At the outset of the current millennium, long before national magazines declared Brooklyn to be “the coolest city on the planet,” I found myself in a bar, listening to members of the Franklin Avenue Posse rap about their lives in the crack-ravaged Crown Heights of the nineties. The work was compelling, full of boastful, yearning romance tempered with a deep awareness of the stacked deck they were up against. Yet somewhere along the line, the tales of the Franklin Avenue Posse, or at least the physical setting of their hardscrabble world, struck a familiar chord.
“You’re not talking about 320 Eastern Parkway, are you?” I asked.
“Yeah, 320” was the answer.
That’s when it began to seep up, that Brooklyn that lies beneath, inching through the asphalt like long-buried trolley tracks. Three-twenty Eastern Parkway, apartment 4D, is where my grandparents lived for four decades. After my mother and father bailed on the borough for the green fields of Flushing, Queens, the six-story building at the corner of Franklin Avenue became my Brooklyn home, site of uncounted sleepovers, the blue spark of “electric bus” poles along the power lines suspended outside my window. So many hours I spent watching the street below, the morning rush, the evening calm, Barricini Candy on one corner, Barton’s on the other, one box of assorted, tinfoil-wrapped chocolates for the goys, another for the Jews.
It was from 320 Eastern Parkway that I used to walk Grandma Sugar (as we called her) to Nostrand Avenue, where she worked retail, selling children’s clothes. In 1955, this was a wondrous treat, especially when I was dropped off at the Loew’s Kameo, the massive movie palace where my uncle Gus worked as the projectionist, projecting movies being something of a family business in those days. I’d stroll through the theater’s soaring Moorish lobby like a 7-year-old sultan, never pay a nickel, and make my way to the upper balcony, where I’d climb a steep metal staircase to the projection booth. Uncle Gus would greet me with an array from the candy counter—Raisinets, Goobers, potato sticks—and then, if I was good, guide my hands to strike the carbon-arc lamp of the huge picture machine. I’d follow the beam of light across smoke-filled time and space to the screen, where, like magic, the Technicolor face of Danny Kaye appeared, 100 feet wide, in Knock on Wood.
This was my 320 Eastern Parkway, so different from, but no less important or forgettable than, the one inhabited by the Franklin Avenue Posse. But that’s Brooklyn, like Troy, a seven-layer cake of remembering where everyone has their own version and all of them are true, at least to themselves.
It was something to recall last week, walking north on Franklin Avenue, which I read on Yelp is “the most up-and-coming street” in the rapidly gentrifying borderlands between Prospect Heights and Crown Heights, which the real-estate boys like to call ProCro. The area was still in transition, the inevitable trappings of the “New Brooklyn” not fully in place. Dicey chunks of the Old were still visible, notably in front of my beloved 320, where do-ragged citizens stood basking in the harsh fluorescent lights, doing their best to ignore the phalanx of cops spinning nightsticks by the IRT stop. North of the mighty Parkway, however, you didn’t need the 2010 census to tell you which Zip Codes had seen a 100 percent rise in the local non-Hispanic white population. The bars and restaurants were packed with the frattish conviviality of youth in the act of spending money, twelve dollars a pop for a shot of Dewar’s, for Chrissakes. At Candy Rush, all the kids screamed for Blue Marble ice cream.
No telling what my grandmother, or the Franklin Avenue Posse, for that matter, would have made of the cremini-and-fennel-sausage pizza at Barboncino. Grandma was born in a Romanian shtetl, witnessed the advent of automobiles and the airplane, lived through two world wars and the Depression, not to mention the Loew’s Kameo becoming the Philadelphian Sabbath Cathedral. She knew from change. Don’t think she’d be thrown off by a $6.99 bunch of arugula.
Myself, I don’t know. In Brooklyn, the arrival of the New has been a vexing constant since members of the Canarsee tribe squinted up from the Flatlands to see strangers on the horizon. The other day, I was on Ocean Parkway listening to several old-line Conservative Jews who were sitting inside a vast but now underattended shul complaining about how the Borough Park neighborhood had been overrun by various Hasidic sects.
“They’ve ruined the place,” one woman said. “You can’t get a nice babka because they don’t eat it, all the decent appetizing stores have disappeared. No one says hello. I feel like I moved when all I did was stay at home.”
Contemplating the current demographic upheaval leads to historical theory. For instance, who is to say it isn’t so that the present version of the New Brooklyn, from Williamsburg on, really began at 8:20 p.m. on August 19, 1991, at the intersection of President Street and Utica Avenue? That was when a car in the motorcade of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, thought by many of his followers to be the Moshiach, or “Messiah,” struck and killed Gavin Cato, the 7-year-old son of a Guyanese family, sparking three days of racial unrest known as the Crown Heights Riots.
