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.”