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.