Brooklyn Revisited

Seventh Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn, in the eighties.Photo: Carla Gahr

As a native son, my journeys into the old country of Brooklyn have always been a mixture of joy and melancholy. Both, of course, are shaped by time, by what’s changed and what hasn’t. For me and for millions who started life in Brooklyn, and then went away.

While I’ve been gone, the price of Brooklyn real estate has heated up to levels that would have seemed preposterous 40 years ago. Williamsburg—which a century ago gave the world the great gangster Bugsy Siegel—is now charged with the energy of artists and musicians, proclaimed the new Soho, the fresh Tribeca, or whatever the real-estate geographers are calling it these days. I’ve followed the raging argument over the plans of Bruce Ratner and Frank Gehry to build huge apartment houses and a new sports arena for the Nets along Atlantic Avenue. In the past few years, I’ve lunched with my wife on the new Smith Street and ambled along the new Fifth Avenue. On such journeys, I wasn’t living in Brooklyn. I was a mere tourist. We slept at night in our Manhattan loft.

And then a few months ago, my wife and I had to leave that loft, while final renovations were done, four years after our building was injured by construction next door. We laughed about waiting it out in Mexico or Paris. Instead, we found our way to Brooklyn, renting the top floor of a guesthouse down by the Gowanus Canal. For the first time in 25 years, I would rise in the Brooklyn morning and sleep through the Brooklyn night. As I write, we have been here for six weeks. I can see, not merely glimpse, what has become of my home place.

All Brooklyn people have their own versions of the borough, of course, shaped by time and place. Each connected hamlet has its own heroes, villains, legends, myths. My Brooklyn story has two main chapters. Almost 40 years ago, I published an article in this magazine that evoked the virtues of Brooklyn as an alternative to living in Manhattan. At the time, I was living alone in a rented garden apartment on Berkeley Place in Park Slope, getting over a sad divorce, drinking too much, trying everything in my power to calm the confusions of my two young daughters. I knew that my most implacable enemy was solitude, and that I needed a sense of community. I found it again in Brooklyn.

My new friends were united by common interests. Most were men and women of the liberal left. They had read Jane Jacobs and Dorothy Day and Saul Alinsky. They were against the war in Vietnam. They demanded full civil rights for all minorities, including women, gays, and lesbians. They believed that politics truly mattered, and had formed the Park Slope Independent Democrats to make their own existence felt in the hidebound Democratic Party Establishment. Most supported John Lindsay as mayor (and a few worked for him). Most supported Gene McCarthy for president in 1968, but they also mourned Robert F. Kennedy. It was a time of angry disputes, apocalyptic racial rhetoric, moral quandaries, bitter divorces (as all relationships were tested by the gathering power of feminist theory).

In the midst of all this, they remained absurdly optimistic about the future in the face of the most discouraging facts. In New York in the late sixties, including Brooklyn, tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs were vanishing. Welfare was replacing work. Drugs were everywhere, and so were guns, and the combination was pushing crime rates higher and higher. A pervasive sense of menace had settled on the city.

And yet these young men and women refused to flee to the suburbs, or to even more distant places. They wanted to live here, in seedy, run-down Park Slope. They found their separate ways to brownstones that were decaying, but not lost. Many of the older houses were owned by women who had outlived their husbands. They had fixed incomes, Social Security and pensions, and were forced to mutilate the houses in order to live. The long wide floors were often chopped into furnished rooms for single men (and a few women). The old pressed-tin ceilings, baroque fireplaces, and ornate plaster moldings were torn out. Sheetrock walls were built to form smaller rooms. Cheap sinks and toilets were installed in all of them. These young professionals looked at those houses and saw the future. They rolled the dice.