The assumptive time line goes like this: Just as the 1989 killing of the African-American Yusuf Hawkins by Italian-American teenagers in Bensonhurst helped David Dinkins beat Rudolph Giuliani to become the first black mayor, the Crown Heights disturbance, which included the stabbing death of a young Hasidic student, secured the 1993 election for Rudy. Conveniently aided by the end of the crack era, Giuliani’s race-tinged hard line brought down the crime figures, thereby making the city, or at least Manhattan, “safer.” This paved the way for the far more efficiently wired Bloomberg era. The mayor’s office was free to reconfigure New York’s most precious commodity, real-estate space. Key was the Manifest Destiny–like expansion beyond the increasingly claustrophobic boundaries of Manhattan Island, where few mid-level managers could afford to live anyway. Brooklyn, already headlong into a latter-day, brownstoner-led neo–Arts-and-Crafts movement, was the obvious destination of choice. Strategic “upzoning” for “density” and copious tax breaks to developers transformed scruffy, “underutilized” neighborhoods, paving the way for the luxury riverfront high-rises in Williamsburg and hundreds of smaller projects across the north end of the borough.
As attested by the backed-up taxicabs on the bridges after midnight—the same cabs that wouldn’t cross the river at any hour of the day only five or six years ago—the whole thing has been a great success. We, at least many of us, are living in a bigger, far livelier city than at any time in recent memory.
For the past decade the incremental incursion of whiter, richer New Brooklyn could be traced one L stop at a time. Bleeding out in the early aughts from its ancestral Bedford-station habitat, the New reached Montrose Avenue by 2006, eventually extending its range to the Myrtle-Wyckoff and Halsey Street badlands. As with Sherman, the march south goes on. Just last week, according to well-placed sources, a skinny-jeans-and-full-sleeve-tattoos couple were spotted bumping suitcases down the subway stairs at Broadway Junction, not all that far from 328 Chauncey Street, mailing address of one Ralph Kramden (né Herbert John Gleason, of Bushwick). Here, beyond the Evergreens Cemetery, final resting place of Lester Young and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, these hipster/crusties had found a home.
Then again, who ever thought whole clubs of Parisian bobos (as in bobo-ization, a conflation of bohemian and bourgeois) or trolling crews of Manila ladyboys would ever be seen rocking tees with silk-screened silhouettes of the Brooklyn Bridge, “the curveship” of which, Hart Crane declared, lent “a myth to God”?
How has it come to this? In Saturday Night Fever, perhaps the greatest of all Brooklyn films, John Travolta sits on a park bench looking up at mighty Verrazano-Narrows, Robert Moses’s last erection, then (as now) referred to as “the Guinea Gangplank.” Like Crane before him, Travolta felt a deep affinity for his favorite Brooklyn bridge, right down to construction facts and figures. He knew, for instance, that when the workers were pouring cement for the giant anchorage, a guy fell in. He was there still. “Dumb fuck,” Travolta rhapsodized, the perfect Old Brooklyn epitaph. His tight-wound dance partner, Karen Lynn Gorney, did not share the poetry of the moment. Like a zillion incongruous fellow travelers before her, from Rita Hayworth and Bugsy Siegel to Norman Podhoretz, she dreamed only of escape, to Mannahatta’s gleaming Oz, where she might fulfill her destiny, maybe even open a swell hair-extension salon. Back then, for many, Brooklyn was a trap, a suicide rap, like Gowanus’s Capone on Alcatraz’s rock, dying of the clap.
When I moved back here for good in 1991, I could describe Brooklyn in two words: Not Manhattan. When you’re 43, have three small children, and are living in a fourth-floor walk-up on St. Marks Place in the East Village, you know: It is time to go, to move on to the then ass-end of Park Slope reserved for less financially successful breeders. Brooklyn: It was admitting your youth was all used up. I thought I’d have to pay people to come visit me.
Now, with the advent of Airbnb.com, they pay me. They arrive with the regularity of waves crashing on Coney’s mucky shore, these huddled masses yearning to breathe free of the leafy suburb their parents decreed to be their home so they might spend high school stoned out of their gourds, bored to death in a world without black people. Each day they come, tempest-tossed refugees from Republican Interstate eateries, the college-loan-burdened, the Europeans bored of Harlem, the painters and musicians of hopeful but uncertain talent, the bearers of $7 bottles of artisanal mustard. To Brooklyn, of ample hills, they come to scrawl their names, like the graffiti taggers of old, upon the Zeitgeist’s improbable Golden Door.
