Jul/Aug 2021  •   Salon

My Brooklyn

by Thomas J. Hubschman

Photo by Solen Feyissa on unsplash

Photo by Solen Feyissa on unsplash


Thomas Wolfe wrote a story titled "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn." I don't know what Brooklyn that would be, not, I suspect, the one that I've come to know, however partially and piecemeal. My Brooklyn, a mosaic of sleepy hamlets, wide-awake small towns, and big-city glitz and swagger, is scarcely known by the living, never mind the dearly departed. It manages to incorporate everything from Louisiana bayou to Minnesota tundra, from shameful ghetto to $3 million sandstone. There is nothing comparable here to the Rockies, but the borough does lay claim to the highest point in the city of New York, a dizzying 150 feet above sea level. To give that figure context, it means that if I stick my head out my fourth-floor living room window and twist my neck hard to the right, I look down on the Statue of Liberty, gray-green on the sunset side of the bay where the mighty Hudson and the roiling Atlantic vie with each other twice a day for bragging rights. That's assuming it isn't a misty day, when blind freighters bellow like lost cattle in the fog.

Whales and porpoises prowl beneath the barnacled hulls of those ships, poking their noses through the surface just long enough to thrill tourists on the walkways under the Verazzano Bridge. On spring mornings sleek seals bask on rocks closer to shore, holiday-makers from the chillier waters of Nova Scotia. That same bridge joining what used to be a Norwegian, now Arabic, Brooklyn neighborhood to Staten Island was put together six decades ago like pieces of a mammoth Erector Set, mostly by Canadian Indians. They came down from Quebec to do the job and then went home again. For a time it was the nation's longest span, a few feet longer than the Golden Gate, connecting multi-lingual Bay Ridge with Staten Island, a piece of small-town America that has more in common with Tuscaloosa or Fargo than it does with the other four boroughs, never mind with the flaming refineries just across the Great Kills on the mainland. Brooklynites swarmed across the span before the paint was dry, Italians from South Brooklyn ("south" only in the sense of being in that direction from the original city before its incorporation into greater New York in 1898) who sold their 19th-century brownstones to real estate sharks who could flip them for double and triple what those former dock workers originally paid for them. In the late '60s you could get a three-story brownstone in newly renamed "Cobble Hill" and "Carroll Gardens" for $8,000. Today it will cost you more than a million.

Bay Ridge folk were the first to migrate to Staten Island, though, then still a place as rural as Brooklyn's most far-flung parts, with an even longer beachfront. It didn't take long before malls and fast-food joints sprang up like mushrooms after a hard rain to monetize the tracks of new housing paid for with down payments from the sale of that old Brooklyn stock. A few ghettos appeared on the island as well as if to remind homesick newcomers of their urban roots. Along with ready cash, those migrants brought with them conservative politics. To this day Staten Island remains the only reliably Republican borough of the city's five. It even makes noises every so often about seceding.

Local Indians, members of the Gowanus, a subset of the Delaware nation once top dog in most of what later became the Middle Atlantic states, used to live in the neighborhood adjacent to South Brooklyn that bore their tribal name until real estate folk thought up more seductive monikers like "Boerum Hill." You saw those descendents of Chief Gowani on the F train going to work in Manhattan, distinguishable even to a newcomer among the international mix of fellow straphangers. No more. They moved, were displaced, excised along with Puerto Ricans and other renters to find shelter as best they could in more distant parts of the borough and beyond. A better fate, though, for those Delawares than for their ancestors whose scalps were still worth $15 each, no questions asked, well into the 19th century.

Those ancestors hunted and farmed where I am writing these word atop a mile-long spine of ground that falls off precipitously to west and east from the southernmost reach of a glacier that once stood hundreds of feet high and extended northward to the Arctic Circle. When the ice receded, it left behind terminal moraine—a sea-level natural parking lot extending all the way to Coney Island, flat as the work of a giant backhoe. But here where the big ice stalled lies alpine country, including a few hundred acres protected from elegant brownstone and trendy boutique by sprawling Prospect Park where the glacier deposited car-size boulders from the Hudson Palisades the way a child moves marbles about in a school yard. Some of those super-rocks are labeled for the edification of emigrees from Fort Wayne and Seattle who take their toddlers to the park to play on neon-bright state-of-the-art slides and jungle jims. The few ancient trees within earshot of those frolicking youngsters can attest to a more deeply rooted past, but thunderstorm, hurricane, and in recent years biblical tornado have ended many of those old retainers' tenure. Saplings even younger than the cavorting preschoolers have taken their place, eager to take advantage of the free space and rich soil their departed elders have left them. Even beyond the shade of their young foliage, the park is ten degrees cooler on a steamy August afternoon than it is on city streets.