In 1970, I did too. I had custody of my daughters now, and bought a house on Prospect Park West. It was soon noisy with music, kids clomping down stairs two at a time, a housekeeper barking commands in Spanish, bare walls turned to cliffs of books. A few days a week, I drove off to the latest urban atrocity to write for the newspaper or this magazine. I wrote my first books. There were birthday parties and Christmas parties, parties for my brothers and for my parents and for all the laughing bravos I called my friends. Yes, there was a sense of danger from Prospect Park at night. Yes, one night a bullet was fired into my second-floor office. Yes, my mother was once mugged a half-block away by some yo-yo who got out of jail the day before (and was caught in the act by cops turning the corner in a patrol car). But it was home. I stayed there for twelve years, until my daughters grew up and went away and I started feeling like Charles Foster Kane moving through empty rooms. Today, when I stroll by that house, all I hear is the delighted squeals of young girls and the laughter of my friends.

Seventh Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn, today.Photo: Hannah Whitaker

In my 1969 article, there were fragments that make amusing reading now. “It is still possible in Park Slope,” I wrote, “ … to rent a duplex with a garden for $200 a month, a half-block from the subway; still possible to buy a brownstone in reasonably good condition for $30,000, with a number of fairly good houses available for less, if you are willing to invest in reconditioning them.”

And in another part of the same 1969 piece: “Then Park Slope started to open up; the boarding houses were bought for as little as $14,000, cleaned out, rebuilt and rewired. That was only four or five years ago. Today the prices are slowly being driven up, and the great fear is that the real-estate people will take over this place, too.”

Today, there are dozens of real-estate offices along Seventh Avenue and more on Fifth Avenue, and many houses were going for $2 million and more. There is little movement these days, while the financial mess on Wall Street plays out. But if the retrieval of Park Slope from decay had only been about the value of real estate, then the efforts of my friends all those years ago would have been for nothing.

Their truest legacy can be seen by all. The place is now classically beautiful, free of ostentatious gaud, restrained, whispery (except for the occasional Obama poster in a window, and even it doesn’t shout). The streets of Park Slope as they rise toward Prospect Park are more stately and imposing now, the trees taller and fatter. And yet when I walk those streets, they are largely empty. On blocks once festive with neighbors, even in the bad times, I don’t see many kids on the stoops or in the front yards. Maybe they’re off on “playdates.” Or, more likely, they are hunched over computers, deep into virtual childhoods. I hope I’m wrong.

“It is still possible in Park Slope,” I wrote in 1969, “to rent a duplex for $200 a month.”

That house by the park was the second chapter of my Brooklyn life. Chapter One began in the thirties, when I was an infant on 14th Street, near the park. We lived for two years on 13th Street after Pearl Harbor, but I truly grew up on Seventh Avenue, in an anonymous neighborhood now called the South Slope. My parents were immigrants from Northern Ireland who moved there in 1943 and stayed for twenty years. I was the first of their seven children. The neighborhood of tenements and brick houses was wedged between Windsor Terrace and Park Slope, which we believed started at Ninth Street. It was populated by Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants and their American children and was working-class and poor. The Depression seemed to last there until about 1951, because the young men of the neighborhood didn’t profit from World War II: They fought it.

Today, as I walk these streets, all is changed, to echo Mr. Yeats, but not changed utterly. Almost all the buildings are intact; my South Slope never suffered the fate of Brownsville and East New York in the sixties and seventies, where entire blocks were leveled by arson and abandonment. I walk south on Seventh Avenue, and see buildings where my friends lived, or where I delivered orders from the grocery store on 11th Street to old ladies who could no longer handle the stairs. I look up at the empty sky and still see flocks of pigeons making majestic swoops and turns on the way back to their coops. The people like us, who lived on the avenues, had no backyards, no gardens, so we played sometimes on those rooftops.