The Brooklyn Brand is upon the borough, stenciled on six-packs, fall collections of “mod pocket hobo bags,” and fashion models alike. And here I was thinking the only proper brand for Brooklyn was a stiff middle finger. Now Labradoodles bearing the county’s name are pissing on the forsythias, the borough’s official flower, if you don’t know. I was talking to the guy who runs the sporting-goods store on Seventh Avenue. He used to sell softballs, basketball shorts, an old Dodger hat or two. Now his window was full of what he called “Brooklyn Wear.” He had shirts that said brooklyn, pants that said brooklyn, towels that said brooklyn. Asked how much of his business was “Brooklyn-oriented,” he said, “Are you kidding? Brooklyn is my business.”
This week’s big Brooklyn branding moment is the opening of 18,200-seat Barclays Center, which will begin its run with over a week of performances by the Marcy projects’ favorite son, Jay-Z. There was some New-Old Brooklyn symmetry to that. In the early nineties, not counting the Pepper and Potter car dealership (“Picky People Pick Pepper and Potter”) and the Dime Savings Bank sign on which the E was always burned out, the first thing the Brooklyn traveler saw upon exiting the Manhattan Bridge was a billboard for Kool G Rap’s current knowledge drop, Live and Let Die. The poster featured a pair of men hanging by the neck as other thugs in ski masks fed what looked like slices of pizza to Rottweilers—like, welcome to the BK, baby!
This was when Jay-Z was still Shawn Carter, going to school on Kool G Rap’s multisyllabic rhyming technique. Amazing how far a brother can go in this land of milk and honey if he manages not to get shot or put in jail. The synergetic J not only “inspired” the ambience of Barclays Center’s premier luxury suites, the Vault ($550,000 per year apiece, with a three-year minimum purchase), but he is also credited with helping design the stark black-and-white branding logo for the arena’s lead tenant, the Brooklyn Nets.
“Jay-Z’s design is the Brooklyn Brand!” declared Marty Markowitz, the blustery borough president, whose main claim to fame may be that any Brooklyn comic, living or dead, can “do” him in their sleep. Jay-Z’s logo was “the absolute distillation of the borough’s ability to charm you off your feet and be in your face at the same time,” Markowitz proclaimed. “Simple, classy, and tough, with a big B in the middle. It says: Brooklyn! Everyone understands that.”
Well, maybe not everyone. By the thrum of the BQE, a member of the Satmar Hasidic sect peered up at a large billboard done up in the Jay-Z design featuring a picture of Joe Johnson, the Nets’ recently acquired shooting guard. “Hello Brooklyn,” the ad said. “I’m No. 7, Joe Johnson … six-time NBA all-star and lifelong Razorback.”
“Vat is this razorback?” asked the Satmar, furry shtreimel on his head in the August heat. Given the answer, he said, “Trayf from Arkansas, this is basketball, this is Brooklyn?”
Bruce Ratner first announced his intention to build at what came to be known as Atlantic Yards in 2003. The plan eventually called for sixteen towers—including the 620-foot-tall, 60-story “Miss Brooklyn” (later politically corrected to “Ms. Brooklyn”)—surrounding a state-of-the-art arena. It was a huge idea, the biggest development ever proposed in Kings County, one of the largest in the city’s history. At the time, there had been almost no major construction, save Ratner’s own MetroTech, in Downtown Brooklyn in more than a quarter-century. With architect Frank Gehry signed on, Ratner’s plan was touted as a utopian greenback generator that would provide thousands of badly needed jobs and a high number of “affordable” apartments. With the full backing of almost every high-ranking local public official in the city and state, who through the years would provide the Forest City Ratner company with almost $300 million of public funds, Atlantic Yards was to be nothing less than a Brooklyn colossus, an appropriately populist Rockefeller Center that would single-handedly return the hard-bitten borough to its former glory.
As for what happened next—the protests, battles over eminent domain, charges of bait-and-switch on the reneging on jobs and affordable-housing promises, the vagaries of the 2008 market crash that led to more delays, the departure of Gehry, etc.—all that has been detailed in many places, most trenchantly in Norman Oder’s singularly obsessive website, Atlantic Yards Report. One line from the fight, however, does stand out. This appeared in a musical about Ratner’s project, In the Footprint, staged by a local theater group, the Civilians. After a Greek-chorus-style listing of a number of “things you could say” about the Atlantic Yards neighborhood (“the chicken box, the bottles thrown around the junkie park … the hipsters, Spike Lee”), a lone singer ends with the lament, “You are only entitled to the space that you have … you are not entitled to the space that is all around you.”