My patch of the borough is just one of the many Brooklyns the dead can only pretend to know. Even among the living, how many souls have seen first-hand the Fifth Avenue sophistication of Kings Highway or the garish bodegas and open-air flat-repair shops of Fourth Avenue; the suburban poppy-show of Flatbush lawns or the spare shacks of Gravesend perched like Mississippi stilt houses alongside lagoons fed by the waters of a miniature archipelago called Jamaica Bay? There have been generations of Flatland-ers (a real place) who never set foot in "the City" proper, easily accessible by elevated and subway lines since the early 20th century. Why bother? Certainly not to shop or eat or find entertainment. Not with downtown Brooklyn's elegant A&S and even tonier Martin's department stores nearer by, at least until both those gave way to a proletarian mall. Not when you had Bensunhurst's pizzerias and pasticcerias and East Flatbush's Jamaican beef patties, not as long as Coney Island and Brighton Beach were just a bus or a train ride away.

I have seen an African American man exchange words in Yiddish on Brighton Beach with Russian émigrés as he hawked hot knishes out of a massive wooden tray hung from his Everest-like shoulders. Apart from the presence of that knish-seller, you might be excused if you thought yourself on a strand in the Crimea circa 1900. The women, all over 60, lay about in twos and threes, many in bikinis, their bodies scorched the deep tan of wrinkled shoe leather. An occasional gentleman of the same vintage perambulates amongst them as if sizing up stock at a cattle fair, passing critical remarks immediately countered by barbed responses in the same dialect. Right out of a Fellini movie, except for the Yiddish and the hundreds of Russian instead of Italian extras.

Do the dead know Bushwick where pre-first-world-war German beer gardens hosted thousands of immigrant families on summer Sunday afternoons? One of my own dead knew that Brooklyn. She married a man who grew up in another little Germany called Harlem. He passed himself off as something more than a common laborer, and a City slicker to boot, short, dark and handsome. And that began my grandmother's long exile from the green parks of her youth. He took her back to those Manhattan high-rises soon to be occupied by migrants from the South for whom the name for that part of New York is still known thanks to the flowering of black culture there in the 1920s. But, alas, from the shores of the nearby Hudson my grandfather could spy the sirenesque Palisades, high blunt edge of the continent that stretches 3,000 miles to the west where you could have room to breathe and a bit of soil to stick tomato plants and green beans into. His bride would languish there for the rest of her days, an Israelite uprooted from her native Zion, tended in her last days not by her all-American children but by the Bronx-Irish daughter of immigrants from Kerry, my own mother, an 18-year-old who, like her mother-in-law 30 years earlier had herself fallen for the charms of a young man with a good job on Wall Street and a "real American" to boot. Irish were then still so low in the social pecking order that my father's family refused to attend his wedding.

Bushwick back when I was making home visits there as a Social Investigator for the New York City Department of Welfare was a black and Puerto Rican neighborhood. There was also an Italian enclave, with its own shops and churches, two-story brownstones, every other areaway featuring a blue-and-white shrine to a tall plaster image of the Blessed Mother. But when you crossed Myrtle Avenue, you were suddenly and without warning in a country as foreign as anything divided by an international border and no more socially porous than one guarded by watchtowers and searchlights. The single-family homes of Ridgewood were respectable stone-faced, its sidewalks free of candy and potato chip wrappers, its residents white. The shops sold German potato salad and dark bricks of Munsenmaier's pumpernickel. Crossing that avenue was like being picked up by a tornado and deposited a few seconds later in Oz, though the distance between was only a few yards of warm macadam.

That's how Brooklyn is. One minute you're in Charlottesville or San Juan, a mile in any direction and you're in Beirut, Port au Prince, Taiwan. But it's not just the ethnicity of the residents that changes; so does the architecture, along with the year or even the century. The sprawling lawns of Flatbush put you deep into a prosperous 1960s American suburb, the tall apartment buildings along endless Fourth Avenue suggest the glory days of the post-war Bronx. The brownstones of South Brooklyn and Park Slope still look inside and out as they did in the 1890s, though the top-floor maids' quarters have been turned into home offices and guest rooms.

