- Historic Sites
The City of Churches and Henry Ward Beecher, of Walt Whitman, Coney Island, and a famously departed baseball team is ready for its next act—as a world-class tourist destination
August/September 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 4
In the few years since Tierney’s assessment, however, Brooklyn has undergone remarkably heady changes, and all without cutting loose from New York City. The pace of growth has been so feverish in fact as to challenge the borough’s humbler image, bringing charges that the poor relation had made a kind of devil pact called “Manhattanization.”
But the list of recent and coming attractions in this new Brooklyn even includes some amenities not found in its glamorous neighbor: a new minor-league baseball team; a refurbished and revitalized Brooklyn museum; a departure pier for Carnival Cruise Lines and its mighty Queen Mary 2 ; an Ikea waterfront complex planned for the depressed community of Red Hook; an entire luxury neighborhood—DUMBO (for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass)—created out of whole cloth in the cobblestoned no man’s land of industrial lofts and nineteenth-century warehouses between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges; a new film and television production facility, Steiner Studios, built within the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard (with the Brooklyn native Mel Brooks’s musical The Producers as the space’s first major production); and, of course, the arrival of the Brooklyn Nets.
Brooklyn was the “borough of ‘being,’” wrote James Agee during a miserable few months he spent there trying to sum up the place for Fortune magazine in 1939, while Manhattan was instead an island of “doing and bragging.” Agee concluded, “There seems almost no conceivable end to Brooklyn; it seems, on land as flat and huge as Kansas, horizon beyond horizon forever unfolded, an immeasurable proliferation of house on house and street by street… .” At 4,000 words (and two drafts) of his lyrical wrestling match with this clannish but irreducibly varied place, Agee’s editors gave up on the story. Agee quickly moved with his wife and family goat to the less bewildering New Jersey countryside. Another Southerner, Thomas Wolfe, who spent several years writing here in the 1930s, insisted in faux Brooklynese in his famous story “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn”: “Dere’s no guy livin’ dat knows Brooklyn t’roo and t’roo, because it’d take a guy a lifetime just to find his way aroun’ duh f—— town.”
In Brooklyn’s considerable native literature, the borough is both cherished and despised, depending on the harshness of the neighborhood that formed the writer. Brooklyn is often the embattled starting point, the immigrant proving ground to turn one’s back on—a tradition echoed down from the agonizing fall of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman to the fierce trajectories of Brooklyn-born rappers. One Brooklyn son, the literary critic Alfred Kazin, recalls the return to his old Brownsville neighborhood in A Walker in the City (1951): “From the moment I step off the train at Rockaway Avenue and smell the leak out of the men’s room, then the pickles from the stand just below the subway steps, an instant rage comes over me, mixed with dread and some unexpected tenderness.” He sees the old ladies in “shapeless flowered housedresses and ritual wigs” guarding the stoops, then “the faces of the kids, who before they are ten have learned that Brownsville is a nursery of tough guys.” Roger Kahn, however, remembered a far more agreeable place in his book The Boys of Summer . He grew up a stone’s throw from Ebbets Field before achieving every Brooklyn boy’s second-best ambition (after playing for the Dodgers): covering the team for a New York paper. His Brooklyn was “a heterogeneous, dominantly middle-class community, with remarkable schools, good libraries and not only major-league baseball, but extensive concert series, secondrun movie houses, expensive neighborhoods, and a lovely rolling stretch of acreage called Prospect Park. For all the outsiders’ jokes, middle-brow Brooklyn was reasonably sure of its cosmic place, and safe.”
One in seven American families can trace its roots to Brooklyn. When I first visited the borough as a Manhattan kid, it seemed a distant and mysteriously changeable place; wherever you got off the subway the local people were different (Hasidic, Italian, Haitian, Yemeni, Polish), like different casts of actors on the same row-house streetscape. In fact, the last census reported that some 38 percent of current Brooklyn residents are foreign-born.) A third of all Brooklynites are black, and according to the historian Kenneth Jackson, Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant is “the largest African American community on the continent.”