Right. Maybe Scarlett O’Hara’s dad thought he was in control of Tara’s perimeter, but down here on the street we know better. We know that vacant lot next door that has been letting in the breeze and sun for twenty years could be sold tomorrow, turning your view into a sheer wall.
If I were in any danger of forgetting this Big City koan, Marty Markowitz was there to remind me. “All this talk about ‘the neighborhood,’ ” Markowitz postured. “These people moved into brownstones on Dean Street because it was cheap. They thought they found paradise because they got out of Manhattan. What they’d really moved to was a business district, a place that had always been a business district, except they didn’t know with that hole in the ground at Atlantic Yards. But a business district is for business, and now, thank God, it is doing business. If these people wanted to move to a bedroom community, they should have gone to Mill Basin. Marine Park. Bay Ridge. Those are bedroom communities. Brooklyn has many wonderful bedroom communities! But the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenue is not one of them.”
Since first announcing the plan, Forest City Ratner has managed to finish exactly one of seventeen planned structures (Joe Johnson better do better than that, at $22 million per) at Atlantic Yards. Not that Bruce Ratner was allowing this fact to sully the hoopla surrounding the Barclays Center opening. The usually reticent 67-year-old developer has been crowing lately, including in this magazine, about how proud he was to have had a hand, however modest, in the creation of the arena that would finally remove the curse leveled on the borough by the demon O’Malley, he of many chins, third-worst human in history after only Hitler and Stalin.
When Walter O’Malley moved the baseball team once known as the Brooklyn Bridegrooms to Los Angeles after the 1957 season, the Brooklyn sector of the Seventh Seal was peeled away, letting loose a half-century of pestilence. The once-thriving manufacturing base went down, the waterfront lay fallow. The hell dogs of crime and political corruption ran wild in the streets. It was a terrible thing this O’Malley did. But now, at long last, a savior had arisen. It mattered not that the application of this tikkun olam would come in the form of a second-division basketball team, a club whose legacy included selling Julius Erving, the sublime Doctor J, for cash. The advent of the Nets—the Brooklyn Nets!—so long in the wilderness, back home again for the first time, was nothing less than a miracle, a redemption, a keeping of faith with “Brooklyn pride,” Bruce Ratner said.
Let me present a B’klyn bona fide or two.
On May 12, 1956, which happened to be my 8th birthday, my grandfather and I walked the six short blocks from 320 Eastern Parkway to Ebbets Field, where, just for me, the curveballing Dodger right-hander Carl Erskine pitched a no-hitter against the Giants. You could look it up. Fifty-six years later, I continue to live in thrall to that afternoon. But I’ll tell you, never once—not while driving past the Bengali groceries and the Russian baths on Coney Island Avenue, not when buying a roast duck from the cleaver-wielding Chinese butcher on Eighth Avenue or listening to a bloodshot-eyed Rasta explain the rationale for the divinity of Haile Selassie on Beverly Road—have I ever fallen to my knees in grief that Carl Furillo was no longer gunning down runners with that Reading-rifle arm of his.
Dodger longing made sense in the sixties or the seventies. A polis should be given ample time to mourn. But when the monolithic Ebbets Field Apartments have occupied the shores of Bedford Avenue longer than the ballpark ever did: Enough already. For Ratner and his municipal cheerleaders to play this rancid, long-expired nostalgia card now took a lot of balls, I thought.
But the developer had his narrative, and he was sticking to it when I talked to him the other day. Over the next few months, Barclays Center, in addition to Nets games, will host concerts by any number of surefire geezer performers, from Barbra Streisand to Bob Dylan. Certainly he expected to turn a profit putting on these shows, Ratner said, but Barclays Center was about a lot more than making money.
“Its about Brooklyn.” It was always about Brooklyn, the developer said. “I grew up in Cleveland, always did well in school. By the time I went to Harvard, I thought I was pretty smart. I thought I knew math. But when I met these guys from Brooklyn, that’s when I realized I didn’t know math, I knew arithmetic. These people, from this strange place, with these accents, were thinking on a whole other level. A mystic, spiritual level. I wondered what kind of place could produce such geniuses. That’s when I began to fall in love with Brooklyn.
“Big things happened in Brooklyn. Jackie Robinson! Do you know how important Jackie Robinson has always been in my family? Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey! Maybe it was down now, but something had been there before. Something that mattered. That’s how I knew it could come back.”