New Yorkers always bemoan the loss of the Old Neighborhood. The Jews who remember the days when the Grand Concourse was a kosher Champs Elysee say, It's gone now, all gone. What they mean is the Jews are gone, replaced by Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who are also moving on but remain nostalgic for long summer evenings when their old men played dominos on the sidewalks till 3:00 in the morning, sipping cool Coronas.

It's not all fond remembrance, though. Puerto Ricans didn't disappear from my own neighborhood because their parents decided to relocate to upscale Long Island or Westchester. Most were forced to leave thanks to gentrification. When they resisted, their landlords withheld heat and hot water. The same thing is happening in other Brooklyn neighborhoods now where "the store" still means a nearby bodega or the overpriced mini-markets African Americans rely on. When my son, a native Brooklynite, was living in trending Williamsburg, he was approached by one of the migrants who were rapidly replacing the sons and daughters of Palermo and Naples, occupants of that neighborhood for three generations. When the newcomer spotted an old Italian man lovingly sweeping out his already spotless areaway, he remarked to my son, "Don't they know they're supposed to leave?"

There's a 19th-century carriage house facing Cobble Hill Park, a square block of open space and greenery with a round sandbox surrounded by an arc of green benches the better for mothers and nannies to keep an eye on their charges. The lane on its southern border is carriage houses, barely wide enough for a family trap or nowadays a compact horseless carriage. One of those houses, painted blue the last time I saw it, was where Thomas Wolfe, himself a gentrifier from North Carolina, wrote those words about the deceased's special knowledge of the borough of Kings, as Brooklyn is officially known. My older boy played in that sandbox. Directly in its middle a concrete porpoise arched itself in a graceful dive despite having the tip of its nose reduced to reinforcing rod after some young blood thought it looked better that way. But even in those days, half a century ago, the neighborhood was "coming up." You heard every American accent among the young matrons who occupied those benches and a few foreign ones as well, especially among the dark-skinned nannies who were just starting to make their appearances in the neighborhood.

A decade or so before Wolfe began taking advantage of the cheap rental of that old horse garage, not far away the writer H. P. Lovecraft occupied an elegant yellow-brick house at the corner of Clinton and Amity streets. My friend the poet Samuel Loveman, whose star has begun to rise again thanks to his association with Lovecraft and an anthology of Sam's work put out a few years ago by Hippocampus Press, had an apartment in Brooklyn Heights to the north. Sam's claim to fame until recently was his close friendship with fellow Clevelander Hart Crane, though Sam had published a volume of very fine verse of his own. Neither Cobble Hill nor Brooklyn Heights were desirable neighborhoods in pre-war days for anyone but longshoremen and bohemians like Crane and Marianne Moore. The Norman Mailers would come later, driving up rents just as they did in Greenwich Village back when it, too, was an ethnic working-class neighborhood. But even in my day Brooklyn Heights still had sidestreets and at least one major hotel known for their ladies of easy virtue.

"Brooklyn is a state of mind," a native-born told me before I came to realize that an identity based on ethnic, regional, or national roots can be a ready-made substitute for the angst of having to forge one for oneself. None of us is a true original, and I, emigrant from a small town that no longer exists, readily admit to envying those who take pride in where they are born and raised even if that place only endures as fantasy.

In that vein, there are Brooklynites who still carry a torch for a baseball team once synonymous with the borough and its inhabitants of all colors, ethnicities, and religions. That team turned its back on them almost seven decades ago to move to Los Angeles, but the wound has yet to heal hereabouts. You can feel it even among the generations who cannot possibly have any personal memories of Duke Snyder and Jackie Robinson. It's been a grievance passed on like a refugee's from parent to child with precise details of where the favorite lemon tree stood and the home long-since demolished by the invaders, a rusty key to the front door hanging on the wall of the hovel the ejected family has occupied ever since.

You used to see Dodgers memorabilia in old Brooklyn homes, religious shrines absent only the candles. The Dodgers, though, unlike the homelands of refugees who live in a real diaspora, are fading from memory. But in their day the Dodgers were not just a major-league franchise, they were a hometown obsession in the sense the local high-school team plays in football-mad states like Texas. The Dodgers held rallies in downtown Brooklyn before important games and after big victories that drew fans by the tens of thousands. When you could still journey to a place called Ebbets Field, you might find yourself sitting on a bus or train beside a Gil Hodges or Roy Campanella. Dodger greats were neighbors who shopped in the same stores you did and attended the same churches and synagogues. Between them and their rivals, Manhattan's New York Giants, the animosity was such that when toward the end of his career Jackie Robinson was traded to the Giants, he refused to go. The loss of that kind of familial togetherness, and losing it virtually overnight, must have been like the shock of a marital infidelity or the sudden passing of a beloved relative.