From our rooftop at 378 Seventh Avenue my brother Tom and I once watched a squadron of B-17s heading for Europe and told ourselves that the man our father called “that son of a bitch Hitler” didn’t stand a chance. Up there above the avenue, all the kids and their mothers and a few older men (the young men were off at the war) gathered on a night just after D-Day. We all were told to look there, over there, over the rooftops, “over New York,” at the skyline, which had been dark each night since the start of the war. My mother had taken us to see Manhattan in daylight, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on foot, and told us the skyline was Oz. Because of the wartime blackouts, we had never seen it at night. On this night, suddenly, shockingly, the lights came on, at the orders of Mayor La Guardia. And there was the skyline, the towers of light rising out of the blackness, defiant, triumphant, along with the glowing Statue of Liberty in the harbor. And my mother began to sing “The White Cliffs of Dover,” and all the other women joined in, tears running down their faces, singing for their scattered sons, singing for husbands and lovers and each other. Kids of the age I was that night would stand on those same rooftops and watch the trails of black smoke rising from the skyline on September 11. The dust of that terrible morning would fall on Brooklyn too.

But back then there were block parties on V-E Day and V-J Day, kegs of free beer outside the many saloons (all of them gone now) and parties when the first young men returned on the troop ships and parties when they married the girls they’d left behind. Then they started moving away, using their veterans’ benefits to buy small homes with backyards. We never saw them again. But on summer evenings after the war, right here, on this sidewalk in front of 378, the people of the block would sit around in folding chairs bought from the funeral parlor, and sip cold tea or beer, and gossip, and joke, and sing. There was no television yet. The radio brought the Dodger games, day and night, and someone always had a big portable where we could find out “da scaw” and whether “dey” were winning. They were always the Dodgers, of course.

I plant my feet on that piece of sidewalk, staring at the door to 378. It’s a Friday evening in August, and my mind is full of proper nouns. I can see Mrs. Caputo, and my mother, and Carrie Woods, and Mae Erwin and Anne Sharkey, and my father’s friend Duke. My father is across the street in Rattigan’s, singing “Paddy McGinty’s Goat” or “My Ould Scalera Hat” and we kids are planning the next day’s games. Stickball, of course. The most beautiful game. A broom-handle bat. A pink spaldeen. We played on 12th Street and the outfield was over the avenue.

As I stand there, hoping someone will enter or someone will leave, and allow me to see the place where I lived so vividly, long ago. Nobody does. There’s a New York Times in a blue wrapper at the foot of the locked door. When I lived there we were Daily News readers and Brooklyn Eagle readers and readers of the Journal-American. Nobody read the Times. And I remember when no door in that building (or on that block) was ever locked. Why would they be? There was nothing there worth stealing. The locks came in the mid-fifties, when heroin arrived in the neighborhood.

Brooklyn is not Frank Gehry. It’s Edward Hopper.

Now one evening I am watching the new people walk on my old Seventh Avenue, a steady stream coming home from the subway. All are in their twenties, most of them gym-thin. Shoulder bags hang from their shoulders while other bags form humps on their backs. Their thumbs flick across tiny keyboards. They talk into cell phones. They never make eye contact with anyone, as if adhering to some paranoid manual of New York behavior. Instead, they glance into restaurants, hurry past art-supply stores, dress shops, delicatessens, heading to places that are provisional, not permanent, parts of their narrative. They rent. Perhaps they will decide to stay, later on, and buy. For now, most have roommates to share the costs of apartments. “They’re kids from dorms,” said one old resident. “My day, they came from barracks.”

Still, in any number of conversations, I’ve never heard any of the older people use phrases like “yuppie scum.” They remember the time of the junkies. And while there have been complaints for years now about gentrification (the sense of entitlement, the Hummer-like strollers, $3,200 a month to live in a tenement!), one thing is certain: Gentrification is better than junkies.

Meanwhile, here now are African-American families, or mixed-race couples; here are Puerto Ricans and Dominicans; here are gay couples. All move casually along the avenue, without a head turning or a bad word muttered. New York, including its most populated borough, remains the city of people who are not like you.