Asked if he recalled the first time he ever set eyes on Atlantic Yards, Ratner took a deep breath. “Oh my God, yes. After we built MetroTech, Jonathan Rose came to me. He was the designated developer of Atlantic Yards. He said, ‘Bruce, we’ve spent ten million bucks and nothing’s happening. We give up. Want to give it a try?’ I looked at the site. A hole in the ground in a dangerous area, some train tracks. But I liked the idea. I wasn’t thinking residential. I didn’t know residential. I was thinking outlet retail. Big-box stuff. That was where my liberalism came in. I thought if you brought in a big retailer, people would save money over the bodegas where they went shopping. It would be like giving everyone a raise. I took the head of Kmart to the top of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank and said, ‘Look down … Look at this great piece of land. You can build the biggest Kmart in the world right here.’ He looked at me like I was crazy. Even Kmart was turning up their nose at Brooklyn.”
When I asked if he expected such vehement opposition to his proposed development, a plaintiveness came into Ratner’s voice. “No. You know, I wasn’t exactly a naïve developer. I’d already completed 22 separate projects in New York. There’s always problems. But nothing like that … not that kind of relentless, searing, personal attack. That was the last thing I expected.”
Ratner mentioned his now near-legendary one-on-one matchup with Daniel Goldstein, the tenacious thirtysomething leader of the main Atlantic Yards opposition group. Goldstein became something of a folk hero for refusing to move out of his $590,000 condo, slated to be torn down to make way for what would become Barclays Center. Living with his wife in his otherwise completely empty eight-story building, Goldstein single-handedly held up the project for years.
“I couldn’t believe that guy,” Ratner said, still not quite over the confrontation. “I don’t think I could have done what he did, staying in that building alone all that time. That takes a special kind of person. I wish he’d have done something like that against the Iraq War or something … but tactically, he did a great job. That movie, The Battle for Brooklyn, was incredible. Everything he said was a lie, but how smart was that—making it personal, attacking me like that, making me into the villain? Smart, really smart.”
I thought this was menschy of Ratner, allowing that if Robert Moses had had his Jane Jacobs, Bruce Ratner had his Daniel Goldstein. Besides, whatever his motives, no one could say Ratner hadn’t gone the limit to bring professional sports back to Brooklyn. He bought the nomadic, identity-less Nets for $300 million. He pulled who knew how many strings with the stadium-mad Bloomberg caliphate, getting every sweetheart deal in the book. Later, with the whole thing threatening to fall apart during the crash, his window to cash in tax-free bonds closing, Ratner dug up Mikhail Prokhorov, a six-foot-eight Russian billionaire with a basketball jones, to take 80 percent of the Nets off his hands.
It was an impressive feat of deadline wheeling and dealing, especially for a guy from Cleveland who speaks fondly of his late-sixties days at Columbia Law School, when Mark Rudd and Kathy Boudin were “big figures.” Even the great Power Broker himself (whose post–Robert Caro “reappraisal,” Ratner said, was “overdue”) never worked that hard, thought that fast. For his efforts on Brooklyn’s behalf, the developer might well have expected a parade down Flatbush, to be hailed as the anti-O’Malley, the man who lifted the curse. Instead, he got all this tsuris, his name shouted down with raspberry opprobrium at community-board meetings.
Still, it was a good story—a Brooklyn story!—Ratner had to admit. Besides, it had worked out. The delays that once loomed so ruinous had only increased the value of his 22-acre Atlantic Yards portfolio. Land prices were going up by the day. “Look what’s happened to Brooklyn in the interim,” Ratner exulted. “Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Fort Greene. Four, five years ago, if I asked someone to sponsor Brooklyn, there would have been resistance. Now you say ‘Brooklyn’ and everyone goes, ‘Great!’ ” Indeed, Ratner said, it wouldn’t be long before New York developed into two major commercial and entertainment nodes, one in midtown, the other a seamless merger of lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn.
“I’m thinking out loud here,” the developer said, “but on the whole we’ll be in a positive position for that.”
Then Ratner had to go. It had been a long day. There was still plenty to do before Jay-Z christened the arena with a bottle of his branded Armand de Brignac. The developer grew elegiac. There were days when his “every third thought was about mortality,” times when he felt the only thing that kept him going was “thick skin and the approach of death.” Yet, in his line of work, there was a consolation.
“You might be dead, but your buildings live on after you.”
This last comment echoed a couple of days later as I stood at Pacific Street and Sixth Avenue, at the back end of Barclays Center, where the construction guys were working 24/7 to get the place ready. A man named Kwame, a sound engineer from Crown Heights, stopped by. He was a Knicks fan but was intrigued by the proximity of the Nets. “It’s good for Brooklyn to get its own,” Kwame said, adding that the Knicks, mostly thanks to the jackass moves of their lucky-sperm owner Jim Dolan, had pushed him to the edge.
