In 1967, a writer acquaintance, L. J. Davis, told me his agent had advised him to move from Brooklyn to New York City. Brooklyn, the agent said, was an unseemly borough for a writer to live in.
But he didn’t move from the small community of Boerum Hill, and my family and I moved into it that same year.
We had been living on Central Park West and 104th Street. One morning, from my fifth-floor window, I saw a man shot and killed. He fell to the avenue, rose up twice on his elbows, and then subsided into death.
The doorman glanced up and spotted me. He reported to the police I’d been a witness. They had arrived by then with white chalk to outline the body, a stretcher to remove it, and a hose to wash away the blood from where the victim had lain.
Soon two detectives came and drove me to the local precinct. At the end of the interrogation, I was able to recall a green car from which I’d seen a hand thrust out, shooting the bullets.
The next day, my husband and I drove to Brooklyn and rented the three upper floors of a brownstone on Dean Street, where we lived for the next three years. Our landlord, who owned a similar brownstone next door, told us he’d bought both houses for $10,000. The month our lease was up, he offered us the house we’d lived in for $75,000. The neighborhood was on its way up!
We went west to Cobble Hill, where a real-estate lady showed us a narrow, empty house with four floors, a cellar, and a backyard. We were able to buy it for $42,000. It had been owned by a man named Fred Rags who had rented rooms to Scandinavian sailors.
We moved in nearly 33 years ago, in October. There were many repairs required, and a group of workmen came every day for months. Each time I opened the refrigerator, one would call out amiably to the others, “She’s at the feedbag again!”
In the early seventies, there were parking spaces on our street. These days, there are hardly any. Our neighborhood had never slipped into the depression that afflicted Brooklyn Heights and Boerum Hill in the sixties. The Irish and Italian families who had settled in Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill in the nineteenth century kept their communities from sliding into slums. Then in the eighties, a wave of young people arrived from Manhattan, able to move into houses with little gardens for modest rents. Now, even studio apartments are out of reach for many.
What began as desperation to escape New York City rents has changed over the last few years for most into preference. I remember my relief and pleasure when we used to drive home from Manhattan and watch the skyline drop; it had a calming effect on one’s spirit to see the sky.
Of course, gentrification has an ugly side. It can lead to mindless buying, to envy and complacency, to indifference to others. But mostly and still, the neighborhood glows with community. Brooklyn seems to me like a small town without its disadvantages. It is, in fact, a seemly borough for writers to live in—private without being isolated.
In 1899, a few months after the end of the Spanish-American War, my grandmother, a young widow, arrived by ship from Cuba with her five children. She came to Brooklyn and bought a house on Sterling Place, from where, she told me, she could hear sheep and goats and chickens baa-ing and clucking from other farms all around her own house. Although I was born in Manhattan, I’ve come home to Brooklyn.