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Brooklyn: The Sane Alternative

Out in Flatlands, a new Industrial Park is being built on 96 acres, to provide 7,000 jobs, and three plants are already under construction. The Brooklyn waterfront continues to outstrip the Manhattan waterfront in construction of new piers and rehabilitation of old ones. Two new department stores are planned for downtown Brooklyn, and the Brooklyn store of Abraham & Straus has now passed Bloomingdale's in net sales. The Downtown Brooklyn Civic Center is now complete, and if the architecture rather resembles Abe Stark Stalinist in manner, it is at least new and it functions. Coney Island seems to me to be in decline, with the amusement area shrinking, old saloons like Scoville's gone, the old bungalows on the side streets battered away, many proud houses gone seedy and squalid. But I'm told that last year Coney Island had its best year financially since 1947. The 12-acre site of Steeplechase Park will become a public park backing on the beach, and the aquarium is planning a 5,000-seat whale and dolphin area.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music has gone through a real rebirth in the past two years, something that startles old Brooklynites who thought of the Academy as a shambling pile located down the street from the Raymond Street Jail, and given over to travel lectures about the sex life of West Papuans. Today the Academy has become the dance center of the United States, possibly of the world. And it is avoiding the Lincoln Center aura of gilded society and class distinctions by giving special rates and tickets to poverty agencies, so that young people from all over the city can see modern dance, often for the first time. For those of us who used to go downtown to meet friends coming out of jail, to pick up girls at the dances at the Granada Hotel, or to box at the YMCA gym on Hanson Place, it all seems very strange; not many of us ever throught that the Academy would be thriving and the Raymond Street Jail would be closed.

There remain real problems in Brooklyn. There is still desperate poverty in the slums. Many urban renewal projects are still exercises in urban demolition. There are still too many decrepit, aging public schools, and the parochial school system remains a fragmenting anachronism. Eugene Gold, the Brooklyn District Attorney and one of the best of a new breed of elected officials in Brooklyn, told me that drugs and violence remain major problems. "I would say that drugs contribute in one way or another to about 50 to 70 per cent of the borough's crime," Gold said recently. "I don't mean simply arrests for pushing or possessing drugs. I mean, in addition, drugs as the cause of other crimes: burglaries, stick-ups, muggings and the rest. We have a drug problem in every part of this city. When I go into Bedford-Stuyvesant to talk to people, as I do as often as I'm asked, they have one concern: how to stop crime. How to stop drugs. It's a real problem."

"Today the Academy has become the dance center of the U.S. This startles many who always thought of it as a wreck."

My own observation is that heroin seems to have declined. Most of the old junkies from my neighborhood are either dead or in prison, and the ones who remain are thought of as freaks. But marijuana is everywhere, and pills are easily available. Unfortunately, this is not just the problem of Brooklyn. The suburbs have the problem too. Last year, when I was spending some time in good old right-wing conservative Orange County in Southern California, drug arrests among young people had gone up almost 50 per cent in one year. There is no way to escape drugs by moving out. In California, they even arrested Jesse Unruh's son on a pot charge.

It seems to me that despite the problems, Brooklyn has become the only sensible place to live in New York. Much has changed since I was a boy, but what the hell. If you consider jars of mixed peanut butter and jelly as the final sign of the decline of a great nation, people my age think the same thing about that modern abomination, the manufactured stickball bat. It is, after all, a terrible thing to deprive a kid of the chance to acquire lore, and the lore of the stickball bat is arcane and mysterious. Nevertheless, on the first day of spring this year, with a high bright sun moving over Prospect Park and a cool breeze blowing in from the harbor, I bought one of the abominations, and a fresh spaldeen, and talked some of the local hippies into playing a fast game. It was the first time I had played since moving away from Brooklyn, and in one small way I wanted to celebrate moving back.

We played in the old skating rink at Bartel Pritchard Square, and the young lean kids with the long hair simply could not hit the ball. They might have been playing cricket. But the first time up, I smacked one long and high, arcing over the trees, away over the head of the furthest outfielder. On the old court at 12th Street and Seventh Avenue, it would have been away over the avenue, at least three sewers, and probably more. Standing there watching the ball roll away in the distance, I realized again that despite all the drinking, sins, strange cities, remorse, betrayals, and small murders, there was still a part of me that had never left Brooklyn, that wanted desperately to stay, that was still 14 years old and playing stickball through long and random days and longing to be a Great Heart. I hoped that Carl Furillo, wherever he was, was shagging flies with an honored antique glove, and hearing the roars in his ears from the vanished bleachers.

The next time up, I grounded out, but it didn't really matter.


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