I look across the street at the huge redbrick condominium now called Ansonia Court. It was once the Ansonia Clock Factory, built in the nineteenth century, and after the war my father worked on the third floor. His workplace was the Globe Lighting Company, and he worked on an assembly line, putting together fluorescent-lighting fixtures. Billy Hamill had lost his leg in 1927, playing soccer in the immigrant leagues in a year before penicillin could ward off gangrene. During brutal August days, working the line in a factory without air-conditioning, his stump would blister in the socket of his artificial leg. Sometimes he would awake in the night, gasping in pain, and my mother would soothe him with ice and words of love. In the morning, he would rise again and go to work. There was rent to pay and children to feed. Not once did I hear words of self-pity. Not from him. Not from anyone in that neighborhood. So Billy Hamill worked in what we simply called The Factory. My mother worked part-time at the Methodist Hospital and then as a cashier at the RKO Prospect on Ninth Street. They would go on working, until they couldn’t work at anything anymore.

I’ve been part of the Brooklyn diaspora for some time now. I understand that the Brooklyn of 40 years ago is not the Brooklyn of 1928. And only a fool would try to predict the Brooklyn of 2048. But this we know: One constant in New York is the velocity of change. Attempts at freezing time here always fail. New York is too big, dense, various, too full of collisions large and small, artistic and commercial, too full of energy, desire and ambition, to ever remain the way it was. New York is not a museum disguised as a city. It’s not Venice.

But in Brooklyn, the visitor, whether native son or total stranger, can experience a very special sense of beauty. Much of it derives from a simple fact: Manhattan is a vertical city, and Brooklyn is horizontal. In a preface to a collection of his short stories, John Cheever once talked about Manhattan when it “was still filled with a river light … and when almost everybody wore a hat.” Hats are making a minor comeback, but in Manhattan, the river light is gone forever.

The reason: the soaring scale of most Manhattan buildings blocks the light. But Brooklyn is still the wide, low borough of light, bouncing off the harbor and the ocean (out by Coney Island), a place of big skies, a place where you can see weather, not simply defend against it. Clouds move swiftly, driven by the wind, or hang in lazy stupor. Storms can be tracked visually, as the immense dark clouds make their tours. At dawn the sun begins to pass over Prospect Park, Green-Wood Cemetery, then all the way to the Verrazano Bridge, the start of its long day’s journey into the New Jersey night. The light is immanent, muted, a promise. Along the way, every neighborhood is given fresh clarity, every building assumes the kind of volume that depends upon shade as well as light. In Brooklyn, most building is on a human scale and so the sun can do its work of gilding every surface. You walk for the morning paper, and total strangers say, “Beautiful day.” And you must assent. And when the scale has been violated, by apartment houses or housing projects, two things are always lost: a sense of community, and beauty. The big Stalinesque apartment houses now rising on Fourth Avenue seem like faceless transients from Area Code 800. An apartment house, after all, is rarely a community. But above all, they violate any sense of Brooklyn scale. That is why much of the opposition to the Atlantic Yards project is so bitter. Brooklyn is not Frank Gehry. It’s Edward Hopper.

On the Saturday of the Labor Day weekend, I wandered along Seventh Avenue and stopped at the corner of 12th Street, beside the Little Purity diner. A group of young men, most of them Latinos, were setting up tables for a block party. Traffic was blocked on the Sixth Avenue end. And down the block, just past the house where my friend Raymond Dix once lived, there were teenaged kids playing … stickball. They were swinging awkwardly at a ball. Then one kid connected. The ball bounced past a couple of fielders right at me. I knocked it down, then threw it back. The ball was blue, not pink, but it was still a kind of spaldeen. And I wanted to call my friends and tell them the news. Stickball. On 12th Street! A half-century after traffic drove the most beautiful game off the streets of Brooklyn. With a little practice, I thought, and a real spaldeen, maybe the kid could learn to hit it over the avenue.

See Also
Hamill’s 1969 Article, “Brooklyn: The Sane Alternative

Brooklyn Revisited