“I go back to Earl the Pearl, and I am fed up,” Kwame said.
“I go back to John Rudometkin, and I am fed up,” I replied.
This didn’t mean that either of us was throwing in with the Nets. In 1925, when he was at death’s door, the old Dodgers owner Charles Hercules Ebbets left word not to cancel the game no matter what happened. “Charlie wouldn’t want anyone to miss a Giants-Brooklyn series just because he died,” said Dodgers manager Wilbert Robinson. The Nets are owned by a Russian oligarch and will play in an arena named for a bank (which reportedly paid $200 million for the naming rights) whose senior officials in France voluntarily handed over names of its Jewish employees to the Nazis, a hedge just in case the Germans won the war. Oh, yeah, let’s go bang a thunderstick for them.
No matter, Kwame said, snapping shots of the giant building. The arena was “epic!” he said. Brooklyn had two and a half million people. We deserved an arena and a team to play in it. So what if the traffic was going to be a nightmare? Those naysayers were going to change their tune as soon as their kids started whining about “Disney on Ice.” You could bet on that.
He loved the arena, Kwame said. He couldn’t imagine how cool it was going to look “when they finish it.”
“Finish it?” I replied. “It is finished.”
“No way,” Kwame said with disbelief as he pointed at the deep-rust-look “pre-weathered steel” that surrounds the place. “That’s the frame. They’re going to put some cool shit on there. They’re not leaving it like that.” He walked across the street to talk to the construction guys, returning a moment later with a crestfallen look.
“You’re right,” Kwame said. “That’s it. I can’t believe it. You know how long I’ve waited for this? I’m so damn depressed I could cry. With that rust, it looks like somewhere they put people after they declare martial law.”
We stood together for a moment, contemplating the beached-spaceship-like structure before us. Oh, well, we decided. We’re from Brooklyn. What did we expect? We’d get used to it.
The Brooklyn brand was a deeper, more elusive thing than a Chamber of Commerce doodle off the back of Jay-Z’s rhyme book. I knew it, and even if “Empire State of Mind” is beyond lame compared with the fierce post-9/11 defiance of “Welcome to New York City,” no doubt Jay-Z knew it, too.
The borough was a land of ghosts, doppelgängers, uncertain shadows. A few weeks ago, Jed Walentas, avatar of Dumbo, bought the Domino Sugar factory, the old pile beside the Williamsburg Bridge where in the late-nineteenth century a large percentage of the sugar sold in the United States was refined. Saying the site offered “an unparalleled opportunity to create a new vibrant and mixed-use community … [for] a long dormant waterfront parcel,” Walentas shelled out a reported $185 million for the place. That was swell for Jed Walentas, but the number I most associated with the Domino factory was three, as in $3 an hour, which is what my buddies and I were paid when we worked at the place back in the late sixties. We crawled around giant steel drums, knocking the residue of burned sugar off the walls with broomsticks. Black clumps big enough to put your eye out rained down. Stupid hippies, and we were wondering why everyone else was wearing a football helmet.
This was how it was. Everywhere you went, you’d been there before, and even if it looked the same, it was not. In the late seventies, after she became that last little old white lady in the building at 320 Eastern Parkway and moved to a far less mnemonically resonant apartment house in Briarwood, Queens, my grandmother still liked for me to drive her around the old neighborhood, just to keep tabs on things.
“Let’s go to Pitkin Avenue,” Grandma said. Twenty years before, she would take me to the bustling shopping street where my cousin Harold lorded over the projection booth at the monumental Loew’s Pitkin. We’d walk past Dubrow’s cafeteria and the clothing store owned by Abe Stark, the borough president with the famous hit-sign-win-suit sign at Ebbets Field. The joke was Stark would position himself in right field in front of his ad with a mitt, ready to catch any line drive that came near. As always, Grandma would buy two Charlotte Russes, one for me, one for her—sponge cake, pile of whipped cream, and a maraschino cherry in a white paper cup the bottom of which you pushed up with your thumb. It was murder on Grandma’s diabetes, but a tastier, messier madeleine I haven’t encountered since.
“Grandma, you don’t want to go to Pitkin Avenue,” I told her. The street was burned down, boarded up, bombed out. But she insisted. How bad could it be? We’d been to Crown Heights, and Grandma loved the way the Caribbeans were keeping the place up with all those crazy-looking fruits in the stores. That was Brooklyn, culture on top of culture. Pitkin was different. The street was abandoned, empty as after an air raid. The neighborhood hadn’t changed, it had stopped.
