- 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
There’s perhaps no more dramatic way to get a sense of the breadth of peoples who’ve made and remade Brooklyn over the decades than to sit in the big central jury room of the Supreme Court building downtown on any weekday morning and hear the court clerk gamely butcher the names over the intercom: “Maruhashi, Setseko … Zditowski, Michelle.” This is the long-familiar immigrant Brooklyn everyone knows from movies and books, from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to The Godfather . But could Brooklyn’s popular identity be changing? Now it is a city combed day and night in summer by double-decker buses filled with tourists; our stately Greek Revival Borough Hall (which sometimes appears in the guise of a Manhattan courthouse on television’s “Law & Order”) carries banners on two sides of its facade advertising a new “Brooklyn Tourism and Visitors Center” within. The city is a destination in itself for these tourists and for the young professionals who, priced out of Manhattan, have embraced the place as if it were Manhattan’s Left Bank, wearing T-shirts that flaunt their area code (718), shopping in new Brooklyn-proud boutiques, and drinking local beers. As the borough undergoes its most dramatic changes in decades, Brooklynites argue about its “soul” or true identity, thus resurrecting a long-running comparison with its flashier counterpart.
Unlike other cities that competed with Manhattan in the nineteenth century—Chicago, Philadelphia, Buffalo—Brooklyn also drew on Manhattan’s economic strength, and the proximity of the two makes it seem slower and smaller scale. No matter how big and flossy Brooklyn may get, Manhattan will always stand taller and burn brighter. Still, Brooklyn is now a place that would rank as America’s fourth-largest city on its own, with a population greater than that of Boston and Philadelphia combined. “The dynamics of Brooklyn are money, housing, and politics,” explains the long-time
One in seven American families can trace its roots to Brooklyn, and if the borough were on its own, it would today rank as America’s fourth-largest city.
Brooklyn observer Dennis Holt, a senior editor at the beloved, mourned, and now revived Brooklyn Daily Eagle , who has lived here for 30 years. “An awful lot of people in the sixties and seventies came over and found this amazing housing base in brownstone Brooklyn. These people had money, but [they] still worked in Manhattan, where they spent retail. That is changing. Now that a lot of people are staying and working here, you’re seeing the growth of shops that you used to find only in funny parts of Manhattan. New York City has two cities now: Manhattan and Brooklyn.”
In the brownstone neighborhoods of Fort Greene, Carroll Gardens, and Park Slope you see this latest transformation, and in some postindustrial blocks of Williamsburg, where kids with guitar cases walk down Metropolitan Avenue on their way to rehearsals instead of to factories.
In spite of the borough’s many boasts, the Dodgers’ decampment west in 1958 has come to symbolize Brooklyn and puts a tragic cast over any public discussion of the borough while supplying a thousand treacly journalistic leads. Beneath the new Atlantic Terminal mall that houses chain stores such as Chuck E. Cheese’s (where after several concussive hours of video games, my son and I staggered out feeling thoroughly suburban for a moment before we heard broadcast a call to Muslim prayer), and just across Flatbush Avenue from where the Nets arena is to be built, Dodger history is buried. According to Michael Shapiro’s recent book The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, the Dodgers, and Their Final Pennant Race Together , it was the New York transportation czar Robert Moses’s refusal to condemn land around what was then a failing meat market at the junction of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues that ultimately scuttled the Dodgers’ owner Walter O’Malley’s last efforts to keep the team here. O’Malley, trying to adapt to so many of his fans’ moving to the suburbs in the mid-fifties, had hired the architect Buckminster Fuller to draft a futuristic glass-domed replacement for Ebbets Field, one that would seat more than 50,000 people and be an easy walk from the Long Island Rail Road station. But Moses, who had no problem invoking his “slum-clearing” powers to bulldoze vital borough neighborhoods while building the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, refused to condemn the land. O’Malley, reluctantly or not, packed up his pennants in 1958 and headed west to Los Angeles. The area of the aborted stadium became a “region of lack,” wrote Jonathan Lethem in his recent Brooklyn coming-of-age novel The Fortress of Solitude , “a sort of brick-dotted outline tracing a phantom limb.”