the suburbs seemed to hold a special horror. If you were a writer, and you were faced with a move to the suburbs, you would rather go all the way into exile: to Mexico or Ireland or Rome. You could not live in the Village or Brooklyn Heights, because the real-estate scoundrels had made those places special preserves for the super-affluent (you could live in those places, of course, but the things you would have to do to afford it would make it impossible to live with yourself). Younger people started looking over the neighboring terrain. They cracked Cobble Hill first, reclaiming a number of fairly good buildings. Then Park Slope started to open up; the boarding houses were bought for as little as $14,000, cleaned out, re-built and re-wired. That was only four and five years ago. Today, the prices are slowly being driven up, and the great fear is that the real-estate people will take over this place too.