I think of this as I go over to visit my 25-year-old daughter, the one who lives on Bedford Avenue, near Greene Avenue, in Bedford-Stuyvesant. From the parental point of view, this new location was irksome. Would it have done any good to remind her that her apartment was three blocks from the Lafayette Gardens projects, where Michael Bowen, a young man her age, was shot to death only weeks before she moved in? Not likely. In that stern gender-studies way she deals with me on these twentysomething daughter-father issues, she said if I was so nervous about the neighborhood, I should just come over.
It didn’t take more than a cursory glance to see what she meant. White people were hoisting $20 bottles of Cigar City Guava Grove beer at places like the Black Swan and One Last Shag, downing blood-orange-glazed doughnuts at Dough, sipping americanos at the Tiny Cup and Bedford Hill, another coffee shop not to be confused with the similarly named Westchester women’s correctional facility that formerly housed the aforementioned Boudin and Amy Fisher. This was not quite the Bed-Stuy I knew, but what did I expect? my daughter wanted to know.
“Face it, Dad,” she said. “Your daughter is a gentrifier.”
She was not thrilled about this, the consequences of her presence in what she called “a historically black neighborhood,” especially one of the best-known and most revered African-American enclaves in the country. She’d spent a year working in an AmeriCorps after-school program with young women in Downtown Brooklyn. She knew what was supposed to happen when someone like her moved onto the block, the way prices rise, the local culture is overrun, and how eventually people, some of whom had been living in the area for years, are displaced, left to fend for themselves in an increasingly inhospitable city that claimed to have no room for them.
But what were the choices? She’d lived in Brooklyn since she was 5, graduated from Edward R. Murrow High School in Midwood, traveled to Utica Avenue to get some glop to dump onto her dreadlocks, sorta/usedta hang out with the squatters at the Bat Cave on the shores of the Gowanus, swam in the Brighton surf. Brooklyn is her home, where she wants to live, at least for now. Not that she was about to crawl back to our house to sit self-loathing in her old room. Free rent wasn’t worth that.
Bed-Stuy was a place where, she said, “people like me live these days.” But what kind of person was that?
“You know. A hipster. A Brooklyn hipster,” she replied with the grim matter-of-factness of someone who had at long last accepted a self-evident truth. “I wear tight jeans. I like indie bands. I enjoy locally sourced produce. I have a degree that may turn out to be useless. I live in Brooklyn. What else am I supposed to call myself?”
It was a stunning admission, this utterance of the H-word. Like Eskimos and snow, the urban dictionary currently lists 348 separate definitions for the word hipster. But I’d rarely heard anyone voluntarily describe themselves as such, certainly not my own daughter.
Only a few nights before, I’d been to Coney Island to visit my friend Adam the First Real Man at his place of employment, the Sideshows by the Seashore, where he does things like drive nine-inch nails into the middle of his skull. It was a benefit to pay bills for one of the show’s recently hospitalized performers, the four-foot-three, derby-wearing, flipper-armed Illustrated Penguin. Adam, drawing on some clandestine variety of carny physiology, had managed to internally run a bright-red urethral catheter from his nose to his mouth. He poured shots of Old Crow into his upturned nostrils, let it drip through the thin tubing, then squirted it out from between his teeth. Anyone who wanted to “have a drink on me, or through me,” needed to pay a dollar, Adam said. Every single penny would be donated to the ailing Illustrated Penguin.
Later, as he wiped the Old Crow and spittle from his spectacular mutton-chop sideburns, I asked Adam what he thought of the New Brooklyn. “It’s horrible!” the First Real Man exclaimed. And why was that? “Hipsters, fucking hipsters!”
As readers of the blog diehipster.com know, this is not an uncommon position. Coming from Adam the First Real Man, however, it was a dilemma, and not only because he was talking about my self-confessed gentrifier of a daughter, but also her older sister, who moved to a fifth-floor walk-up on South 3rd Street in Williamsburg circa 2002, when she and her roommates were the only non-Hispanics in the building, and has felt “a little guilty about it” ever since. There was also the “authenticity” deal, one of those concepts academics can’t resist. In her book Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, Brooklyn College professor Sharon Zukin defined authenticity as a conceptual tool necessary “to reshape the rights of ownership … a right to the city … cultivated by longtime residence, use, and habit.”
According to that, who could be more real than Adam the First Real Man, who grew up only a few blocks from the Cyclone’s creaky first drop in Trump Village, one of the family’s first big scores? Adam was the soul of Coney, just as Coney, time-honored capital of authentic fakery, was the soul of Brooklyn. Years ago, my grandfather brought me here so I might take a first, and last, ride on the original Steeplechase horses. A generation later, my future hipster daughters were never happier than when walking in the sticky boardwalk footsteps of their ancestors. Even then, they understood Coney, where Edison executed elephants to “prove” the dangers of alternating current, to be a power spot, a zone where the greasy, gnashing gears of the Wonder Wheel’s mechanical dream held out against the digital ingress of the New.
