Brooklyn Rising

Even if they’ve never set foot on this area of 81 square miles at the southwestern tip of Long Island, most people have a vivid picture of Brooklyn—gained from gangster movies or postcards of its bridges or of Coney Island, songs (“Give Me the Moon Over Brooklyn”), countless immigrant novels or Jackie Gleason’s bellowing, ever-dreaming bus driver in “The Honeymooners.” The gabby streetwise Brooklyn kid, pugnaciously devoted to his trolleys, his Dodgers, and finally his platoon, was a staple of World War II movies long before more recent films depicted this complexly clannish borough as a bastion of family neighborhoods or a cluster of ethnic enclaves set in combustible proximity (Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Flatbush, Gravesend, Flatlands). From Arthur Miller to Spike Lee, Brooklyn’s popular identity is so strong it can be further broken down into distinctive neighborhoods that people also feel they know.

For the two and a half million people who actually live here, however, Brooklyn is represented by more local images: the heroic view of Prospect Park from the top of Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch at Grand Army Plaza, the annual blessing of the fishing fleet in Sheepshead Bay, or the sight of dozens of men “dancing” a 65-foot, flower-decked tower through the streets of Williamsburg in the centuryold summer Giglio Festival. The Brooklyn Heights Promenade, built in 1950 to put an elegant face on the invasive Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and from which Brooklynites admire the towered spectacle of downtown Manhattan, is a quintessential Brooklyn spot. On nights in early spring you hear the crunch of embracing leather jackets as high school kids pair up along the benches. Much of Brooklyn packs shoulder to shoulder to celebrate Independence Day on this walkway with fireworks booming over the river, and for months after the September 11 attacks the Promenade became one-third-mile-long shrine, covered in candles and pictures and messages. On this same promontory George Washington made his headquarters before the British forces overwhelmed his green army at the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776. Long before the consolidation of New York City into five boroughs in 1898, Brooklyn saw itself chiefly in relationship to Manhattan (or New York, as it was called, and still is by many). The view from the Promenade perfectly illustrates the mixture of pride, dependence, envy, and superiority in the relationship.

Seven years ago a New York Times article said, “Brooklyn today is famous mainly for what it has lost: industries, neighborhoods, a baseball team.”

Perhaps the most potent Brooklyn symbol for locals, though, after the Great Bridge itself, is the Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower, which has long been a kind of downtown skyline of one, looming 512 feet above the central thoroughfare of Flatbush Avenue. With its four enormous lighted clock faces and blunted top visible all the way from Brooklyn Heights to Dyker Heights, it’s a kind of traveler’s star by which Brooklyn-ites can navigate unfamiliar neighborhoods. The Williamsburgh has waited decades for the arrival of the downtown building boom it signaled in 1929, just in time for the Crash, but no other skyscraper appeared on the horizon until the spearmint-topped One Pierrepont Plaza tower rose over Brooklyn Heights in the late eighties.

 

In the coming months, though, the borough’s original skyscraper may be joined, even crowded, by a thicket of towers and a 20,000-seat sports arena that would outshine any similar venue in Manhattan. All this has come to pass because in 2004 a New York real estate developer named Bruce Ratner outbid every other contender to become the owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team. Bucking recent historical trend, the NBA franchise did not land in some rising Sunbelt metropolis but in the famously abandoned borough of the lamented Dodgers. The main question was where to put it. But not stopping with this unlikely triumph (at $300 million), instead of installing his new team in some quickie shedlike structure Ratner hired the celebrated architect of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, Frank Gehry, to design a grandly ambitious stadium on the site of some rail yards downtown. The ghosts of the Dodgers were very much in the room on the December day in 2003 when the Gehry designs were unveiled and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz exulted, “Forget the Dodgers. Brooklyn’s future is the Nets… . Brooklyn, as everyone knows, is a world-class city, and it deserves a world-class team playing in a world-class arena designed by a world-class architect.”

How did Brooklyn, a borough of nearly 2.5 million people famous for its churches, Dodgers, seaside light, and family-centered living, become “world-class”? Only five years earlier the Manhattan-voiced New York Times had called it a “poor relation.” To mark the 1998 centenary of the consolidation that brought the city of Brooklyn (along with the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island) into Greater New York, the Times Magazine published a history of the borough by its columnist John Tierney. His long report traced Brooklyn’s recent troubles (which then included empty factories and 10 percent unemployment) all the way back to its decision in the 1890s to trade its independence as the nation’s third-largest city for a shared tax base and water supply. “Brooklyn today is famous mainly for what it has lost: industries, neighborhoods, a baseball team,” he wrote.