They say you can't live in the past, meaning of course not that you can't but that you shouldn't, that it's bad idea to try. It's also not a good idea to make a fetish of a place, even if that place (which by the way houses one out of every 12 Americans) has produced as many talented people as Brooklyn has, from movie stars to classical composers, writers and other artists of every type out of proportion to the borough's eight percent of the nation's population. There is more than one Brooklyn high school that boasts multiple Noble Prize winners.

But there are other Brooklyns as well, the East New Yorks and Brownsvilles, the dank cellar below the bright upper floors of home to two and a half millions. I also made visits to those neighborhoods for the NYC Department of Welfare—other worlds for sure, and not just in the architectural and ethnic sense. If Brooklyn Heights is the showcase of the borough's grand historic past, East New York and Brownsville are its all-too-present shame. I visited a family who lived in a house without a staircase to the second floor. The building was rat-invested, but the family kept a pet squirrel in a cage. At another location a middle-aged man and woman were raising a dozen children in just a handful of rooms. But the apartment was spotless, each older child assigned responsibility for tending to a younger. Landlords in such neighborhoods charge rents as high or higher than they do for housing in more desirable neighborhoods. Both East New York (which is actually south of Manhattan) and Brownsville were and still are African American. Ghettos, they're called, though they're more like bantustans, apartheid zones allotted to the only group of Americans to whom the word "caste" is appropriate. No Americans, of any color or ethnicity or religious faith, have been deliberately singled out for exclusion like our "Negroes," as they used to be called, or for decades denied government-guaranteed mortgages for homes that form the backbone of middle-class wealth in this country. Not Mexicans or other Hispanics, not eastern or southern Europeans, not East Asians or native Americans, an exclusion not the result of slavery but of 20th-century federal policy. If you walked the streets of Brownsville and East New York in the 1960s as I did or do so in 2021, you will see the consequences not of slavery but of 20th-century exclusion from the benefits my parents and grandparents were offered and passed on to their offspring. Walk those streets, and you come to realize that the real distinction in the United States is not between white and black or whites and "people of color." It's between black and not-black.

Not that the children of our apartheid communities haven't achieved well beyond what might reasonably be expected of them. The list of their high performers, never mind the gutsy perseverance of ordinary folk who endure neglect along with daily insult, is as long as that produced by the Flatbushes and Clinton Hills. Anthropologists tell us the incidence of genius is constant throughout the human species. Whether amongst the indigenous peoples of the Amazon or the arctic, the denizens of Paris or Tokyo, the neatly-uniformed schoolchildren of Nairobi or the small farmers of the African bush, the Australian Outback or the mega-slums of Lima, exceptional individuals occur at the same rate per capita in any human population. Think how many geniuses, like the unrealized Miltons and Newtons that lay in the churchyard of Thomas Gray's poem, lie unfulfilled in our Brooklyn cemeteries. They surely constitute a vast cadre of the dead who did indeed know Brooklyn, or at least their parts of it, but never got to own their individual potential.

Thomas Wolfe's "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn," more a vignette or sketch than a short story, relies on a tour-de-force rendering of one Brooklyn's multitude of dialects, in 1935 a standard comic turn for writers and vaudvillians alike. The subject of the story is a tourist, probably from someplace far away, though you only realize this after you are well into the narrative because the tale is told by a native Brooklynite who renders the stranger's speech in the same local way of "tawkin'" as himself. The stranger is touring different sections of Brooklyn, using only a map as his guide, asking directions from the natives as he proceeds. Why would anyone want to do such a thing, the narrator keeps asking. Why would anyone risk his neck in Red Hook just to see what the place looks like? And what is there to see in "Bensonhoist"? But the stranger persists, and at the end of the story heads toward the watery southern parts of the borough, with a suggestion that there his tour and perhaps his life as well will end. When it does, he will not have "known" Brooklyn in any comprehensive way, but he will at least have had a glimpse of the borough's marvelously varied girth, a place where all humanity seems have taken root and flourishes with all the joys and vicissitudes common to our species.