Didn’t like to disagree with Adam, whom I love. But these were my kids we were talking about, them and their friends. They weren’t the ones building high-rises in Williamsburg, the big arenas. They were just looking for a place to be young. Who knew why perfectly normal-seeming people get tattoos, drink so weirdly much, make fetishes out of various food groups like cupcakes, and adopt the diffident poses of actors in Wes Anderson movies? Youth occurs in a time of its own, immune to criticism from those claiming to have had better youths. As idiotic and privileged as it might seem on the surface, growing up remains no easy thing. Every passage to adulthood is a hero’s journey, to be respected, in its own way.
So it was a good thing these people lived here now, sold their overpriced sodas at Smorgasburg, downloaded from Pitchfork. What else were they supposed to do? Work on the docks, like some Arthur Rimbaud figure? Fly off into space? Brooklyn, of ample context, was a good place to spend a youth, better than South Beach, on the Jell-O-shot diet. Besides, most of them would soon be gone, back to wherever they came from. The ones who stay would be subsumed into the giant swirl of time and place that is the true Brooklyn Brand.
“Ah, hills and slopes of Brooklyn! … more valuable than your owners supposed.” Whitman was right then, and he was still right now, even with towers planned on the Greenpoint waterfront, $185 million ex–sugar factories, and the coming nine-hour traffic jam of Bon Jovi fans at Flatbush and Atlantic. The borough had a lot of give; it would abide.
This is what I thought the other night, driving down Flushing Avenue. It had been a wonderfully transtemporal Brooklyn evening, eating dinner with two youngish musicians, Shilpa Ray and Vin Cacchione, at David’s Brisket House on Nostrand Avenue, which is run by Yemeni Muslims who learned how to make pastrami from the Yemeni Jew who used to own the place.
Both from Jersey, Shilpa, a harmonium-playing Indian-American singer, and Vin, a guitarist whose father used to be a stand-up comic in the Pat Cooper mode, were vets of the Brooklyn music scene. They’d each lived in half a dozen apartments throughout the hipster belt from Williamsburg to Greenpoint and Bushwick, played the various clubs like the desolate Shea Stadium, named after the ballpark that was named after one more New York fixer. Vin wasn’t that far removed from the days when his drummer slept in the kitchen, and Shilpa occasionally used to push her harmonium across the Williamsburg Bridge on a hand truck. But things were beginning to happen. Vin’s bands, Caged Animals and Soft Black, were gathering speed; he was renowned as a local producer even if his studio was in his front room on Willoughby Street, where the recording process was often halted to allow the Mister Softee truck to go by. Shilpa was putting out discs, sang with Nick Cave, toured the country in a van. They were both real artists, making cool, interesting music, hoping for the best, but, like Bruce Lee tells his student in Enter the Dragon, expecting “nothing.”
The Brooklyn Brand was what you made it, I thought, passing through the warehouse district near Metropolitan Avenue. It was after midnight, no one was around, and as I sometimes do when I’m in the area, I wondered which one of these shuttered buildings once housed Rapid Needle. It was a sweatshop where I used to pick up junior-miss dresses when I drove a truck in the garment center back in the winter of 1969. An incident on the rickety freight elevator stood out.
“There’s no button, you gotta pull the rope,” a fellow worker told me. We tugged together. The elevator rose to the second floor, halfway to the third before it began to shake and fall like a stone. “Shit,” I screamed as the car plummeted, only to hit a large spring at the bottom of the shaft. Boing. The elevator shot upward again. I thought I was going to die, but the other guy was just pissed.
“That’s the third motherfucking time this week!” he steamed. “Cheap bastards.”
This event lives indelibly in my Brooklyn back pages, but as for the exact location of Rapid Needle, I can’t remember. A recent visit to the Brooklyn Public Library to look through telephone books from the late sixties and earlier seventies revealed no listing. All mention of Rapid Needle seemed to be swept away. I look for it regardless.
It was about then I noticed the skateboarder. He was maybe 25, coming toward me, picking up speed on the Flushing Avenue decline. I only saw him for a few seconds but could tell by his markings, the pegged pants, the inscribed arms, that he was a representative of the New Brooklyn. A lot had happened to put that kid in that spot, for him to be confident and/or oblivious enough to soar through a deserted, once-scary neighborhood in the middle of the night like it was his personal playground. Could he possibly know how lucky he was, to be so free, to have this Brooklyn to remember?